The STEM education twin study…
that almost was…
I thank Mr. Brian Cleary for his thoughtful essay, “STEM education grows from the root.” As a STEM student and professional, I’ve long advocated improved STEM instruction at all levels of US education. But Mr. Cleary’s arguments for the need of finding new effective methods to inspire children of preschool through primary-school ages have very personal significance for me as a scientist and technologist. The experiences to which I allude could be considered an informal STEM-education twin study that almost was.
I’m a monozygotic or identical twin. My brother and I were born and raised in a lower middle class family residing in Portland, Oregon. We intensely competed and cooperated, as most siblings do. Those brotherly relations were formative. Our mutual devotion to STEM areas of interest produced a large part of our earliest recollections dating to the late 1960s and early 1970s. We both since have earned advanced university degrees and sustained careers in STEM professions.
Through abundant fun interactions with family and friends, exposure to local and national news media, watching televised science-fiction and nature entertainment, and reading books, magazines, and comics on STEM-themed topics, we became fascinated and intellectually enriched with the ongoing events and discourse of those stimulating childhood days. Such notable events, many of which continue to be important drivers of US society, included space, oceanic, and cross-cultural discovery: advances in robotics, vehicular transportation, communications, and computing: national crises in energy production and use: global, national, regional, and state movements in wildlife and habitat restoration/preservation: geosociopolitical unrest and transformation: and revolutions in medical technologies.
We found STEM inspiration in all aspects of life before we enrolled in school. And we drew upon many of those inspirations to direct our thoughts and actions. We helped rebuild or fabricate various mechanical and electronic devices with our maternal uncle. We modeled functional toy cars, trains, planes, and boats with our father. We engaged in low-impact explorations of Pacific Northwest wildernesses and observed indigenous wildlife on family vacations. We excavated aquatic fossils in the natural freshwater creek beds and habitats that surrounded our city family home. We, with our parents and maternal grandparents, raised national donations to find therapies and a cure for cystic fibrosis. We and our parents conversed with Oregon Native Americans about their ancestral eco-meaningful customs and the importance of egalitarian social opportunities. We practiced good energy conservation and debated with family members over the need for alternative fuels. We helped collect and return paper, glass, and metal recyclables. We yearly helped plant a more-or-less eco-friendly family garden that yielded produce for income-saving healthy preserves, which we made with our mother. These are a wonderful sampling of memories and I neglect to recount other ones. We had edifying imperfect childhoods.
The imaginings and hopes of my brother and I further inflated with the exciting possibilities of beginning formal education, which for us meant entry into kindergarten. Despite our parents’ top efforts to convince us otherwise, we soon unrealistically anticipated learning how to invent, construct, and use fringe technologies common to the minds of fantasists and futurists alike. My first encounter with school unsurprisingly failed to meet my ambitious expectations. I enjoyed the end-of-day free arts-and-crafts projects, particularly painting. My father and mother were talented fine and technical artists. Appreciation of art in different forms and gifted abilities to render art were something shared by my entire nuclear family. I’m no less staunch an advocate for education in arts and additional disciplines. However, other than the occasional nature walk to collect fallen leaves or my insistent show-and-tell discussions about the Apollo missions and about the great implications of Dr. Doolittle’s respect for animals and differing cultures, my kindergarten education was devoid of STEM curricula.
My brother, in contrast, was quite pleased about his education at the same public elementary school. How could this be true for a child who was highly enthusiastic about STEM topic matter? Well, educators believed at the time that twins should be placed in separate classrooms. My brother and I attended the same school during the same school hours, but we had different (pseudorandomly selected) homerooms and teachers. The rationale for doing so was to encourage each child to develop an independent strong personality. I questioned this nonsensical idea with my parents, citing the fact that I won as many fights as I lost to my brother. School administrators nevertheless knew best. You can imagine my disgust when I later learned my brother was being taught rudimentary geology, herpetology, meteorology, and entomology. I wanted the identical opportunity my identical brother and his classmates were getting. I thought to myself that I could surely fit several of those subjects into my useless two or three daily nap-time periods.
I did what any self-respecting twin should do. I complained about the disparity in curricula. I liked my teacher and she liked me. She was a very sweet lady. She really was. BUT … I COMPLAINED. I think my teacher became a little annoyed and embarrassed that I felt the woman teaching the adjacent class was superior. When my plea attempts seemed exhausted, I asked my personal special interest lobbyists – my parents – to complain. The school administrators wanted to develop strong and independent personalities in their students and that’s just what they got from me. The less-than-ideal resolution to my protests was the irregular invitation for my class to join my brother’s class during STEM instruction and coursework. I won a hard-fought tricky compromise at age 6 and halfway through my first academic year.
Thankfully, approaches toward education have progressed over the years and many children now receive better STEM instruction in preschool and kindergarten than I did. However, much remains to be achieved to enhance early STEM education. Mr. Cleary is correct. Revitalized methods that employ workshop-based programs as well as additional educational strategies and tools are essential for introducing and attracting young children to STEM fields of study. They are essential for broadening the knowledge and opportunities of all students and for maximizing the benefits of more specialized middle school and high school STEM curricula.
I was fortunate to have developed a strong interest in STEM subjects before entering the US educational system. My interests were shaped by the activities of my family along with the national and global current events of my generation. Had I not received such early extracurricular support, I might have followed other scholastic and career interests – perhaps a very different life path than that taken by my brother. I suspect most of my kindergarten cohorts sought-out alternatives to STEM training and employment for that reason. Young children still experience disparities in early STEM education similar to my own kindergarten experiences. Those students will probably make the eventual and nearly forced choice to pursue educational and career goals unrelated to STEM. As Mr. Cleary cleverly expressed, the immature root must be cultivated for the STEM to grow in individual students across our nation. They and we deserve that unfaltering commitment to STEM education in order to continue US advancement in quality and length of life.