Sunday, 15 September 2019

There is no STEM

There has recently been a fair bit of push back against STEM as a focus in schools, but as a classroom technology and engineering teacher I have to tell you, there is no STEM.  By sticking science, technology, engineering and mathematics in an acronym, many people, especially people who aren't in classrooms, think that this is some kind of coherent strategy, but I can assure you it isn't, at least not in Ontario.

Maths and sciences are mandatory courses throughout a student's career.  Technology and engineering are not, ever.  Maths gets even more additional attention because of EQAO standardized testing, so numeracy is an expectation for all teachers throughout the school.  Science is mandatory throughout elementary grades and high school students are required to take two science credits to graduate.  Maths and science are baked into a student's school experience.

Want to feel the sting of irrelevance?  Waterloo University (and many others) do a fine job of underlining how little technology and engineering programs matter in high schools.  If you're signing up for their software engineering program you need lots of maths... and lots of science.  Engineering for an engineering program?  Well, there's no point in making it a requirement because it's an optional course that is barely taught anywhere in Ontario.  At one point I heard less than 15% of Ontario schools run any kind of coherent computer engineering program.  The technology prejudice is a bit different, that's more of a blue collar white collar thing, but engineering, as an academic focus, has been swallowed whole by science and maths.

SM has always been a foundational piece of public education, and remains so, but the entire 'STEM push' is really an SM push, engineering and technology remain barely taught and entirely optional and peripheral in Ontario classrooms, assuming they exist at all.  Tactile, hands on technology programs with their lower class sizes, expensive tools and safety concerns are the first to get canned when the money tightens up.  It's cheaper to stuff 30+ kids into an 'academic' (aka: text based/theory) course where you can sit them in efficient rows and learn linearly until everyone gets the same right answer.  It doesn't do much for them in the real world, but it's cheaper.  Math and science make sense in a school system focused on those kinds of academic economics.

Governments get voted in by creating panic about student mathematics skills, and how science is taught is another political hot-spot that gives politicians lots of traction.  I have no doubt that these two subjects enjoy the attention they do because of this political fecundity.  Engineering and technology?  The skills that build the critical infrastructures that allow us to feed, connect and house people?  Not much political mucking to be done there, it just needs to work.

Last year I had a student graduate and go on to college for computer technology.  He had some trouble in school, but was on track to be a successful computer technician.  In his first post-secondary computer technology courses he was feeling well ahead of his classmates and was confident of success, but not all his classes went so well.  He ended up failing his maths course and eventually dropped out of the whole program.  Talking to his mother after this happened, she implied that I'd failed to teach him the mathematics he needed to succeed.  I didn't argue the point (I don't teach mathematics other than in conjunction with what we're doing in computer technology).  There is an entire mathematics department with ten times more personnel, resources and infinitely more presence in the school than me an my oft-forgotten program, but with STEM ringing in her ears we're all lumped into that failure.

This year I'm rocking a budget (which I've already exceeded in the second week of September) that is 25% of what it was a few years ago.  Everyone is seeing cuts, but the mandatory departments are protected in a way that our optional courses are not.  Where they might see a 10% cut, I'm seeing 75%, because what I teach is not a priority.  That cut is happening while I'm actually up in sections due the success we've had in various competitions and the media attention we've received (but not in our own yearbook).

You can rail against STEM all you like, but there is no such thing.  If there has been any STEM funding with this focus it hasn't found my technology and engineering courses because not all STEMs are considered worthy of political attention.  The best I've seen out of this are a few more manipulatives in maths classes based on corporate tech-in-a-box, but building a kit isn't engineering.  When you're engineering there are no instructions and the end goal may not even be possible, you certainly don't end up with everyone looking at the same finished product.  That kind of stochastic process is another reason why eng/tech is frowned upon in academic settings; they like everyone to arrive at the same correct answer.  It makes for a clear sense of progress, but learning to deal with potential failure in reality isn't wasted time in school.

In the article that kicked this off, you get a very articulate and scholarly take on the value of a liberal arts education and how it can free you from economic bondage in our overpopulated and automated world.  The down-your-nose 'yeomanship' / servitude argument pasted on STEM and CTE as a preparation for the workplace ignores the many soft skills that hands-on technical training can provide in favour of the argument that students of technology are dimensionless corporate shills whose only interest is to find work in a system that doesn't really need them.  But aren't we all yoked to our broken economic system?  A degree doesn't somehow free you from that commitment, but it will bury you in debt and the attendant servitude to it.  A technical education costs less and teaches you some valuable soft skills that will help you in any vocation, while also offering you a shot at something other than general labour.  The engineering design process technology training is predicated on would help anyone in any aspect of life where they must self-organize and tackle a problem that may not have a solution.

I have a liberal arts education (English and philosophy majors) and I greatly value the discipline it has brought to both my thinking and writing, but that doesn't mean I don't value hands-on mastery and the attendant good habits that accompany it.  It took me a long time to value my technical, hands-on skills against the constant noise of academic/white collar prejudice and privilege.  Since moving to technology from English teaching, I face that pressure daily, as do my tech-teaching colleagues.  In speaking to many people I still get the sense that technical, hands-on skills are inferior to academic skills, but I find them complimentary, not less than.  It would be quite a thing if we could value a student's technical hands-on mastery as much as we value their academic grades... or even their sports abilities.

