Sunday, March 16, 2014

Why Not Ask 'Why' For the Future of STEM Education?

“Why don’t birds get frostbite on their feet and legs during the winter?” This was a question posed by panelist Dr. Frank Keil during a lively discussion on the future of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math) education.  “I didn’t know and I was curious, so I looked it up,” the Yale Psychology and Linguistics professor continued. At the heart of his seemingly innocuous query was how often adults in our society asked “why?” questions.  It prompted me to consider that nearly every one of my own education and career choices were driven by questions of “why?” and “how?” such as:  Why did I have so many colds as a kid? How do infectious bugs get into my body? How does my body get rid of these infectious bugs? These are the questions typical of both an inquisitive child and a trained scientist, but why not the general public?  Panelist Richard Therrien, the science supervisor for New Haven Public Schools, suggests that society may not value STEM subjects as something everyone should be capable of understanding. There exists a chasm between what our community thinks is science and what science truly is. In its most basic sense, science is methodology.  This practice is not only conducted by men and women employed in STEM-related fields around the world, but by everyone nearly every single day. When you swap out an ingredient in a recipe, for better or worse, you have done science. When you plant seeds and watch them grow into beautiful flowers or hearty vegetables—science.  When you have your hair dyed, straightened, or curled—science. When you throw rock salt out on to your icy driveway—science. When you receive a text on your cell phone, send an email with your laptop, or drive your car, you are using products of science. So why then do parents, administrators, and even teachers place STEM subjects on this pedestal? Dr. Robert Tai, associate professor at the Curry School of Education at University of Virginia believes it has to do with the type of tests we all had in primary school and that we continue to administer to students today. Through this kind of assessment, we have placed misguided accountability on students to memorize and regurgitate facts instead of understanding how complex ideas fit together. Dr. Keil adds that we are setting students up for failure when an emphasis is placed upon learning strictly details and facts, which may lead to an aversion of comprehending science as a whole.  Thus, the bigger problem is that in today’s world with social and economic issues including vaccines, genetically-modified organisms (GMO), and climate change, the discussion of science is inescapable.  Instead of testing details and facts in school, perhaps we should revisit scientific concepts throughout education (and life) to build continuity through development. If successful in this endeavor, more members of our society will understand how to relate similar concepts to solve problems and intelligently participate in public scientific dialogue. Linda Malkin, a science & magnet school teacher at the Celetano Biotech, Health, & Medical Magnet School in New Haven is on her way to transforming early science education. She adds that by using today’s technology in and out of the classroom, we can set the stage for students to stretch the boundaries of technology and come up with innovative solutions for future problems.  

The principle goal of education has and will continue to be to provide a foundation on which every individual may become an integral member of our society. In order to reach this goal, it is imperative for us to be forward thinking and consider what young adults need upon entering the workforce. We need to take it upon ourselves as parents, educators, and role models not to dismiss the importance that science plays in our everyday lives.  Science is not this awful or painful endeavor achieved by few, but is actually integrated into all facets of our lives.  So for the future of our world, whatever your place in it may be, talk to a kid about how you do science—and never be afraid to ask ‘why’.


The Yale exCHANGE STEM Education panel was held in Dwight Hall on March 5 and was sponsored by Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs.  The panelists consisted of Dr. Frank Keil, the Charles C. & Dorathea S. Dilley Professor of Psychology and Linguistics at Yale University, Linda Malkin, Science & Magnet Teacher at Celetano Biotech, Health, and & Medical School in New Haven, Dr. Robert Tai, Associate Professor at the Curry School of Education at University of Virginia, and Richard Therrien, Science Supervisor for New Haven public schools.  The panel was moderated by Elizabeth Carroll, Director of Education Studies at Yale and hosted by Peter Crumlish, Executive Director of Dwight Hall.  Approximately 40 participants including New Haven public school teachers, Yale students, postdocs, and professors, and employees of local museums and libraries contributed to the discussion.

Just in case I piqued anyone’s interest with the opening line above, birds actually have a few different strategies for preventing their legs from getting frostbitten.  One rather simple way is by tucking their legs under their body when sitting or raising one leg at a time into their body while standing.  Birds also possess an efficient system of blood flow into their legs, which interestingly doesn’t lose a lot of heat on its way back into the body. This is because the hotter blood vessels going down to the feet are very close to those cooler blood vessels returning to the heart.  Finally, the outer layer of a bird’s legs is composed of a thick and scaly skin, which is not as easily frozen or damaged as human skin.  Lastly, it’s good to remember that biology is never black-and-white; some birds actually do get frostbite.

Heather Marshall

Postdoctoral Fellow in Immunobiology