Sunday Commentary: Why Push STEM While Pulling Back on AIM?

STEAMOn Thursday, Superintendent Winfred Roberson laid out a bold view of the future. The mission of DJUSD “is that we would be a leading center of educational innovation.” It is a bold vision, but for the first time in some time, there is a sense of a vision for the future of education that is not the same as we have had it.

We have seen the work that small groups of students have done in the fields of agriculture and robotics and, as Winfred Roberson put it, “we already have great offerings, but we can do more.”

“We want to integrate STEAM thinking into the school curriculum,” he continued. “We want to increase student interest in participation in the STEAM courses. We want to design and expand C-STEAM pathways in the DJUSD. We want to build a C-STEAM community support network for our students as well as our teachers. At the same time, we want to seek STEAM related intern opportunities for our students.”

Whether it is STEAM or STEM and whether STEAM integrates arts or agricultural technology (a more localized feature), it may well be the future of education.

As one publication puts it, “The future of the US economy rests on its ability to be a leader in the innovation that will be essential in creating the new industries and jobs that will be the heart of our new economy.”

Another writes, “STEM is a curriculum based on the idea of educating students in four specific disciplines — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — in an interdisciplinary and applied approach. Rather than teach the four disciplines as separate and discrete subjects, STEM integrates them into a cohesive learning paradigm based on real-world applications.”

They continue, “Though the United States has historically been a leader in these fields, fewer students have been focusing on these topics recently.”

They later write, “What separates STEM from the traditional science and math education is the blended learning environment and showing students how the scientific method can be applied to everyday life. It teaches students computational thinking and focuses on the real world applications of problem solving.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, “only 16 percent of high school students are interested in a STEM career and have proven a proficiency in mathematics. Currently, nearly 28 percent of high school freshmen declare an interest in a STEM-related field, a department website says, but 57 percent of these students will lose interest by the time they graduate from high school.”

As the STEAM website suggests, the educational system in the US is not so much broken as it “is totally outdated.”

They write, “The US education system does what it was designed to do – the problem is that it was formed over 100 years ago in a different time – for a different need – in a different world economy – to satisfy a different life style – using the then available technology.” They add, “The US education system has not changed significantly in over 100 years but the world has.”

If you are like me, it is easy to get excited about new ways of integrating multiple disciplines into a single approach. And the superintendent is correct, there is no reason DJUSD and Davis High cannot become leading center of innovation.

He is putting together a team of experts to be on his advisory team, and it so happens that some of the leaders in the field happen to be at UC Davis. Bringing in the expertise from UC Davis gives a school like Davis a huge step up in creating a world class program.

For too long, whether it has been due to lack of funding and the need to shore up emergency funds to keep existing programs, it has seemed that, while Davis was a good school district, it was sitting back on its laurels.

That said, there is a puzzle that has me confused. The push for STEM seems at odds with the simultaneous push to reform the GATE program. There is a push to reform GATE in a way to make it more focused on those students who are under-achieving but extremely intelligent. However, my inquiries about the need to provide resources to high-achieving students have not yielded a lot of discussion.

There is certainly no reason that high-achieving students need to be in GATE or AIM, but part of the appeal of GATE/AIM, as it currently is, is its accelerated math program. A long time ago, when I was in elementary school, we had in San Luis Obispo an alternative elementary program which prepared sixth graders to begin algebra by the start of seventh grade and take calculus in 11th Grade.

That kind of program currently exists where high school students who are in AIM can take calculus in 11th and 12th Grade. I have been told, but have not seen the studies, that one of the keys to a successful STEAM education is that college requires an advanced math course during high school.

Regardless of this more technical point, it would seem odd that the school district pushes some special programs but not others. We see the district pushing the envelope with programs like Montessori, Dual Immersion, and now STEM/STEAM, while at the same time it seems to be pushing back on GATE/AIM.

I understand that many believe that we have simply over-identified kids entering the GATE/AIM program. I understand concerns about private testing and concerns about the TONI.

