Inside Wis: Amid debate over Common Core, STEM consensus offers lesson

March 7, 2014

By Tom Still

MADISON – Although it’s a safe bet most people in Wisconsin know little if anything about the debate over nationwide academic standards, the so-called “Common Core” guidelines under fire in the Legislature, they’ve probably heard of STEM education.

That’s an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, a collection of subjects that many experts, parents and business leaders believe should be taught more in American schools as a matter of global competency in a competitive age.

In fact, STEM is so relatively accepted that the original acronym has spawned at least two variations – STEAM, which adds arts to the mix to promote creativity and design thinking skills, and ESTEAM, which folds in entrepreneurship and the notion of applying STEM knowledge to solve real-world problems.

Gov. Scott Walker and others may have their problems with Wisconsin’s Common Core standards, which have been in the works since 2009, but when it comes to STEM education, his office proclaimed next week as “STEM Week” in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction recently rolled out a modest grants program for schools that want to enhance STEM programs, and many statewide groups are working to make science, technology, engineering and math a bigger part of the curriculum.

That raises the question: If people of different political stripes can agree STEM education is vital, why are they unable to come together around the nationwide effort to address uneven academic expectations across the spectrum of subjects taught through K-12 education?

After all, some of the same general goals of Common Core can be found in STEM: Learning to think critically at an earlier age, being better prepared to pursue college or career training, and being better equipped to compete globally.

Part of the answer lies in the fact that Common Core standards, while developed by well-meaning educators and others, have yet to connect in a popular way that parallels the rise of the STEM movement.

The case for better science, technology, engineering and math education has been built over a decade or more, even if the hype is still not matched by consistent state and local financial support. However, parents and business leaders generally accept that STEM education is important because they see how it might connect to the lives of young people – and the nation’s economic future.

Two current examples illustrate how STEM education, from middle school to higher education settings, can connect with some of society’s broader goals.

The 11th annual “Posters in the Rotunda” event will be held Wednesday in the Capitol, highlighting the work of about 100 undergraduate researchers and their faculty advisers within the University of Wisconsin System. About 20 campuses will be represented, from four-year powerhouses such as the UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee to the system’s two-year centers. The posters will cover topics ranging from treatment of bedding to reduce mastitis in dairy cows to water technologies to applied uses for engineering, math and biotechnology.

“Graduates who have positive experiences and a strong affiliation with their undergraduate institution are more likely to consider staying in the state,” said UW System President Ray Cross. “Undergraduate research can bring more federal and private-sector research and development dollars into the state (and) a vibrant research culture grows and attracts new businesses and high-tech industry for Wisconsin.”

A related but much earlier effort is the Wisconsin Youth Entrepreneurs in Science business plan contest, known as Wisconsin YES! This three-year-old contest is aimed at giving middle school through high school students the chance to write a business plan around what is often a STEM topic. It encourages those students to think about how what they learn in the classroom can apply to starting a business or simply moving an idea to the next level.

Students can enter a 250-word idea online through March 17 at Finalists will write 1,000-word plans later, and the winner will present to a statewide audience at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference in June.

There’s nothing inherently evil about the Common Core standards, but the public relations case has yet to be fully made because schools, families, teachers and students aren’t quite sure how it will affect them. Support for STEM education has grown over time because people can better see how it’s linked to a competitive future, for them and their children. That’s an important lesson for all.