kitchen table math, the sequel: "Silos"?

Friday, February 4, 2011


"Call for Papers
Integrated STEM Education Conference 2011 (ISEC 2011)
Best Practices in Integrated STEM Instruction
We are soliciting papers for the inaugural meeting of ISEC 2011, co-located with the
Trenton Computer Festival (TCF; at the College of New Jersey (TCNJ),
on Saturday, April 2, 2011."

"Our goals for ISEC 2011 are to have thought-provoking discussions on how the “silos”
separating instruction in and, ultimately, comprehension among STEM fields can be
removed and, subsequently, on the various ways “integrated STEM methods” take shape
in K-16 classrooms. To this end, we invite you to submit original papers on best
practices in integrated STEM instruction that provide descriptions and assessment of
innovative integrated STEM instructional modules. Papers detailing initiatives that use computers to support programmatic initiatives are especially welcome."

I just got an email from IEEE with this call for papers. Can anyone translate the sentence that talks about goals? No wonder my dues are so high.


ChemProf said...

"Silos" would be disciplines. You know, that old-fashioned boring stuff like chemistry, physics, computer science, and electrical engineering. Much more exciting to mix it up in a blender as integrated STEM. Seriously, NSF and others have been pushing this for a while.

C T said...

K-16!! They're trying to suck university professors into their vortex of confusion and pseudo-education? "During my organic chemistry classes, I will now devote time to talking about how fractals are applicable to living structures, physics, and geology. Sorry if you guys don't do so well on your MCAT later...."

Crimson Wife said...

There is some real value to interdisciplinary work. Academic inquiry doesn't always fall into neat little subject discipline "silos".

I studied biological psychology in college; many of the courses I took were cross-listed in both departments and the professors held joint appointments. When studying how the brain works, it's hard to draw the line between what is biology and what is psychology.

The same was true for my sorority sister who studied bioinformatics- it's hard to draw the line in her coursework between what is biology and what is CS.

cranberry said...

At the college level, certainly there are areas of learning and research which don't fall into neat categories.

At the high school level, however, I don't think it's appropriate, unless a student knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that she wants to become an engineer. And even then, frankly, most high school students haven't seen enough of the world to make an informed choice. Even their high school teachers don't know enough to allow their students to make a rational choice between epidemiology and civil engineering.

Our local high school has been experimenting with similar things. The principal has been quoted in the paper asking how long science instruction will be confined to separate subjects, rather than in a project-based cross-disciplinary manner.

In my opinion, if you want more STEM workers, teach more math. Build more science labs, and require (allow) more students to enroll in biology, phyics, chemistry lab courses. Trying to create a melange of science is a waste of limited resources, in my opinion. A rigorous college prep curriculum does not leave much class time at all for cross-subject specialty courses.

ChemProf said...

There are disciplines that cut across traditional boundaries, although usually you need grounding in the associated disciplines first. However, this isn't what they mean. They mean all-integrated all the time. They tend to look at how a senior engineering major brings all these ideas together in a clinic project and think "shouldn't freshmen or high school students do things this way" without realizing how much knowledge the senior has acquired first.

And yes, K-16 is the new paradigm. After all, college professors don't have education coursework so we aren't qualified to teach.

concerned said...

Thanks for the post SteveH!

"discussions on how the 'silos'
separating instruction in and, ultimately, comprehension among STEM fields can be removed"

I have to wonder if the person who drafted this solicitation is in a STEM field. They seem to lack comprehension...

Most of my calc students who go on to productive math/sci fields would not have been prepared had they wasted a second on this sort of junk in hs.

cranberry said...

I'm more cynical about the k-16 paradigm. I suspect it could be a way to disguise the students who aren't prepared for 13-16 at the end of 12.

Such a pity that colleges actually, you know, flunk out students who are failing.

Genevieve said...

This focus on interdisciplinary, project work, reminds me of the few things I have seen in our local paper on Project Lead the Way.
The articles have all been glowing and focused on students that want to go on to Engineering. However, our local news reporters have repeatedly proven their incompetence when it comes to education reporting. Does anyone have any personal experience with this program?

Crimson Wife said...

Gotcha. And I absolutely agree with this assessment. Interdisciplinary courses at the high school level IMHO should be honors electives for upperclassmen. The student should have demonstrated mastery of the basic subjects before getting into interdisciplinary work.

Anonymous said...


We have it at our school. My son hasn't taken a course in it yet because when we tried they were all filled, and you have to take certain intro courses to be able to take the later courses. I thought we'd go ahead and get one of them out of the way in case he found one later that he wanted to take.