On the other hand, if we wish for AIM to simply be about under-achieving kids or those who struggle socially in the mainstream classroom, we ought to look into providing a place for the high-achieving kids to be able to excel and accelerate according to their ability and skills.

I don’t have answers here and I don’t have an ultimate position on GATE/AIM. But I will say that if we wish to push STEM/STEAM, and I think we should, then we need to look at the best way to prepare students to succeed in STEM/STEAM programs.

This is, in fact, the future. According to a report by the website, by 2018, projections estimate the need for 8.65 million workers in STEM-related jobs.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that, by 2018, the bulk of STEM careers will be:

  • Computing – 71 percent
  • Traditional Engineering – 16 percent
  • Physical sciences – 7 percent
  • Life sciences – 4 percent
  • Mathematics – 2 percent

It seems to me that if STEM/STEAM is the future of education, we need to go all in. And if we are creating a STEAM center at the high school, then we need to start thinking about the best ways to prepare elementary school kids to succeed.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. zaqzaq

    I thought that STEM programs started in junior high school or earlier?  Is this only a high school program?  If it starts in 4th grade and is more rigorous and challenging for the students, especially the advanced math track that is in the AIM classroom some parents might opt for it over AIM.

  2. Robin W.

    You are completely correct, David, about the fact that STEAM/STEM in junior high or high school is a joke unless the kids are given a way more accelerated math program starting from K or 1st grade.

    Can all students in the district handle that (or should they all be forced to)?   Of course not.

    Can the students who could excell at this be given a highly advanced math program in regular elementary classrooms with differentiated instruction?  In my opinion, no, because no teacher, even with way more training and in-service ed than our teachers get, can teach a small group of students at that level in a regular classroom while also meeting the needs of average and struggling students in the same class. Maybe (but still only maybe) teachers could do that if we only had 15 kids in each class, but not possible with closer to 30.

    The cry for keeping kids performing at all levels together in the same classroom with “differentiated” instruction is a bogus attempt at social planning at the expense of quality education. It is bad for kids whose educational needs or capacities are not being met, and it is bad for society because we are not preparing the workforce we need for society’s current or future needs.

  3. SODA

    Please correct me if I am off base here, but isn’t what the district is doing with AIM planning following the direction of the Board majority, similar to what city staff would do if the CC majority indicated a policy direction by their discussions and votes?

    The district was not in favor of terminating the AIM coordinator but the majority voted in favor which gave a signal to staff along with the majority’s other discussion (or lack of) so how much of the upcoming  decisions will be the experts at the district and how much will be their marching to the majority’s drummer?

    1. iWitness

      SODA, it depends on what you consider the district.  If you mean the cabinet and district office staff, they were long in favor of tying the coordinator’s hands, restricting her generous help to parents and students, and taking down the AIM AC.

      If the upcoming decisions are left to the district experts, gee, they just canned her.  The staff now must turn to the experts at the forever GATE-averse Ed School for their valuable negativity and gleeful, quick-look fact-bending.

      The coordinator was simply low-hanging and highly competent fruit so the board majority picked her off first.  Any admin thinking to keep his job can read between the lines.  The majority won’t last forever, but probably long enough to leave a program affecting a fifth of the district population in shambles.

  4. VoiceOfReasonInDavis

    Thank you David — you hit the nail on the head. Again.

    It does not make sense to claim that the schools are supporting STEM  while the schools remove AIM classrooms for high achievers.

    By the way, what are the exact details of the STEM support, how much will it cost, can we pay for more programming?

  5. Anon

    only 16 percent of high school students are interested in a STEM career and have proven a proficiency in mathematics.

    The reason for this is very simple – students are not consistently drilled in basic math facts.  In consequence, they struggle over the years to do simple algebra, because they cannot do simple arithmetic – addition, subtraction, multiplication, division.  Math somehow becomes “too difficult”.  I know, I used to be a math teacher in the public schools, and then a math instructor in junior college.

