Does STEM Education Have It Backwards?

child surrounded by different areas of scienceWhen I was in high school, wannabe science wonks like me took biology, chemistry, and physics, in that order. The rationale, I suppose, was that each cog in the “S” of what we now refer to as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education was successively more rigorous.

Biology had the most memorization: cell structures like nucleus, mitochondria, and golgi bodies (whatever those are); the phylum of living things; and osmosis. Genetics was the tough stuff. In introductory biology, genetics challenged us with questions such as, “if three grandparents had blue eyes and the other had brown eyes, what is the likelihood of a brown-eyed child?” Hard, but still pretty straightforward. Chemistry was full of equations, just like algebra, and sometimes hard to get your head around. Physics had far and away the most math (though it wasn’t until college that it really dove deep into calculus).

Fast forward to the recent twenty-first century when my kids were in high school. While the physics they were taught – mechanics and the basics of electromagnetism – and chemistry hadn’t changed much since my day, biology had undergone a revolution. Sure, I learned what the acronym DNA stood for, but that was about it. My children’s biology course, on the other hand, could have been renamed “Introductory Molecular Biology.” To this brain, not so introductory.abstract version of the STEM acronym

Beyond learning about the makeup and structure of DNA, today’s high schoolers use computer applications to resequence DNA pairs. To them, proteins are more than a food group; they get to understand, really understand, protein structures and their role in every living thing from cells to genetically-based disease.

Secondary school science subjects in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s didn’t much build on each other. But, if you think about the three core science disciplines today, isn’t the double helix of biology now at the top of the STEM food chain? Isn’t chemistry built on fundamental physical processes? And isn’t molecular biology rooted in chemistry? Doesn’t that argue that the core building blocks of STEM start with physics, progress to chemistry and culminate with biology, arguably the most integrative branch of science?

Isn’t it time to reverse of the order of instruction?

Posted in Education

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