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Why STEM? It Is All About Problems!

By Karen Bryant, Mathematics Faculty

I was in the Reagan National Airport waiting to fly home after an exciting and intense week at the Siemens STEM Institute. Wondering why my plane was not boarding when it was leaving in less than thirty minutes, I wandered over to the windows overlooking the tarmac. There was a person standing on the back of the small vehicle used to push the plane out of the gate looking up into an opening in the plane’s nose. There were approximately twenty people standing around watching, including people in business suits, people who looked like EMTs, and the grounds crew. I stood and watched for the next several minutes and also listened to the chatter of people around me. Soon, most of the people outside left except for a few who were gesturing as they tried to figure out how to get the vehicle out from under the plane. From listening to those around me, I discovered that somehow the small truck had gone out of control and driven under the nose of the plane and was entangled in the hose that was repowering the plane. The driver had been injured (the reason for the EMTs), and they were worried about damage to the plane (the reason for the guy looking in the nose of the plane and the officials in business suits). Since I was not really in a rush to go anywhere, the delay was not distressing, so I continued to watch the problem solving of those on the ground as they figured out how to move the vehicle without causing any more damage to the plane or the hose. Just as it was announced that I had a gate change and a new plane to board, I watched them remove the vehicle from its predicament. The irony of seeing problem solving in action after a week where that was a major topic was not lost on me.

St. Mark’s, like many other schools, is working on a STEM initiative. I know that many people, especially those who gravitate to other disciplines besides Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics, wonder why there is an emphasis on STEM. We live in a world where technological changes are happening at a rapid pace. STEM education is going to play a vital role in each person’s ability to be a responsible citizen and to have success in a career, no matter what career she/he chooses. If a person knows nothing about basic statistics, he/she can be easily misled by a graph in the newspaper or by the use of statistical facts. Knowing about exponential growth helps a person understand why simply paying the minimum payment on a credit card is extremely costly or how infections can quickly spread. Physics explains the need for a reasonable separation between cars while driving down the highway. It is much easier to understand all the discussion about Ebola and other diseases if one knows basic biology. Knowing how to use technical devices is one step, but knowing the limitations and the possible abuses of them are also important. No matter what field a young person enters, there will be some component of STEM needed, and every person needs problem solving skills in his/her job and life.

STEM is not just about content in those areas. It is more about a culture of learning. One of the speakers at the institute, Dr. Cindy Moss, Director of Global STEM Initiatives for Discovery Education, introduced all the institute fellows to a new definition for the acronym STEM: Students and Teachers Engaging Minds. Hopefully that would be true in any class at St. Mark’s or at any school. However, what is unique to a classroom in a STEM discipline is the problem solving in which you are actively engaged. Another speaker, Kyle Schutt, Director Education Outreach & Curriculum Integration at Discovery Communications and the Director of the STEM Institute, spoke to us of the C’s of STEM: connecting, collaboration, curation, community, critical thinking, and creativity. Hopefully, students are connecting what they are learning in a math class with what they are doing in science or computer science and also with economics, and even history or art. Working in groups is becoming very commonplace in classrooms here at St. Mark’s and everywhere. Students can accomplish much more if they work together. More brains are always more successful when solving a problem. There are many resources out there and a multitude of sources of information. Everyone must develop skills to curate which sources or tools are most appropriate for solving a given problem. Working to solve problems in a collaborative manner helps establish a community, and often the problems being solved are of value to the community in which we work or live. Finally, nothing can be accomplished in any discipline without employing critical thinking and using some creativity. These C’s can be applied to other areas besides STEM, but it is important to realize they are the foundation of STEM.