    The schools can bring in all the new-fangled ideas they want for math, science, etc.  But students need a set of basic math facts that they have down cold before they can progress to the next level.  Often science involves plenty of math.  And, I might add, students should have to take math every year in high school, whereas many stop taking math after the tenth grade.  When these same students who stopped taking math after their sophomore year reach junior college, they literally have forgotten basic math, and have to be retaught something as simple as fractions.

    And where did diagraming sentences go, to learn basic grammar?

  6. Tia Will


    While I agree with you completely that an understanding of the basic mathematics is necessary to move forward to more advanced principles required for a STEM career I do not agree with your point about diagramming sentences as a prerequisite to the use of appropriate grammar. And this is not just a quibble over what I see as an ineffective teaching tool and a waste of time since the most effective way to lean and incorporate proper sentence structure in any language including one’s native tongue is through daily practice with those who are fluent in the  business appropriate vernacular as opposed to an understandable but class limited slang.

    This becomes an important point because with rapidly changing technology, there are some skills that are becoming much less pertinent as time goes on. For instance, shorthand used to be a vital skill for secretaries, but is now obsolete.  Another example would be cursive, which has now virtually given way to keyboarding as a vital skill. My point is that it is important in education for teachers and policy makers to have a keen awareness of what actually makes individuals more functional in the world as it is now, not necessarily the world in which we were raised.

    1. Doby Fleeman


      Don’t mean to quibble, but I would strongly suggest that “teachers and policy makers will need to have keen awareness of what is most likely to actually make individuals more functional in the world as it is likely be tomorrow, not necessarily in the world in which we now reside.”

      Even in that context, however, a strong understanding and command of language arts and sentence structure is pivotal to efficient and accurate usage of vocabulary.  Now matter how STEAMed up we might become, these are fundamental communication skills for those interested in prospering in a society that is increasingly governed by contracts and regulations.

      As a community, particularly one with all of the transportation experts who live in Davis, we don’t seem to have any trouble adopting and incorporating best practices in intersection design from the world-leading Dutch designers.  Perhaps we could apply those same principles to explore and borrow from the latest STEM/STEAM programs in school districts (think Seattle) that currently thrive in the midst of world-leading technology employers………seemingly the very community of employers whose input we might value as we strive to update today’s lesson plans for tomorrow’s job opportunities.


      1. Don Shor

        I think this emphasis on STEM has great potential and could even be a part of the process of reducing the numbers in GATE in a positive way by parent and student choice. But I strongly hope that it doesn’t lead students in this program to de-emphasize the humanities, the arts, and especially writing and language arts. I ended up in a college science program after a strong high school humanities background. I do a lot of writing and public speaking in my job. Generally my experience is that people from strong science and math backgrounds do not have sufficient training and experience in those things, and it is to their detriment and society’s detriment that they aren’t comfortable or effective in presenting information. Please don’t over-emphasize science and math at the expense of the liberal arts. Per Wikipedia: “Grammar, logic, and rhetoric were the core liberal arts….” and those should not be de-emphasized.

        1. Anon

          I would completely agree with this view – a well rounded education is the best of all.  But too frequently students get stuck on math, then veer away from the sciences into the arts.  Students need ALL OF IT!

      2. Tia Will


        Even in that context, however, a strong understanding and command of language arts and sentence structure is pivotal to efficient and accurate usage of vocabulary.”

        Agree completely. I just do not believe that the diagramming of sentences, at least as I learned it in elementary school, is a good means of teaching the important aspects of sentence structure and the language arts. My point was about the very fluid nature of which skills sets will be most valuable in the future and about how best to teach these skills..

        1. Doby Fleeman

          On that point, I would have to agree completely.  I couldn’t diagram a sentence to save my life.

          In that regard, I’d have to say that my French teacher did a much better job of explaining the importance and usage of verb tense, subjects and objects within a sentence.  Is that a reflection on the language or the teacher?

