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Research & Insights / Live from the Café Podcast: The Missing 'M' in STEM Education

Live from the Café Podcast: The Missing 'M' in STEM Education

During the Social Impact Connect conference at Venture Café, I had the opportunity to moderate the conversation around the Missing ‘M’ in STEM Education. The discussion goes to the core of mathematics education and proficiency that drives achievement in Science, Technology, and Engineering careers. I was joined by a cross sectional panel that dove into the nuts and bolts of math teaching and learning through their years of experience and research. The panel included Julia Bott, Principal at the Ellis Mendell School in Boston Public Schools, Aparna Rayasam, Vice President of Engineering at Akamai Technologies, and Justin Reich, Assistant Professor & Director at MIT Teaching Systems Lab.

The following are a few highlights from the discussion, the full conversation is available here. Portions have been edited for clarity.

Marinell: Mathematics is often an overlooked aspect of STEM yet is instrumental to unlocking potential in S, T, E – Science, Technology, and Engineering careers. What gets lost when math is overlooked? Why do you think giving math education more attention is so important?

Aparna: This is a multi-dimensional problem that manifests in different ways. When I compare notes with peers in other industries, we are seeing that more and more things we do rely on machine learning, data science, AI, and other technological tools to assist with our solutions. When you scratch the surface and remove the buzzwords, all these things stand for advanced math. A phrase industries don’t use enough is “true math experts”. Twenty years ago, complex techniques including neural network and applying mathematical models was in the domain of academia and educational experts. Large enterprises like Google and Facebook have democratized these techniques, so they are widely available now; the difficulty is finding the correct application which requires a knowledge of mathematical theory. Enterprises like ours, who want to move faster, want individuals who have this mathematic foundation. There is a supply and pipeline problem for experts who can truly understand this data.

Julia: When you look the data, a third of students are proficient in Math by 8th grade within Boston, which reflects the national average. That has grave implications for the future success of our students. Through a college and career readiness lens, if students come in thinking of themselves as mathematicians, learners and thinkers, someone who gets the answer quickly in the elementary grades but begins to struggle as they move up grade levels as problems become more complex that has terrible implications for college and their future careers. Students who are already marginalized by race, social economic factors, and other barriers experience these implications at a higher magnitude.

"Having an adaptive teacher with skills, knowledge and pedagogy and even thinking that math is not about getting the right problem but about productive struggle with problem solving and perseverance is groundbreaking."

Justin: An alternative to the student who is ‘good’ at math – as someone who gets the right answer quickly – is the student who sticks with it or struggles and perseveres. Studying math learning across the world, this is the case in other countries. Being ‘good’ at math is being at the board and struggling with something and not getting the answer quickly. These issues as Julia points out are identity issues, how do you get students to feel good about themselves as they persist when with struggling against these puzzles?

Math is central and a gatekeeper to all other STEM activities. In the absence of a fundamental understand of Algebra I, it’s hard to comprehend biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, and all these other STEM-related areas.

Aparna: That’s a great point. Productive struggle in the industry is lacking as well. You have to respect the problem. If the problem was solvable in a couple of days, we wouldn’t need the individual to think through it. We need to cherish patience and perseverance.

Marinell: Math proves to be one of the strongest indicators of long-term success. Getting those foundations early in school matters a lot as you move up through concepts and formulas to more advanced courses. When you look deeper in the data, math achievement becomes a significant indicator of future earnings.

Julia, as an educator and school leader, why has moving the needle on this issue has been so hard? What has been participating challenging with teaching and learning in math?

Julia: The problem has never been and never will be the children. All children are intellectuals. They all come to school as sense makers, as problem solvers, as thinkers. They have natural abilities to figure things out.

The really hard question then becomes whose problem is it? At schools, we have to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask hard questions about our beliefs in students in front of us, our own content knowledge, mathematical thinking, productive struggle, and perseverance; what is a worthy task and what does it look like to put one in front of children to create this space for them to showcase their ability to make sense and grapple with problems?

What does it look like to train teachers? It was always procedure, procedure, procedure. You had to memorize things. When the upper grades required conceptual learning about numbers, kids fell apart as their mathematical thinking had to be more flexible and the gaps become wider and wider. It became clear we needed support to think differently about how we approach the content and structure of learning so kids can build the skills and competencies to be successful.

"Math is central and a gatekeeper to all other STEM activities."

Justin: As Julia mentioned, teachers doing more math thinking themselves will help them teach it to their students. Moreover, some form of discreetly individualized coaching is proven to help math teaching. One of our observations is that when teachers learn, they have insufficient opportunities to practice that learning. Teachers listen and talk with each other about teaching but very rarely are they able to practice. A stark contrast to other ‘helping’ careers, like social workers – they practice on each other and talk about it practically. Teachers have less of that opportunity.

Our team is always wrestling with innovative approaches to these problems and right now we are wrestling with ways to create practice spaces for teachers to rehearse and reflect on important decisions for teaching. In the fall, we’ve been working with 20 third grade math teachers on a tool we call Eliciting Learner Knowledge, a paired synchronous chat-based game where one individual is given the role of a teacher and the other is the student. A transcript is generated from all these chats and we are able to reflect upon strategies we use to better communicate with students. In the spring, we will be working on “Teacher Moments”, a digital simulation tool meant for individual play on a handheld device that immerses you with vignettes of classroom life.

Marinell: Thank you so much for all of your thoughts, it echoes the way we think of leveling the playing field in math achievement. Our leverage point is largely with teachers – the individuals that have the most impact on student outcomes. Having an adaptive teacher with skills, knowledge and pedagogy and even thinking that math is not about getting the right problem but about productive struggle with problem solving and perseverance is groundbreaking. To be able to bring this kind of thinking to teachers and have them teach math in a different way for their students is a scalable action and advocacy plan to reduce skills and knowledge gaps.

The entire conversation is available here.