I get the sense that Professor Zaloom believes the future will be full of highly educated academics elucidating on the state of humanity while they float above economic necessities with their intellectual freedom.  I'd argue that learning hands-on technical skills gives you a variety of soft-skills (persistence, self-organization, resilience, humility to name a few) that will help students deal with that overpopulated, automated future every bit as much as a degree might.

If you follow that article through, it's less about STEM and more about what we're going to do in an increasingly automated world populated by more and more people with less and less to do.  In that no-win situation, the value of being able to repair your own technology and understand the hidden systems that regulate your life is another kind of literacy that I think all students should have, especially if they are going to depend on those systems and let them direct their lives.

A good read on the fecundity of hands-on mastery.
Technology education offers that insight along with a plethora of tough-soft skills that are wanting in many academic programs where established reality is whatever the teacher thinks it should be.  There is a hard, real-world edge to technology training that is often hard to find in the mentally constructed world of academic achievement.  Matt Crawford describes management thinking in Shop Class as Soulcraft as having a 'peculiarly chancy and fluid character' due to its success criteria being changeable depending on the whims of the people in charge.  That was my experience in too many academic situations.  You know where you stand in technology because reality isn't fickle.

It's a shame that this pointless acronym has thrown a blanket over the grossly neglected curriculums of technology and engineering, while giving even more attention to two of the Disney princesses of academia.  To be honest with you, I think technology and engineering would be just where it is now had this STEM focus never happened, which tells you something about how this ed-fad has gone down.

Additional Reading:

The rich intersection of a liberal arts background and technology expertise:  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Shop Class as Soulcraft is a must read, but so is Matt's follow-up, The World Beyond Your Head.  A philosophical look at the power of tactile skills to free us from consumerism and the mental world of the digital attention economy.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

2019-20: Persistence and Possibility

I stand on the cusp of another year teaching computer technology and I have to say I'm looking forward to it in spite of the various nonsense surrounding Ontario education these days.  I have a particularly strong crop of seniors and I'm hoping to exceed the lofty heights we've previously reached.  @CWcomptech continues to grow and seek out new opportunities.

I'm hoping for at least two Skills Ontario provincial medals and successful runs at CyberTitan and by all three (and possibly a fourth) of our teams.  Thanks to the groundbreaking work of our Terabytches last year, we've achieved a 50/50 gender split in our cybersecurity teams with 2 co-ed teams and our champion all-female team at a time when the industry is struggling to balance a 25/75 gender split.

I'm also hoping this strong senior group will uncover new opportunities for us to explore, but then they already have.  The Cybersmart Project, a student run training course for other schools interested in getting onto CyberTitan started over the summer and has already picked up a number of schools they are going to help.

We had Gord Alexander from IBM Canada come in last year and show our grade 10s how to code IBMcloud's Watson AI.  The pickup on that was amazing with students of all skill levels returning to it in their culminating projects.  Gord followed up by applying to present at this year's ECOO Conference #BIT19 on how students can access this free and very accessible artificial intelligence learning environment.  I'm looking forward to helping out with that at the conference.

One of the nicest things about teaching computer technology is that it's never the same year to year, but sometimes those emerging technologies can be difficult to access.  Not so with Watson.  If you've got students who can code in Scratch, you can get them going with Watson and have scripted, AI supported projects very quickly.  I suspect students from grades four onward could manage the coding involved and I'm looking forward to sharing this exciting possibility with Ontario teachers in November.

Over the summer I took two Cisco courses (thanks Philippe!) that will improve our practice.  The IT Essentials course was something I'd been looking to complete in order to give my students access to current materials.  Up until now I've been cobbling things together from books and various online sites.  It was a lot of work and constantly falling out of date.  The Cisco Net Academy course is current and covers much of what we were doing anyway, but in a concentrated and curated format that should lighten my preparation for teaching IT in junior high school classes.

Having been a certified computer technician since 2002, the IT Essentials course was review, but the other course I took was a bit more ferocious.  The CCNA Cyber Operations course is designed for cybersecurity specialists who want to get a handle on the current state of play as they begin working in cybersec.  It's a no-holds barred review of advanced networking analysis tools followed by detailed explanations of how cybersecurity has been implemented in the very networked world of 2019.  I've really enjoyed taking the course and should be wrapping it up over the next couple of weeks.  Having an understanding of best management practices in cybersec should help me coach our school teams more efficiently and effectively.  It has also handed me a plethora of current network assessment and management tools that will find their way into my senior ICT curriculum immediately!

2019-20 feels like it could be a banner year.  Competition is always fickle and you never know what Goliaths you'll face, but we've never had better access to the tools we need to succeed as we do now.  As long as the education system isn't thrown into an artificial crisis, we should be ready to produce an exceptional year of graduates with rich extracurricular experiences who are ready to tackle the challenging, digitally empowered 21st Century workplace.