Tag Archives: Education

STEM Education Starts Before School

Working in the enterprise hardware space I occasionally find myself frustrated with the amount of time that it takes for the adoption of what I view as obvious and unquestionably superior technology to what is being used by customers or within my industry.  I then step back, relegate myself to “the customer is always right” and seek to find that happy balance of pushing them toward a successful strategy that delivers benefits to their business and their careers while planting some form of go-forward strategy that gets them out of the Ice Age before it’s too late.  What’s interesting is I can have a conversation with the same decision makers about their personal usage of cell phones and the innovator/leading edge thinking of them immediately comes out.  I refrain from telling them that the disk arrays you use that are dependent upon you committing the whole capacity of several drives to create a static RAID group are the equivalent of that brick of a cell phone accompanied by the pager on your waist that you wouldn’t dare be seen with beyond 2010.  I digress.  Not too mention the geek speak specific to Enterprise Storage, but hopefully you get the point.

The place where I see similar or more slowness and where I’m most disappointed about the lack of movement is in the education of US children.  With the opportunities and growth in Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) sector (high paying, long term careers) continuing to improve beyond the already high number of vacant positions today, I wish everyone in our society (not just a school problem) were tripping over themselves to have students excel and be ready for these opportunities as early as possible in life.  A relatively low effort area is in math.

While returning from a business trip two years ago, I read about this online education system called Khan Academy (http://www.khanacademy.org).  Upon returning home, I began looking around the site and decided for myself that my oldest sons (16 and 14 at the time) could benefit.  Well, at that age, it takes alot more than me deciding for myself to generate regular usage, but on occasion, it was obvious that they benefitted from it.  That same year, my then “just turned 6 year old” was having the occasional challenge with his first grade math.  Good for us, he also liked television and video games and they soon became currency or incentive to do a little extra practice on his math before watching a show or playing a game.  By the end of the school year that supplemental instruction had him very confident in his addition facts and number lines and understanding the rules of carrying.  He transitioned from being an okay math student that wasn’t very confident in his abilities to one of the stronger math students in the class.

After continuing to work on Khan Academy for nearly half of the summer (typically 30-45 minutes per day), he entered second grade with very high confidence in math and was frequently pulled aside along with two peers to do math work that suited their advanced level.  At some point 2012, I was at dinner with customers from Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) and as usual I was bragging about Khan Academy when one of the managers from CME acknowledged the good work of Khan Academy and challenged my familiarity with an app called Math Bingo.  I’d never heard of it, but after hearing her endorsement along with the fact her kindergartner was regularly doing addition work with ease, I simply had to learn more.

I was able to install Math Bingo on our iPod and Kindles and found a lively, learning experience on the basics of math that the now 7 year old saw as a game.  Equally interesting was that my almost 4 year old son who had recently learned to count to twenty was excited about playing the game also.  Despite this interest and excitement it was obvious that some fundamentals were lacking to grasp the concepts of addition; though that didn’t stop him from wanting to hear the game make the loud blowing sound whenever a Bingo was achieved.  This would initiate a process of developing handmade practice sheets that I alternated with Math Bingo addition levels (easy, medium, and hard) and later flash cards to ready him for Khan Academy.  In less than six months the 4 year old confidently completed two digit addition on Khan Academy, hard level of addition on Math Bingo, and had memorized most of the basic math facts between one and twenty.  Over this same period, the 7 year old had mastered all of the addition and subtraction exercises as well as multi-digit multiplication with a strong start in division.

Aside from being proud of my kids and having pride in their intelligence, what I’ve come to believe is that most children have the capacity to accomplish similarly in math at an early age.  I also contend that the availability and acceptance of today’s technology could help all of our chlidren realize their potential in math far sooner than what’s measured or achieved by any of the current standards.  Technology alone will not solve the deficiencies in STEM education; however technology has enabled education to take a step in the same direction and it’s time for our homes, schools, and communities leverage the technology available to do so.

The opportunity for a lifetime of amazing feats and discoveries rests in the abilities of the amazing children of our world.  Ongoing delay in the rapid adoption of technology to its fullest extent only stands to cripple our nation’s ability to lead our world in realizing its full potential and eventual destiny.