        2. Anon

          I just do not believe that the diagramming of sentences, at least as I learned it in elementary school, is a good means of teaching the important aspects of sentence structure and the language arts…

          As a former teacher, I strongly disagree.  Diagramming sentences teaches the basics of nouns, pronouns, verbs, direct objects, etc. to show how a proper sentence should be structured.  How can you construct a decent paragraph if you don’t know how to construct a decent sentence? Most of us have forgotten how to diagram sentences, but know the basic patterns of sentence structure because somewhere along the line some form of sentence structure was taught.


  7. Frankly

    As the STEAM website suggests, the educational system in the US is not so much broken as it “is totally outdated.

    I think it is both in many areas, but in Davis this is a more accurate description.

    On a scale of 1-10 assessing the level of innovation that has been injected into the public school education system, I would give Davis a 3 or 4 and in general a zero or 1.

    1. Doby Fleeman


      In singling out the United States, your quotation strongly implies that the educational system in these United States is somehow unique in this regard, i.e. “totally outdated”.

      Whose (what countries) educational systems would your cited sources recommend?  Which are those countries/societies that have best adapted to the rapidly changing world in which we live?   How are their institutions similar or different from those we enjoy in the US?

    2. wdf1

      Vanguard:  As the STEAM website suggests, the educational system in the US is not so much broken as it “is totally outdated.”

      Frankly:  I think it is both in many areas, but in Davis this is a more accurate description.

      U.S. education, in the midst of reform efforts in recent decades, is missing the mark on relevant objectives and outcomes.  A key founding philosophy of public education was to develop strong citizens of this country.  In the present day it’s mostly about scoring well on standardized tests, about college prep, or about job prep.  The concept of developing strong citizenry has faded.  This conversation about STEM/STEAM, although welcome, is a conversation that is continuing in the framework of test scores, college prep, and jobs preparation.

      Those are worthy objectives to include, but developing strong citizenry is a larger and worthier and over-arching objective.  It is about developing more than content acquisition and just getting a job.  It is about developing and acquiring soft skills that are not readily testable — learning how to work together and socialize productively and civilly, learning how to handle adversity, leadership, group commitment and responsibility, articulating one’s views.

      DJUSD has some robust remnants of programs and infrastructure that can offer this (soft-skill development).  Poverty-stricken school districts do not or have very little, and unfortunately, they are in greatest need in this area.

  8. Napoleon Pig IV

    So far, I’ve heard no “bold” vision. Discussion of STEM/STEAM is a red herring with it’s own merit as a stand-alone ideal, but unrelated to the need for and success of self-contained GATE/AIM classrooms.

    As for “expertise” in education at UCD, I haven’t seen evidence of much. Of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but that recent report on AIM was a joke that would never survive serious academic review.

    Unfortunately, the sound of water swirling around the toilet bowl that used to be high quality education in Davis is getting very loud, and far too many sheep are simply grazing in the pasture. Oink!

  9. wdf1

    Vanguard:   According to the U.S. Department of Education, “only 16 percent of high school students are interested in a STEM career and have proven a proficiency in mathematics. Currently, nearly 28 percent of high school freshmen declare an interest in a STEM-related field, a department website says, but 57 percent of these students will lose interest by the time they graduate from high school.”

    Implied here is that most high school students ought to know what career they want?  By the time I graduated from high school, I didn’t know what career I wanted to follow.  As a freshman in college I could have just as easily majored in the humanities, or arts, or science or computers.  I eventually went into a STEM-related field.  One thing that makes the U.S. system of education a little different from that of other countries is less pressure to choose a career in the early years.  I actually think that’s a good thing.  It allows the individual to mature and explore some before deciding.  Sure, some folks may know what career they want the moment they’re born, but that’s very rare.

  10. MrsW

    The seeds for STEAM or STEM were germinated a number of years ago.  It looks like they are coming to fruition!  I first heard that the ideas for STEAM/STEM were being bantered about from Lance Gunnerson, the Holmes Junior High shop and woodworking teacher, back in the 2003-2005 time frame.  I went home and emailed my neighbor, who immediately emailed him and volunteered to be a part of whatever was happening. The launching of this initiative in summer 2015 must have been on the administration’s schedule for some time.

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