How Not to STEM the Tide of Decline

Marcia McNutt, geophysicist and president of the National Academy of Sciences issued quite a stark warning at an event celebrating 70 years of discoveries by the National Science Foundation. In summary, if the United States wants to see science advance in the future, we must stop our reliance on international talent and teach our own. Apparently the best and brightest foreign nationals receiving a world-class science education from our own universities are seeking career opportunities elsewhere.

As a high school science educator, I could not agree more with Dr. McNutt’s call to action. The question is, however, why the erosion of interest, from our own students, in academic science and math programs? Why are there not more U.S. students seeking careers in technology? Many have suggested the remedy for inspiration lies in more “woke” education in these technical domains.

Early in my science teaching career, around 2008 - before the golden age of “woke” awareness – I read and was gripped by an extensive 2006 report released by the National Governors Association (NGA), characterizing the state of STEM education in the U.S. Sadly, the findings were grim, revealing that American high schoolers ranked below average in STEM subjects compared to their international counterparts. In another study assessing mathematics literacy and problem solving, out of thirty countries U.S. students had average scores that were higher than only five – placing us at sixth from the bottom! Naturally alarmed by these numbers, I read with great interest as to why U.S. students performed so poorly. The reasons varied: student’s perception of math/science curricula as irrelevant, lack of rigorous K-12 math and science classes, and an underqualified STEM teaching force. The combination of one or more of these factors contributed to a lack of student preparation for post-secondary education.

Little has improved these fourteen years later. In fact, many would argue the state of science and math education is worse. The recommendations from the NGA report were many, but chief among them were: (1) recruiting and preparing more STEM teachers, (2) developing high quality STEM curricula, and (3) developing rigorous standards for career and technical education programs.

While such recommendations were noteworthy and actionable, it appears the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) has an even better idea to advance math education.

Enter: woke math. The SPS framework informing new math standards is not what you might expect. Gone are the calculators, protractors and rulers. The fledgling mathematician in the Seattle Public School system can expect to learn that “technology and/or science have been and continues to be used to oppress and marginalize people and communities of color,” how math has been used to “exploit natural resources,” and the means by which math “dictates economic oppression.”

If these rigorous and strongly analytical learning objectives were not enough to foster a love of science and math, there is more! Young, impressionable minds will be enlightened and called to arms against any unwoke who dares to reckon “Western mathematics as the only legitimate expression of mathematical identity and intelligence.” The mini-militants can look down their social justice warrior noses knowing that Western math has been leveraged to wield tyranny to “disenfranchise​ people and communities of color.” And I bet you thought math was about counting, calculating, quantizing, and solving for x.

Proponents of this framework claim that its aims are to integrate ethnic studies into the math curriculum, but to what end? Jarrett Stepman from The Daily Signal bemoans that such a “curriculum will leave students with little actual knowledge or understanding of how to do math.” Hope isn’t totally lost, however, as the nascent ranks of woke warriors will no doubt enjoy the radicalization that comes with understanding just how oppressive Western math and science have been. (Might the more recent marginalization of Western science and math stem from the increasing awareness of their Christian roots?)

In a time when we are exhorted by the good Dr. McNutt to teach our own, and on the heels of the NGA recommendations for an enhanced STEM agenda, the Seattle Public School K-12 Math Ethnic Studies Framework is clearly a poor formula for success. Since math and science subjects are difficult enough, it seems time is better spent fostering a love and appreciation of these subjects in students…but of course, that’s just my unwoke opinion.

Emily has had a lifelong appreciation for science, teaching, and research. She graduated summa cum laude from California State University, Fresno with a BS degree in molecular biology and a minor in cognitive psychology. As an undergraduate, she conducted summer research in immunology, microbiology, behavioral and cognitive psychology, scanning tunneling microscopy and genetics; she also published research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, and co-authored a chapter on scanning tunneling microscopy. She is currently completing a Master’s degree in Instructional Design and Technology at University of Cincinnati and a Certificate in Apologetics with the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. Emily has had the joy of teaching high school chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, anatomy & physiology, and pre-engineering classes over the last thirteen years. As a former Darwinian evolutionist, Emily enjoys stating the case for intellectual agency, considering the arguments posited by the intelligent design movement as much more credible than those proffered by Darwinists.

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