STEM, Computer Science, and "Things That Matter"

The world of education politics, as I have come to know it during my two years and one month or so as an educator, is not often one that I feel comfortably situated in. Like my friends on the left, I am opposed to vouchers for any school that offers theological training, opposed to the involvement of for-profit "education management" companies and other for-profit charter enterprises, and am highly suspicious of corporations like Pearson being involved in seemingly every level of the education world - from teacher licensing to standardized testing for both students and educators in training. Unlike my friends on the left, I don't see charter schools - generally speaking - as anathema (though certainly I do in some cases). I also am generally supportive of the shift to common core state standards (CCSS) - which makes me an enemy to folks on both right and left. 

I've felt this lack of a "place" more acutely since I took on my most recent role as an IT teacher (focusing on computer/technology skills and computer science). The realm of "IT" - or computer science (CS) as it is more commonly referred to - fits squarely within the world of the "STEM" fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). It's this area that has also been the subject of no small amount of left opposition - the Chicago Teachers Union posted one particularly fear-driven piece back in June equating STEM programs and military programs, for example. 

Given my background in the humanities, in a field which is increasingly being forced to offer more and more online instruction (as a means of cutting back on tenured professors and simultaneously shifting the work of educating to severely underpaid graduate students and shifting the tuition dollars of debt-strapped college students to a bloated corps of administrators), I am no stranger to technophobia in the realm of education. As a graduate student in Florida, STEM in particular had still more ominous overtones. This was of course thanks in large part to Florida being at that time lead by a governor who belittled the humanities (literally, for instance, regarding Anthropology as a useless major), promoting only those fields he considered "job creators" that would prepare students for the "real world" of "free market" capitalism. Gov. Scott's favorite fields were - you guessed it - STEM fields. 

Naturally, then, I sometimes feel a certain uneasiness about my role as a technologist in elementary and middle school education. I maintain that the real purpose of education is to help students develop into informed, capable, and productive citizens (productive in the sense that they contribute to a greater societal good). And yet, I teach in STEM, because - and this may seem like an obvious point - I do not consider education in the STEM fields and the development of an informed general public to be mutually exclusive or conflicting projects. 

I say that this may seem like an obvious point, but then I see things like this cartoon recently (re)posted on Facebook by the education blog/magazine Rethinking Schools:

Setting aside for a moment the fact that this comic is actually part of a series called Joy of Tech, produced by technology enthusiasts, offering tongue-in-cheek critiques of their own industry rather, including making fun of the very platforms the creators use on a daily basis (a point seemingly missed by the Rethinking Schools editors), there are several things that are truly aggravating about the mindsets revealed in the editors' choice of post and accompanying commentary. 

First is the base level technophobia so common in certain pockets of supporters of the humanities, not only in academia but outside the ivory tower as well. The commentary literally describes the inclusion of coding as "avoiding the things that really matter in the world." The "things that matter" are of course the issues raised by the student - issues I studied myself as a student at Michigan State on a study abroad trip with a yearning to tackle the issues that "mattered" in the world. Issues like water politics, land use politics, the impact of societal changes (say, the disruption of Bedouin grazing patterns in northern Israel) on local ecosystems, etc. Issues that my colleagues and I - all budding humanities scholars interested in studying "things that mattered" were unequipped to study beyond a cursory level due to the fact that these subjects - climate, ecosystems, water usage, etc. - are most effectively studied using qualitative methods, especially methods in the realm of computer science such as Geographic Information Systems and computer modeling. 

Second, and more infuriating to me, is that the implication is that coding, as a subject being introduced as early as kindergarten and 1st grade students (and an increasingly popular subject at that), is presented as another "job creation" scheme serving only the interests of "free market" capitalists, to the detriment of us all. This is the presentation, despite the fact that coding is being taught to students in no small part through the lens of core curricular content. I'm not talking here just about CCSS standards (although you can bet that most coding content is aligned). One (for-profit) company, Tynker, has coding projects aimed at supporting social studies content, science content, and even ELA content - you know, for that rabble rousing teacher that might want their student to animate a report on the effect of climate change on geo-political conflict. 

My personal favorite platform (because it's free content made available by a non-profit organization), Code.org, only offers middle school curriculum that is core content-specific. Modules 2 and 3 of their CS in Science curriculum even focus on - wait for it - "water as a shared resource" and "ecosystems as complex systems," respectively. Students use coding and computer modeling to learn and present their knowledge about these "things that matter." Shocking. 

My students don't live in a pre-computer world. Pretending otherwise seems to me to be asinine at best, and dangerous at worst.