Students may think that what is being studied right now in Algebra, Geometry, Physics, or Biology is not solving any problem that are of importance or interest. However, the skills being developed by doing “simpler problems” are preparing the students for tackling larger problems. Neil Degrasse Tyson, an astrophysicists and Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, explained the importance of learning math and science in high school in an interview on CNN with Soledad O’Brien. He said, “Whether or not you ever again use the math that you learned in school, the act of having learned the math established a wiring in your brain that didn’t exist before and it is the wiring that makes you the problem solver.”1 He goes on to say that even if you don’t want to become a scientist, it is important to become scientifically and mathematically literate. He refers to this basic literacy as the “engines of problem solving in this world” and emphasized that this basic literacy will make a person more valuable to any employer since he/she will be able to be an innovator.2

Those who do not think they will want to work in a career that is related to STEM are going to need to have this basic literacy, and it will pay off in an increased earning potential regardless of the career. “Workforce projections for 2018 by the US Department of Labor show that nine of the 10 fastest growing occupations that require at least a bachelor’s degree will require significant scientific or mathematical training”.3 Also, many people end up in a STEM related field without planning on it. College educated women earn 20 percent more in STEM related jobs than elsewhere, and men earn 11% more regardless of their major. However, if a woman majors in a STEM field and chooses a STEM job, she will earn 29% higher hourly wages than her peers who have neither a STEM job nor degree and a man will earn 23% more. 4 This is very good news for those who interested in STEM careers. In addition, for those who are aspiring engineers, according to the Census Bureau in 2012, people who majored in engineering had the highest salaries.5  Finally, the gender gap that exists for women is smaller in STEM fields. In all fields, woman earn about 21% less than men, but in STEM fields that gap is only 14%. 6

After returning from the STEM Institute, I found myself noticing people solving problems in all aspects of their lives. Even when people are playing games, they often are forced to employ their problem solving skills. The St. Mark’s community all witnessed this during the school meeting on Wednesday, September 17. The monitors asked three volunteers to put on a belt with a box full of ping-pong balls and they had to shake out all the balls. The first one who did would be the winner. Cristian Baltier tried doing head stands to get the balls out of his belt, and Mrs. Lee resorted to doing a back bend to turn the box a different direction. Each of them was using problem solving skills to find a solution that would lead to victory. Mrs. Lee’s strategy ended up being the most successful.

Problem solving is part of life. Embrace the idea that STEM is “students and teachers engaging minds” and that STEM classes are teaching skills and habits that will make the students better problem solvers. Poets, artists, historians, engineers, doctors, bankers, lawyers, teachers, pilots, or members of the airport grounds crew will face many problems to solve. Having a good grounding in STEM will allow every person to flourish in a chosen career and in life.

Karen Bryant is in her 20th year teaching mathematics at St. Mark’s. She holds a BA in Mathematics from University of California, San Diego and a MST from Boston College. She was chosen as a Siemen’s STEM Fellow this summer. Ms Bryant is the head coach for Girls Cross Country and lives on campus with her husband.


  1. deGrasse Tyson, Neil, Interview with Soledad O’Brien on CNN “Don’t Fail Me: Educating America” May 2011 Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0E-9uJgDZU
  2. deGrasse Tyson, Neil, Interview with Soledad O’Brien on CNN “Don’t Fail Me: Educating America” May 2011 Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0E-9uJgDZU
  3. AAUW (2010) Why so few? Women In Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Hill, C., Corbett, C. and St. Rose, p. 2 Retrieved from: http://www.aauw.org/files/2013/02/Why-So-Few-Women-in-Science-Technology-Engineering-and-Mathematics.pdf
  4. U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration (August 2011) Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation p. 7 Retrieved from http://www.esa.doc.gov/sites/default/files/news/documents/women_in_stem_a_gap_to_innovation8311.pdf


  1. US Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration (October 2012) Field of Degree and Earnings by Selected Employment Characteristics: 2011, Camille Ryan. p. 3 Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/prod/2012pubs/acsbr11-10.pdf


  1. U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration (August 2011) Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation p. 3 Retrieved from http://www.esa.doc.gov/sites/default/files/news/documents/women_in_stem_a_gap_to_innovation8311.pdf





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