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December 1, 2014
Vol. 72
No. 4

Show & Tell: A Video Column / STEM for Citizenship

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The case for STEM education for all students is a strong one. Some advocates stress the United States' need for a workforce that can compete in a global economy. They also point to the potential of STEM education to increase economic equality; blacks and Hispanics, who are currently underrepresented in STEM careers, greatly increase their earnings when employed in the fields of science, technology, engineering, or math (Beede et al., 2011).
But preparing students for future employment is not the only rationale for STEM education. Even though not all graduates of schools with robust STEM programs will choose to pursue careers in these fields, improved STEM education can help all students learn to apply logic and reasoning to solve complex problems. In addition, many educators view STEM as an ideal platform for developing students' communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical-thinking abilities (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2011).
All students—whether or not they pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math—will be consumers of news and information on STEM issues that will directly affect their lives. Beyond developing skilled professionals, we need to develop a skilled electorate that can apply knowledge, examine issues, and pose questions to politicians and policymakers. For instance, there has been an ongoing debate on the merits and risks of hydraulic fracturing (sometimes called fracking) to obtain natural gas in shale and coal seams. Most of us are not experts in drilling techniques, yet we can take the time to investigate the issue, listen to proponents and detractors, filter out biased claims, and form opinions that are based on evidence.

Critical Thinking for an Informed Society

One hallmark of an informed citizen is the ability to develop his or her own views by evaluating and reflecting on evidence rather than automatically accepting someone else's position. Such critical thinking requires intellectual skills that transcend a specific knowledge base. According to Richard Paul and Linda Elder (2009, p. 4), a "well cultivated critical thinker"
  • Raises vital questions and problems.
  • Gathers and assesses relevant information.
  • Comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions.
  • Thinks open-mindedly about alternative systems of thought.
  • Communicates effectively with others to figure out solutions to complex problems.
These characteristics echo the principles of close reading of informational text. Close reading requires students to systematically explore text using three major questions: What does the text say? (literal); How does the text work? (structural); and What does the text mean? (interpretative or inferential). Students explore these questions through extended teacher-facilitated discussions with their peers. As they engage in deep analysis to interpret the text, they may move toward a fourth question: What does the text inspire me to do? This last question can lead students to a number of different actions, including writing, debating, and exploring the topic in more depth.

See It in Action: Confronting Real-World Problems

Many students grasp for relevance in the subjects they study in school. They ask themselves, When will I ever use this? Courses that integrate STEM with other disciplines like language arts and social studies enable students to apply their learning to authentic problems.
Teachers of these courses can find applications of their content in the media every day. News stories about genetically modified foods, oil spills, renewable energy, endangered species, and viral epidemics are golden opportunities to engage students in close reading and writing about science, technology, engineering, and math.
You can observe one such lesson in the that accompanies this month's column. Eleventh grade chemistry teacher Angie Holbrook is leading her students through a close reading of a speech on climate change that President Obama delivered in June 2013. Her students previously studied the relationship of carbon dioxide to pollution and ocean acidification by reading a journal article on the subject. Armed with this information, they now examine the president's arguments regarding climate change and his plan to address the problem. They talk about the speech's purpose, the audiences to whom it was intended to appeal, and whether the president presented factual evidence to back up each claim. After this close reading, the students wrote letters to policymakers about climate change using evidence from their study of ocean acidification.

Prepared for Action

Graduating more students who are prepared to pursue STEM careers is an important goal. But it's not the only goal of STEM education, nor should it be the single measuring stick we use to gauge success. We should prepare all members of the next generation—not just our future scientists, computer programmers, engineers, and mathematicians—to be informed citizens who can apply the critical-thinking skills needed to understand complex STEM-related issues and to act accordingly.

Beede, D., Julian, T., Khan, B., Lehrman, R., McKittrick, G., Langdon, D., & Doms, M. (2011). Education supports racial and ethnic equality in STEM (ESA Issue Brief 5–11). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics, and Statistics Administration. Retrieved from

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2011). Framework for 21st century learning. Retrieved from

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2009). The miniature guide to critical thinking concepts and tools. Tomales, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking. Retrieved from

Doug Fisher is a professor of educational leadership at San Diego State University, where he focuses on policies and practices in literacy and school leadership. Additionally, he is a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College, an award-winning, open-enrollment public school in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego that he cofounded in 2007. His areas of interest include instructional design, curriculum development, and professional learning. A passionate educator, Fisher's work is dedicated to impacting professional learning communities and nurturing the knowledge and skills of caring teachers and school leaders so they may help students improve their learning and attain their goals and aspirations.

Fisher is a member of the California Reading Hall of Fame as well as the recipient of an International Reading Association William S. Grey citation of merit and Exemplary Leader award from the Conference on English Leadership of NCTE. Previously, he was an early intervention teacher and elementary school educator. He has published numerous articles and books on literacy and leadership, teaching and learning, and improving student achievement.


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