Humanities and STEM?

Recently, a contact asked me via Twitter, essentially, how the humanities courses fit into a STEM school.  On a side note, if you haven’t checked out the Downingtown STEM Academy, I think you should.

In a traditional STEM Academy, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics are stressed.  Some STEM schools minimize or de-emphasize Humanities courses.  I would argue Humanities courses, taught in a traditional sense, do not fit well into a STEM school (or most schools, really), but as Humanities teachers, we must re-think how we teach.  The access to a universe of information, on demand and in our pockets, has changed Humanities in much the same way the calculator has changed Mathematics.  If we continue teaching the same way, our students’ education WILL suffer, moreso.  So, I guess the following are general suggestions for how to improve Humanities courses, but they certainly apply to STEM education too.

1. Instruction MUST be inquiry and problem-based.  If you lead students with engaging topics, help them form questions (or provide them with some), then once they get the hang of it, let them form their own, then the engagement will increase exponentially.  This works really well with STEM education, as Humanities teachers really just encourage scientific-mindedness.  This year, I asked my students whether they felt the “General Welfare” clause (Article 1, Section 8, para 1) and the Founder’s interpretation of the clause fit the social welfare state created by FDR and LBJ.  Students had to research the Constitutional meaning of the statement, through primary and secondary sources, research FDR and LBJ, then form a thesis (hypothesis, if you will).  Then, using their research, they had to defend their stance.  Such inquiry, when you use the right terms, is nothing more than scientific research.

2. Use scientific language. I taught across the hall from an awesome Physics teachers because our school is teamed.  We are not arranged by subject, but by team.  By doing this, I learned to use scientific language in my classroom.  Rather than “look it up,” I’d say “go collect your data.”  When asked how many sources students needed, I would say, “What will yield the lowest error rate?”  When discussing the role of a volunteer or conscription military, I encouraged both qualitative and quantitative data (opinions or subjective thoughts, and factual numbers).

3. Open-source. I teach without a textbook.  Edison did not have a textbook on “Inventing” in order to be an inventor. My students might need direction to find resources online.  I had to teach them to find information, consider its validity, and synthesize it to make an argument.  Humanities classes can fit into STEM education when you approach a subject like history as open to investigation, not just whatever the textbook says.  Humanities teachers should take advantage of the resources available online, like at EDSITEment among many others.  Textbooks are irrelevant, except perhaps to make fun of.

4. Failure is an option. How else do you learn?  You don’t learn from your successes, you learn from your failures.  Teach student that not knowing everything is okay.  Demonstrate this in class.  I have students “Google” information all the time during class.  Students need to know attempting a challenging stance on an issue and perhaps poorly supporting an idea is acceptable.  Give them another chance.  I’m pretty sure the Wright Brothers were not successful on their first attempt making an airplane.  If we do not allow our students to fail, they will only tread in safe waters.  This safety does not breed new, innovative views in our field.  If students are afraid to offer an alternative view of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, new knowledge will not be created.  Accept failure and allow students to try again.

5. Maintain high expectations. The DASD STEM Academy is an IB World School.  The IB demands high expectations of students.  DO NOT grade a student’s work based on it’s appearance (ie. the PowerPoint font was the right color, the map was colored correctly, etc.).  These are NOT content and that is not our mission as teachers.  Yes, you can have students correct these mistakes, but they should not be components of the grade unless these mistakes greatly interfere with the content.  My tenth grade students took two sciences classes this year, many in honors-level Chemistry and Physics.  These comprised two of their SEVEN HONORS CLASSES.  Many of my students maintained that their Civics and Government class was the most challenging.  Do not accept less than perfection when grading.  Yes, allow students to achieve perfection, but do not hand it out without it being earned.

I am open for questions, suggestions, links to research, etc.  I also openly welcome visits to my classroom.  Here’s my school!  Come out to see what I and my colleagues do every day.  I think you’ll be amazed.

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