The first intro courses were ranked levels 1V and V, which was why I wasn't crazy about my son being in them as an elective. He already had a very heavy load. I believe one was called Intro to Engineering or something like that. Another one had to do with architecture. I called the head of the department (Applied Sciences) and he said that there wasn't much take home work (which was what I was concerned about.) He said it was a "hands on" class where they worked in groups. There wasn't a math pre-req if I recall, or if there was it wasn't very high.

Even though my son has more math credentials than probably most in the class, he can't qualify for other higher level PLTW classes unless he passes through the gauntlet of one of the beginning PLTW classes. It was explained to me that they need to learn how to work in teams, which I find funny since he's been taught with those methods since he began school. And something tells me he could adapt really quickly.

We will try again for at least one so that we're not shut out of classes he might want to take later.

This reminds me of how he wanted to join the after school investing club, but he needed to have completed Investing 101, a level three class. Again, we tried to get him in the class, but we couldn't because of scheduling. So he can't join the after school club even though he's in AP econ at the moment and has been reading investment and econ textbooks for fun over the last two years. He also attended a camp in economics last year and has taken stock market and investment classes at Northwestern through the CTD.

Something tells me he could probably keep up.


Anonymous said...

K-16 is the new paradigm because "everybody" should attend college.

SteveH said...

"college professors don't have education coursework so we aren't qualified to teach."

ChemProf - are you feeling the integration pressure? If so, who is doing the pushing? My impression is that the K-12 influence on college is biggest in state schools that get money from the state.

SteveH said...

As far as I know, colleges of engineering don't care about whether you take PLTW courses or not. I think the way it works is that educators want more students in STEM departments in college and they falsely think that it's an exposure/engagement/motivation issue. The goal of PLTW is to inspire more kids to go into engineering. This does not mean that they will meet the math and science and SAT requirements. In my review of PLTW, I don't see anything which would ensure that those other requirements are met, other that some sort of magic engagement or motivation factor. If you are bad in algebra, you could still do well in PLTW classes, but never have a chance of getting into engineering. In fact, PLTW classes might make kids think that the math classes area an annoying requirement, since they are good at the hands-on work. However, when they get to college, they will immediately flunk the statics and dynamics class.

On the PLTW web site in the FAQ section, they have to explain how it is still important to focus on your regular math classes, as if these kids expect that PLTW is a fast track around the regular math and science classes. Now, it could be that the PLTW classes are well done, but that would depend a lot on the teachers. You might also look at which students are in the classes.

There is also the problem of prerequisites. You can't pick and choose. I'll wager that this will cause PLTW to fail in many schools. I would rather see some sort of AP engineering course, but that would not be hands on. The "intro to engineering" course that most take in the first year of college has little to do with hands-on projects. Fortunately, in college, many of the hands-on projects are extra, like the solar or Baja racers. They are not used as a means to teach the regular curriculum.

The conference above assumes that even a separate integration course (after the basics have been learned) is the wrong approach. They want all teaching to be thematic. As we all know, the basics never get mastered.

Anonymous said...

And yet our guidance counselor was really selling how much colleges liked PLTW. I would love to hear from some of those professors about what they really think. Like Steve said, without the math I don't see how it happens. It's like another enrichment program, a costly one at that.


Michael Weiss said...

It's not at all uncommon for a student's first encounter with Calculus to occur in a Physics class. I took AP Physics the same year I took Calculus, but the math used in the Physics class was usually about a chapter ahead of where we were in Calc. I can't tell you how many times I've heard both teachers and students muse aloud, "Why don't they just teach Calculus and Physics together?" And there are some schools that have done this, with a double block for Calculus and Physics. I think that's the kind of approach the proposal is calling for.

I'm not entirely sure how well that approach generalizes to other K-16 courses. I can certainly see how (for example) there would be some great synergy if an Algebra II class learning the properties of logarithms was somehow coordinated with a Chemistry class learning about pH. But could those cross-connections by extended to a whole curriculum without sacrificing coherence? I am skeptical, but it seems worth exploring.

Worst-case scenario is ChemProf's "disciplinary blender". Best-case scenario is not quite clear to me.

SteveH said...

"And yet our guidance counselor was really selling how much colleges liked PLTW."

I would say that they like it because they think it will increase the number of kids going into engineering. That is a statistical idea, not one based on looking at the individual kids who take PLTW classes. I don't think it means that they will lower the SAT cutoff because they see PLTW classes on the transcript, especially if it causes you to miss AP Physics or AP Chemistry. Maybe they see it not so much as increasing the number of kids prepared for engineering, but as a way to lure kids away from other technical disciplines.

