The “M” in “STEM” for once didn’t come in last when National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) then-President Linda M. Gojak delivered her keynote address, “Mathematics: The Language of the Sciences” at the 1st Annual STEM Conference in Cleveland, Ohio on March 21, 2014.
Addressing over 300 STEM educators and professionals, Ms. Gojak, in true mathematical form, lamented that “oftentimes mathematics is the last letter of STEM and the forgotten quarter of STEM.” She attributed this phenomenon to the fact that “so many people think mathematics is teaching kids certain skills and off they go to do them.” But, she cautioned, don’t underestimate the “M” in “STEM”: “Mathematics can be just as innovative and support the other letters of STEM in ways we sometimes don’t think about.”
To illustrate her point, Gojak, a veteran math teacher and recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching and the Christofferson-Fawcett Award for Leadership in Mathematics Education, first read the Common Core Standards of Mathematical Practice and then the eight practices of science and engineering from A Science Framework for K-12 Science Education, which helped form the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) Science and Engineering Practices.
The similarities were obvious.
- Ask questions and define problems.
- Develop and use models.
- Plan and carry out investigations.
- Analyze and interpret data.
- Use mathematics in computational thinking.
- Develop explanations and design solutions.
- Engage in arguments from evidence and obtain, evaluate, and communicate information.
- Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
- Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
- Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
- Model with mathematics.
- Use appropriate tools strategically.
- Attend to precision.
- Look for and make use of structure.
- Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.
A proponent of both the Common Core and NGSS, Gojak believes in the understanding-based approach of both: “We don’t teach practices. We have to design our instruction around tasks that give students the opportunity to use and develop the practices in learning and doing mathematics, science, using technology, engineering, every day, not only in mathematics class, not only in science class, but in all aspects of their lives, including in the potential for mathematical, scientific, and engineering thinking.”
Gojak said that mathematics is all about “teaching kids to be good problem solvers,” because, as she went on to note, “How can kids do science if they can do problem solving?” Beyond the Common Core and NGSS, schools have an important role to play in encouraging this type of thinking, including through the classroom environment. “Mathematics classrooms should be conversations and discussion among students,” rather than quiet places where students listen silently as the teacher lectures and then do rote math problems on the board or at their own desks.
Her vision for K-12 math education again focuses on reasoning and the ability to solve problems: “I want kids to have intellectual curiosity and not when they reach a point where they’re not sure what to do give up. I want them to think creatively about what they can do. I want them to have some objectivity…I want them to be open-minded. I want them to use prior knowledge.”
These, said Gojak, are the key ingredients to innovation, which although are most often associated with the sciences and engineering also apply to math: “When we talk about innovation, it’s using prior knowledge to figure out what you want to do with new situations.”
And in the end, isn’t that what all learning is about? Being able to take what the world gives you and make something of it.