STEAM, STEM, MESA… What? : Decoding the New Learning Acronyms

by • August 1, 2014 • 2014, August 2014, Big Kids, Education & Learning, Teens and Pre-Teens, Uncategorized


I got my first cell phone when I turned 17. A junior in high school, I was a part of the first generation of students to have their phones banned in classrooms and on campus – before iMessaging, Angry Birds, and Snapchat even existed. Now, studies are showing that almost 20% of third graders have cell phones, and a whopping 90% are already online; and our schools are fighting to mind the overwhelming gap between education and technology.

It isn’t just smart phones. The education gap is widening between the sciences, math, and technology in general,
and has been since the late seventies.

MESA: Math, Engineering, Science Achievement

In 1970, Oakland Technical High School noted a high underrepresentation of students involved in math, science and technology once they passed middle school and began the grueling years of high school and college. Founding the first MESA program, Oakland Technical High School encouraged educationally disadvantaged students to participate in the math, science and engineering
programs at their schools – reaching out to the local community for help in preparing students for
four year colleges.

MESA celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2010, bringing to light some impressive statistics, including a striking 97% transfer rate into the math or science majors from community colleges into four year universities. California MESA has been a model for similar programs in over a dozen other states, and is a precursor for another initiative you may have heard of: STEM. So what is it?

STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics

Sound like familiar subjects? Many U.S.-based education organizations follow the National Science Foundation’s guidelines on what actually constitutes a STEM field, but, be it life sciences or cyberinfrastructure, the push for better education in the STEM fields began many years ago. President Obama noted in a 2010 address that “leadership (in America) tomorrow depends on how we educate our students today, especially in math, science, technology and engineering.” However, according to the National Center for STEM Elementary Education, “research shows that a negative interest in science begins in elementary schools – where about 33% of girls and boys in fourth grade express negative attitudes. By eighth grade about half express negative attitudes.” The push toward STEM subjects might be
seen as a push back on these negative attitudes.

Math certainly wasn’t my favorite subject in elementary school, I’ll be honest. And I went on to major in English Literature in college. But was my negative attitude toward math really so connected to a later emphasis on English?
Are science and art really so disparate? Is there a place for the humanities in either of those acronyms?

STEAM: Adding a little art to the sciences

With Common Core initiatives rolling out in California, schools are poised to present an entirely new model of education. In an attempt to bridge the severe gap between the humanities and sciences, the Rhode Island School of Design decided it was high time to introduce a new acronym: STEAM. Adding Arts (and Design) to the new curriculum, STEAM turns the focus to cross-curricular learning –

“There is a lot more emphasis (with these programs) on investigation; on justification and analysis through experimentation. You can’t just cram these subjects down students’ throats and expect them to like it, or retain it, past testing time,” Mrs. Priest adds.

At a district level and at a principal level, there are resources available for parents to investigate, too. And there are plenty of organizations who are bent on partnering with that investigation: Arts for All OC, OC STEM, and Science OC all have established learning cooperatives to assist learning leaders throughout Orange County in promoting best practices in schools and conferences region-wide. Arts for All alone offers over 200 profiles online of vetted education programs, and OC STEM’s website features a proprietary newsletter, as well as ongoing events and contests throughout Orange County.

Over at McPherson, Mrs. Priest notes that her teaching partners are all “looking for ways to embed technology into their classrooms.” Her colleague, Mrs. Denenny, has taken to assigning her students to make movie trailers instead of writing book reports. Mrs. Priest is herself using technology that is the “hook” for so many kids, to engage in learning subjects that they’re struggling with, like math and science. “It’s exciting to think about how we can create opportunities for kids to choose their own focus for projects,” she says. “Seeing what they come up with is really cool.”

Finding a way to educate the next generation will always be a process of reimagining, and in our rapidly changing and globally connected world, that process is being shaped as we speak. I wasn’t great at math, and perhaps neither is your student. But there are now more paths than ever to spark that light of creativity that will truly engage the problems that are the most difficult for them. M

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

« »