SteveH said...

"I think that's the kind of approach the proposal is calling for."

I don't. They are assuming that an integrated or thematic approach is better by definition. The physics/calculus issue is about timing, and integration would be used to solve that problem, not the problem of understanding. If the timing issue were eliminated, then you would have to argue for why combining the two subjects would work better. Their assumption is that separate silos limit comprehension by definition. There is no talk about whether there is any point or level where this happens.

It's not that one cannot conceive of a good integrated approach to learning. The question is whether both educational paths are designed to end up at the same location. All of the thematic and integrated approaches I've seen leave kids off at a much lower level.

jtidwell said...

The only place I've ever heard "silos" discussed is in the high-tech companies where I've been employed over the years. Marketing is in their own silo, not talking to other departments. Engineering is in another silo (and sometimes multiple silos, housing different product teams). Customer support is in another, IT in yet another.

When these groups don't talk to each other, the organization doesn't work very smoothly. So executives liked to talk about "breaking down the silos" -- employees were supposed to learn what their coworkers do. In theory, they could then all work together more effectively.

In practice, of course, the discipline of software engineering is quite different from the discipline of marketing (for instance). Personal connections are great; so is empathy for one's coworkers, and so is knowledge of what other professionals do and value -- thoughtful professionals do all this anyway. But in the end, we specialize. It's how we get our work done. When I was forced to take this "unsiloed" approach to an extreme, it took up too much of my time and made me less effective.

It strikes me as odd to refer to K-12 STEM topics as "silos." (Not to mention this K-16 business.) How can certain subjects -- especially HS chem and physics -- be taught effectively without some order and focus? What exactly would an "unsiloed" alternative look like?

If they're talking about merely teaching about connections and dependencies among subjects, that's not exactly revolutionary. It's something that I was taught as a matter of course in my old-fashioned siloed classes.

Crimson Wife said...

in college, many of the hands-on projects are extra, like the solar or Baja racers. They are not used as a means to teach the regular curriculum.

This must really depend on the college, because my DH had a bunch of required lab courses for his EE degree. There were some terms where he practically lived over in the lab.

jtidwell said...

Indeed. MIT's core electrical engineering and computer science courses required hours upon hours of hands-on lab work, usually with a partner. The lab work was carefully integrated into the lecture and problem set material, and it was absolutely central to how they taught the curriculum.

cranberry said...

MIT students probably enter college with a number of college-level courses under their belt. They are thus ready to work on tasks which require a knowledge of several subjects--because they have already acquired that knowledge.

I say that this "integrated STEM education" is our old friend, group project-based progressive education, dressed up in STEM clothes. Consider this paragraph:

Current research in project-based learning demonstrates that projects can increase student interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) because they involve students in solving authentic problems, working with others, and building real solutions (artifacts) (Fortus, Krajcikb, Dershimerb, Marx, & Mamlok-Naamand, 2005). Through an integrated approach to STEM education focused on real-world, authentic problems, students learn to reflect on the problem-solving process. Research tells us that students learn best when encouraged to construct their own knowledge of the world around them (Satchwell & Loepp, 2002). It is through integrated STEM projects that this type of learning can occur.

Sound familiar?

Anonymous said...

"In practice, of course, the discipline of software engineering is quite different from the discipline of marketing (for instance). Personal connections are great; so is empathy for one's coworkers, and so is knowledge of what other professionals do and value -- thoughtful professionals do all this anyway. But in the end, we specialize."

I don't think the point is *just* to create personal connections, although informal networks are quite valuable.

My boss worries a lot about the silo-ing effect. The practical concern is that you can easily get a waterfall from marketing to architecture to design to implementation that may make very little sense by the time the product emerges.

An example. The marketing and algo folks may come up with some scheme that they think will help the customers do whatever they want to do. The problem can be that there is no good way to implement this ... or that implementing it may be very expensive. I have had conversations with our marketing folks that went something like this:

Me: How important is *THIS* particular value for the requirement? Can we drop it by 20%.

Them: No. We need it where it is.

Me: Okay. We can do that. The parts cost for the machine is going to double, though.

Them: Oh ... maybe we don't need it that badly. What can you deliver?

The guys doing the actual implementation need to know enough about the customers problems and the technology to be able (and willing!) to push back if the cost seems unreasonable for the benefits.

Costs are the easy part, though. Sometimes, the requirement doesn't seem to make much sense given the context of the customers actual problems. You want the non-marketing folk to recognize these and check. This is one place where off-shoring (or out sourcing in general) tends to fail. The external organization doesn't understand your domain, so they build what you ask, even if it doesn't make much sense.

