Table of Contents

Why does STEM learning matter?

The Future Jobs and Global Competition models. Americans consistently tie STEM learning to economic success, viewing STEM skills as important for individual students to get good jobs and be financially successful. This thinking about goals or outcomes of STEM learning is strongly focused at the individual level. However, Americans also focus on the importance of STEM skills in assuring that the country can out-compete its global competitors. FrameWorks research has found that this focus on global competition elicits a powerful us-versus-them mentality, which ultimately sets up an unproductive perspective in thinking about domestic-level disparities in education.12

The Unequal Opportunity model. There is a sense, although not as top-of-mind, persistent, or consistent as many of the other models discussed here, that disparities in STEM learning outcomes are, in part, the product of inequalities in learning opportunities. This model is a productive one for STEM advocates, as it makes visible the role of systemic factors and access to resources in producing disparities in STEM learning outcomes.

How are STEM skills learned?

The Hands-On Learning model. The public views hands-on learning as the best way to learn STEM subjects and skills. According to this understanding, students learn STEM by doing, experimenting, observing, and modifying in order to understand how things work. This way of thinking is driven by the way that people understand science, and the fact that they equate STEM with “science.”

The Every Child is Different model. There is a widespread assumption that some children are naturally good at, and interested in, STEM subjects, and others are simply not. Children’s different talents, interests, and learning styles are attributed to inborn or genetic characteristics and are seen as “natural” and “fixed.”

The Informal Learning = Freedom and Low Stakes model. In thinking about informal learning, Americans invoke a common set of core characteristics — freedom, flexibility, and lack of pressure — which they view as “good” for learning generally, and for science learning in particular.

The Informal Learning is Supplementary model. Although Americans commonly assume that informal learning opportunities are valuable, they also share a deeply held assumption that informal learning is nonessential, and merely supplements the essential learning that happens in the classroom. In short, in thinking about informal learning contexts, Americans imply a hierarchical relationship between formal and informal settings.

The Rechargeable Attention Battery model. Members of the public understand children’s energy and motivation for learning as a limited resource; after a certain amount of time spent learning, children need “down time” — understood as time spent not learning — to recharge. Reasoning with this model, people worry that if children spend too much time learning outside of school — for example, engaged in informal learning activities — they will be drained and spent, leaving them without the energy they need for formal learning. This powerful zero-sum understanding of attention and motivation is evoked when people are asked to reason about the relationship between in- and out-of-school learning, and particularly when they are asked about their support for informal learning.

How can STEM skills be improved?

The Back to the Basics model. Perhaps the deepest and most powerful model observed in the research was the assumption that education should be focused on learning “the basics” — typically identified as math and English, with the emphasis on basic computational, or “checkbook,” math. Americans consistently reason that the basics should be the primary focus of education, and must be taught before more complex subjects can be introduced. The model grounds skepticism about teaching “new” skills and subjects that lie outside the scope of traditional curricula, and shapes the understanding that time spent teaching subjects such as science and engineering comes at the expense of basic learning. Moreover, the Back to the Basics model challenges discussions of improving pedagogy by implicitly advantaging the idea that “old ways are the best ways,” and positioning people to question, or even resist, new, innovative approaches to teaching and learning.

The Caring Teacher model. When thinking about how STEM education might be improved, Americans consistently gravitate to a common solution and focus on the need for more caring teachers. While caring is, of course, an important aspect of teaching, reminding people of this familiar way of conceptualizing teaching tends to crowd out other considerations of what is required to support a teacher. When reasoning with this model, people are unable to see how education systems affect learning, or to consider how resources and supports influence teacher quality.

FrameWorks uses the heuristic of a “swamp” to convey the idea that these “spaces” in public thinking dominate and propagate opinions, and are predictably threatening or navigable, depending upon the communicator’s goal and degree of foresight and preparation. In this regard, the following diagram serves as a useful framing tool in its own right, helping communicators predict the responses that specific messages are likely to elicit. Using this diagram, communicators can be more strategic and proactive in creating messages that avoid the activation of unproductive understandings, and intentionally invigorate those that encourage more expansive and productive thinking about STEM and informal learning.

Watch the following video to see how people use cultural models to reason about STEM and informal STEM learning.

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Baran, M., Lindland, E., Haydon, A., & Kendall-Taylor, N. (2013). The whole socioeconomic trickle down: Mapping the gaps on disparities in education. Washington, DC: FrameWorks Institute.