by Rita Goldner

Standing in line at a fabric store, I watched the cashier use a calculator to multiply yardage by price per yard. She had a small chart taped to the counter that showed decimal/fraction equivalents: 1/2 yard = 0.50, 5/8 = 0.625, 7/8 = 0.875, etc. I noticed that whenever she keyed 0.625, she hit the decimal point twice, trying to make it 0.62.5. I asked why she did it, and tea kettle steamshe showed me the chart, which had speck of dirt between the 2 and the 5. I told her there can be only one decimal point per number. She asked why, but since I felt I had already overstepped my “customer” boundary, I thanked her and left. Her math always was correct because the calculator automatically ignored any additional decimal points after the first.

My point is that her job didn’t require an understanding of decimals, or how they relate to fractions, as long as she had the chart for reference. When I went to elementary school, it was the norm for kids to learn things by rote. We memorized multiplication tables without understanding why, and we learned facts and dates in history, never exploring any “what if” scenarios. In science class, we studied inventions and discoveries of scientists, but never spent time discovering or inventing things ourselves. This mindset led us in higher grades and in college to study to pass the test, rather than for understanding. Some teachers even tailored their lessons to a specific test in an effort to improve their class’s success rate. Teachers were under pressure to include more content in their lessons, so they did not have time to encourage critical thinking, curiosity, logic, exploring, inquiring, or understanding.

Meanwhile, our economy shifted in the last several decades, becoming more service oriented. More members of the workforce are now dealing with customers, as opposed to manufacturing a product, like they did in the early 20th century. This shift has cost the United States dearly in a competitive global economy.

Our current federal administration has pushed for the study of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (S.T.E.M.) to take a more prominent place in our public school curriculum. President Obama addressed this need, saying on March 23, 2015: “Science is more than a school subject, or the periodic table, or the properties of waves. It is an approach to the world, a critical way to understand and explore and engage with the world, and then have the capacity to change that world…”

In response, the  S.T.E.M. Education Coalition was formed, and according to its website, its mission is “… to inform federal and state policymakers on the critical role that STEM education plays in U.S. competitiveness and future economic prosperity and to advocate for policies that will improve STEM education at every level.” The President’s agenda is to recruit 100,000 teachers over the next 10 years who studied S.T.E.M. in college. To feed this pool, he has suggested that colleges and universities graduate an additional one million students with these majors, and he’s asked for higher prioritization for the funding of S.T.E.M.-based programs by the U.S. Department of Education. Teachers of younger children feel that art is also closely related to innovation, problem solving, testing solutions, and exploring, so they use the acronym S.T.E.A.M to include art.

Predictably, there are critics of this new focus. I have heard several parents of elementary school children lamenting that their kids have to show how they got the correct math answer on homework assignments and tests. The parents don’t understand or agree that children need to know why, and that having just the correct answer is no longer good enough. I guess it’s because the parents are suspicious of change and new ways of learning.

My agenda as a picture book author/illustrator is to raise the bar for early childhood education, and I see the recent push for S.T.E.A.M. as wonderful for young kids. I want them to have the excitement of looking at real-world problems and discussing solutions.  S.T.E.A.M. is not just about academics, but also includes giving students the confidence and ability to use their brains and logical thinking, rather than automatically googling or simply memorizing the answer.

If you have young children or grandchildren, look on Pinterest for S.T.E.A.M. or S.T.E.M. activities for young kids. You’ll find a world of fun, engineering things like spaghetti-stick bridges, pendulums, water-wheels, and tongue-depressor catapults.

Rita Goldner is the author and illustrator of the children’s picture book,
Orangutan: A Rita Goldner2Day in the Rainforest Canopy. Rita has also written and illustrated two eBooks, Jackson’s History Adventure and Jackson’s Aviation Adventure, in the Jackson’s Adventure series. For orangutan facts and images and to purchase the book (also available as an ebook), visit OrangutanDay.com. To view additional illustrations and other books in progress, visit Rita’s website. Contact Rita here. Follow Rita on Facebook.

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