A better (if much harder to manage and formalize) flow is for there to be pushback at the various levels. Then folks from the various groups iterate until a reasonable solution emerges given *ALL* the constraints. But doing this means that there needs to be at least *some* employee who understand much more than just their silo.

How this maps to a school environment where you are trying to get the kids up to speed on *ONE* domain is a mystery, though.

-Mark Roulo

SteveH said...

" DH had a bunch of required lab courses for his EE degree. There were some terms where he practically lived over in the lab. ..."

I shouldn't have said just hands on, but integrated too. I had to write an operating system as part of group of 4 in EE, but then in another department, I had a senior group project that required each team to put together everything we learned in the past 3 years on a major design. Both of these things are nothing new. The Baja and Solar racer projects are the same sort of integrated project, but I don't know if some schools give credit for that work or not.

However, I have gotten some mailings from my old school of engineering that indicate that some would like to make many more classes integrated and hands-on, even starting as a freshman. They are worried about how many students transfer (or drop) out of engineering after the freshman year. They know that many struggle with math (the top end math requirements have dropped slightly over the years), but they also look for other reasons, like motivation and engagement. It's like PLTW for college. The end result is less or different, not better.

SteveH said...

"Current research in project-based learning demonstrates that projects can increase student interest in science, technology, engineering, and math ..."

Motivation could allow kids to learn calculus on their own, but is that the catch-all solution to all educational problems? Will it help kids solve all of their gaps in math? How does an integrated approach (or Everyday Math spiral approach) ensure that kids know how to solve problems with fractions. That's the problem. Schools don't want to take responsibility for ensuring anything. They have even given up holding kids back a year. Kids get passed along and educators claim that some sort of motivation or engagement will solve the problem. They see some sort of correlation between interest and results and look no futher.

"Research tells us that students learn best when encouraged to construct their own knowledge of the world around them (Satchwell & Loepp, 2002)."

As I've always said, one person in a group actually discovers something (the light bulb goes on), but then directly teaches it (badly?) to the others in the group. They really don't discover anything. If they want kids to achieve the best effects of discovery, they would have them discover on their own with homework, or they could let the teacher carefully lead them all to the light bulb effect. Ultimately, they care more about group learning with the teacher as the guide-on-the-side than about discovery.

"It is through integrated STEM projects that this type of learning can occur."

"Can" is neither necessary or sufficient, and they are not talking about one or a few projects, but a whole curriculum based on these ideas.

SteveH said...

"But doing this means that there needs to be at least *some* employee who understand much more than just their silo."

This is an interesting point. Engineers are often trashed because they know about details like stress and strain, and maybe costs, but they know nothing about marketing and supply and demand. An engineer will often create a product and then try to figure out if it will sell (I've been guilty of that!) rather than really study the market to find the product people want. This doesn't mean that management, marketing, and sales will be able to meet that demand. They often have no clue about what is technically feasible. Thus, we have Dilbert.

The dean at my old engineering college has talked about setting up cross-department (cross-silo?) integrated projects, so that students can learn how to work with other specialists. I wrote to tell him that the engineering college really needs to offer courses in marketing or a masters degree in engineering entrepreneurship.

cranberry said...

I think Olin College is leading the way with integrated science studies:

Consider, though, that Olin is a very small school, and their student body compares very well to MIT's. Thus, what works for the Olin students (if it does) should not be taken as an example for a disengaged sophomore student-athlete.

Allison said...

is a Management of Technology master's program that hits that need.

It works because the people in it have subject expertise in the first place.

Engineers have tried this abstract interdisciplinary stuff. There's a whole field called industrial engineering/operations research which tries to teach engineering principles that are common across disciplines, but it doesn't really work as an undergrad degree because if you're going to optimize an operational system, you must know the details of your operational system. Otherwise, it's just top-down engineering principles that collide with reality with no subject matter expertise to work the problem.

Allison said...

Maybe KTM should create a fallacy taxonomy, and just start labeling things like this against it.

This one is a prime example of the "novice should mimic expert" fallacy, which is (yet another) instantiation of the cargo cult education fallacy.

The concept is that since experts work in an interdisciplinary fashion, novices should become experts by working in an interdisciplinary fashion.

But there's no evidence this works, and lots of evidence it doesn't. Experts have expertise, by defn, and that means they recognize known knowns and known unknowns in problems, and can certainly create strategies to bound unknown unknowns. Novices can't. They don't know what they don't know. They don't know a wide enough set of problems and solutions/tradeoffs to know how this one relates to others, and they don't know solutions at enough depth to know where problems crop up. They don't know how to break down a problem into workable pieces. So the best they can do is cargo cult versions of what experts do, "mimicking" some behaviors, but lacking true knowledge to ever make sense of it.

