Saturday, March 12, 2016

Stemming STEM: a science teacher speaks out

Basil seeds harvested moments before
“Men have become the tools of their tools.”
Henry David Thoreau

My students do not need a 3D printer, and I doubt having access to one makes them any more aware of the material world around them.

My students do not need to learn to code, and I doubt success in a binary and logical language makes them any more aware of the nuances of the words we share.

Both 3D printers and coding are tools, very useful at that, but still just that, tools, no matter how aroused the ed-chatterati get as these tools hit the schools.

I teach for a reason: to help our lambs conceive of a life worth living in a world worth living in. The tools they will have to do this will change, maybe even improve, but the purpose of any tool is to work towards a purpose beyond the tool.

Otherwise school becomes just noise and ambition, neither of which contributes to happiness.

We are molding a generation of kids with the power to meld plastics to create artificial worlds that will collapse when the limits of the only world that truly exists reminds them, as it will, of mortality.

So for now, the only 3D printers I want in my room are a handful of seeds, some seed starter, and sufficient light to allow creation to happen. Watching a tiny basil seed erupt into a sensuous (thank you, John Milton) living being alters a child's perception of her place in our universe.

Why else teach?

I am not anti-technology.
I am pro-education.


Sean Nash said...

I get what you're saying here 100%. The chatter around 3D printing baubles ...just because we can... is akin to the notion (mostly dying now) that putting a laptop in the hands of every child scores an education win in an of itself. Eight years ago, or so, when we first connected ideas in the blogosphere, I ranted about similar things: (this one featured Clay blasting my lingering use of passive voice! - good times)

This quote is just so similar to those several of us were writing about back in the "laptop for every child" days: "Both 3D printers and coding are tools, very useful at that, but still just that, tools, no matter how aroused the ed-chatterati get as these tools hit the schools." I still believe our students need access to such general tools to connect their classroom learning to the world. And yet, so often this is a missed goal... or one that is not even aimed at.

If I were still teaching my Marine Biology course (and I will again someday soon) and the sky was the limit in terms of access to tools and procedures... I would be interested in 3D printing. But, and this is a massive but, only where the tool was in direct service to to a goal/topic/outcome we were engaged in. For example: This is a post we would read today if my class was still rolling along in my new district and in my new role. It would plug in very nicely to the work we do. It would be yet another innovative way to curb some of the losses we would directly measure by collecting all sorts of data on live(?) coral reefs themselves. If we HAD such a tool... and if we could leverage it in such a way as to be meaningful in the real world... we would surely have done so.

Back to the quote above: I largely agree. I agree that we buy things because they are cool at the moment. I believe we implement tools over thoughts and goals. But like you imply, tools used to do good in the world are worth using. A hoe to plow the soil. A rake to dig clams. A 3D printer to rejuvenate a dying ecosystem. Buying hoes and rakes for classrooms is just as crazy as 3D printers if we wield them only in a "look what we can do" fashion. And yet, in a well-designed curriculum where these tools are directly used to design solutions to needs, I'm all for them.

We're in a phase where some of us are still aching to see real application beyond the "look what could be done" excitement. If we don't ultimately see examples of lock undone by the key we purchased... smart folks should start wondering why we bought the key in the first place. I too, grow weary of cheerleading of the possibilities and seemingly less sharing of the results that make the expenditure of time/attention/money worthwhile. Agreed. Tools are tools, but they should not exist outside of a real context for learning.

doyle said...

Dear Sean,

Ah, an eloquent post in itself--one you should share on your blog.

And I am still working on a response to yours. I miss your writing. If you do revive your marine bio course, I may find myself practicing with fins and a snorkel. Who knows?

(I have very few regrets in life--but one is not umping on that opportunity to oin you a few years ago..)


Tracy said...

Amen. Tools are only as good as the people who wield them... A hammer is an incredibly useful tool but if I insist on using it for a thumb tack or a screw, I'll be the first to say that I'm not a good carpenter.

doyle said...

Dear Tracy,

True that--I worry that we forget this at our peril. I would also add that tools are only valuable as far as the value their work accomplishes.

Thanks for dropping by--I've missed your words.


Tracy said...

And I've missed reading yours. I'll come by more often!
Much of the work I do is reigning people back when it comes to technology and asking questions about purpose, value, relationship. (and I'm supposed to be a technology consultant...they may want their money back ;)