05/08/2012 05:09 pm ET | Updated Jul 08, 2012

STEM STEM Technology STEM: Relax Reformers

I read a lot about education. As I do my cursory checks of what's happening in the education blogosphere, there is so much ado about technology in the classroom and today's buzz-acronym STEM, which in case you haven't heard, stands for an integrated curriculum of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. As I write this piece, the left hand sidebar of this very page alone has three entries on technology (here, here, and here )and two on STEM (here and here). I'm getting a sense of what the priorities are out there. But I'm also getting the feeling that some folks always have something to sell.

As a teacher educator and former elementary teacher, I'm going out on a limb to make some assumptions about the technology and STEM discussions happening right now. Please, correct me in the comments. Regarding technology, there're two things I'm seeing right now that I think are a little off. First, since students are now growing up with the Internet, they are necessarily familiar and proficient with its capabilities. Sure, as a child of the 1980s, it was always hilarious that I knew before adults how to program the VCR. Was I able to string a coherent sentence together about what news event or film was being recorded? No. From my perspective, pure technical skill is meaningless.

I'm familiar with many incoming college freshmen, those born in 1994, whose sole technological proficiencies are texting and updating Facebook statuses. Despite being part of some kind of millennial generation, their actual skill level is almost zero. They still need guidance about technology's use as a learning tool and not some perverse way to tease others. So, for now, they'll need to rely on folks like me, nearly twenty years their senior, to teach them.

The second assumption that goes along with this is that students find techno-tools inherently engaging. I read and hear all the time about how young folks are mesmerized by a SMART board presentation or that we should, rather than talking to students, text them in the classroom to meet them where they are. Where are they, exactly? I've seen schools spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on very expensive hardware, slapped and bolted to the wall overtop a chalkboard. I'm still unconvinced as to the ultimate value of that hefty investment. It's often that some chart paper, magnets, and markers would do just fine.

Since the T in STEM stands for technology, these issues fit well together. Now, this might come as a shock to all of the STEM acolytes out there, so make sure you're sitting down. At this moment, schools across the country are doing the exact same things they've always done in science and simply replacing the word "science" on all their old curricula with "STEM."

For the last decade or more, the only crisis in science education, or any of the STEM disciplines with the exception of mathematics, has been its marginalization as a result of high-stakes standardized testing. What isn't tested is not typically taught. In fact, schools are finally thawing out from the state-testing freeze, with science and social studies joining the school day once again, often for the first time this entire school year. Teachers and students alike are largely unprepared, rusty, and simply too burnt out to engage in meaningful science instruction.

Right now, educators and students find themselves mired in a culture of compliance. It's not their fault either. Rather than sacrifice hard-fought gains in reading and math, schools can and will only do the minimum to comply with mandates, which means simply replacing science with STEM and doing nothing, or very little, to adjust methodologies or curriculum. A meaningful discussion of how to integrate four very distinct disciplines, S-T-E-M, becomes an insurmountable task without two very important items: one, the resources that actually make an integrated curriculum possible, and two, the diminishment of pressures to score higher and higher in math and reading so that other priorities can become realized.

It's interesting that with a country like ours so focused on appearance and cosmetic surgery that we've left underfunded public schools with few other options than to make cosmetic changes in response to Federal mandates. Central office administrators and other education leaders make their rounds and are satisfied to see a SMART board slapped to the wall, thinking that's progress. They also expect that with every new law or regulation passed that educators actually have the time and resources to do anything but replacing words on curriculum guides.

STEM fairs are still science fairs my friends, and the latest techno-gadget or app is just something else to sell.