Novices need to learn something first. They can't make connections between non existent nodes.

Crimson Wife said...

They are worried about how many students transfer (or drop) out of engineering after the freshman year

How about the fact that when the engineering classes have a median set to a C+ and the social science and humanities courses have a median set in the B- to B+ range? That encourages students who are not 100% sure they want to work in engineering after graduation to transfer to easier majors.

Bostonian said...

I get Crimson Wife's point about GPAs in engineering vs. social sciences and humanities, but since the disparity is well-known, I wonder why employers and graduate schools (such as law schools or MBA programs) do not adjust for it. Do they?

Anonymous said...

I don't think its so much of a matter of GPA. Engineering graduates aren't usually going after the same jobs or grad schools as humanities majors. I think freshman drop out of engineering when they realize what an enormous amount of work it will be. Also, a lot of them drop out when they realize the amount of work that got them an A in high school isn't going to be near enough to get them an A in college engineering courses.

Crimson Wife said...

When my DH was applying to MBA programs, he was told by the admissions consultant he hired that the b-schools do generally give a 0.2 GPA "bump" to STEM majors, but at least at my alma mater there was a *FAR* larger grading discrepancy.

ChemProf said...

You can't count on that bump. A few years ago, in our postbac program (where students who completed a degree come back and finish their pre-med coursework), we had an engineering student with a sub 3.0 GPA. Her science grades were excellent and her MCAT's were great, but med schools wouldn't consider her. Her overall GPA was too low, and they didn't want to mess up their incoming class statistics.

In any STEM area, the workload is an issue, but so is the GPA.

ChemProf said...

"ChemProf - are you feeling the integration pressure?"

I have tenure, so no. I can pretty much just nod and smile when these things come up. About 10 years ago, there was a push to take the first two years of college chemistry (currently one year of General and one of Organic), and squeeze them into a three semester sequence. This was partly a move from biology to get students done with the chemistry sequence faster, and partly a desire to integrate General and Organic chemistry. The problem was that the textbooks were dumbed down, and students hated these courses which were typically unfocussed. We ignored the trend, despite a little pressure, and it has now mostly gone away.

Similarly, there was a push for discovery based labs, but in chemistry, it never amounted to much because a real, interesting chem lab is potentially dangerous. You could either have interesting directed labs that illustrated lecture concepts well, or safety tested (so nearly chemical free) discovery labs that left students confused. It didn't take long for the first one to win out at most places.

SteveH said...

Back when I taught college math and CS, we used to have department meetings to discuss requests from other departments. They could decide what math courses were required for their degree, but we got to decide what went into the courses ... mostly. There were discussions about creating new courses, but then it came down to how many kids would take that course.

The math/cs department was mostly a service department because we had so few majors. For upper level math/CS courses, we could do what we wanted and it didn't matter if we had few students. The lower level math classes, however, had to meet the needs of many other departments. The pressure point was the course in statistics, which came after trig. Since many different departments required the course, they never could agree how applied (no math) it would be. That one course caused many students to switch majors. It got to the point where kids learned to avoid majors that required any sort of math beyond algebra and trig.

There is a great article about this called "A Fable of Reform" by
John J. Schommer.

This is about swapping a chess course for the traditional math requirement. At the end he says:

"In sum, the math department appeared to have accomplished what few could have thought possible: they had taught far less traditional math than ever before, and yet managed to make the same numbers of people every bit as resentful."

Interest and motivation don't last long in the face of hard work. Hidden behind thematic learning are lower expectations. It doesn't have to be that way, but I've never seen a case where that wasn't true.

SteveH said...

"Maybe KTM should create a fallacy taxonomy..."

I don't know how to argue against a position that never gets past generalities.

They talk about how wonderful projects and integrated learning are, but assume that it's best as the primary vehicle for all learning starting in Pre-K. There is no discussion about whether group projects should be only for special things like science fairs and First Lego League activities.

They talk about discovery learning, but this really means group learning in class with the teacher as the guide on the side. Their tune changes if you talk about individual discovery with homework or discovery when the class is one big group with the teacher in charge.

The key ingredient seems to be any justification for group work in class with the teacher as a guide on the side. Throw in full-inclusion, a spiral curriculum, and a philosophy of natural learning, and you end up with lower expectations with the onus on the student. Any poor results tell them that the problem is only about motivation and engagement. They feel a responsibility, but it has nothing to do with ensuring mastery "at any one point in time", as Everyday Math likes to say.