Brain-STEM: Using Interdisciplinarity to Improve Our Minds and Our Schools

“The illiterates of the future are not those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, un-learn, and re-learn.” —Alvin Toffler, futurist

Students beginning kindergarten this fall will likely retire around the year 2080. An unpredictable world awaits them. How do we prepare our children for the future, with such an uncertain economy and rapidly evolving technology? According to Microsoft CTO Cameron Evans, current educational approaches were designed to prepare students for careers that don’t exist anymore, and may never exist again. It is estimated that this new generation of school-aged children may hold between five to eight different careers throughout their lives. The most recent projections by the U.S. Department of Labor indicate that 15 of the 20 fastest-growing professional occupations require a significant understanding of mathematics and science, two subjects where American students lag behind Europeans. Consider the following:

  • The 2006 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) reported that the average mathematics score for 15-year-old U.S. students was lower than the scores in 18 out of 24 comparison nations.
  • The number of countries scoring higher than the U.S. on the PISA science assessment increased from 6 countries to 12 over the past 6 years.
  • A survey conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, concluded that 80 percent of K-5 teachers in the San Francisco Bay area spent 60 minutes or less per week teaching science. Over 16 percent reported spending no time at all on science.

American school systems tend to put-off studying the sciences in-depth until high school. Only recently has this practice come under long-overdue scrutiny. Over 65 percent of scientists reported that their interest in science began before their middle school years, according to the International Journal of Science Education. In order to have curious, scientifically literate students who can bring innovation to a technologically based economy, it is essential that they have a strong foundation of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, with classes in these subjects beginning in the elementary grades. Perhaps the solution lies in a connected curriculum.

All too often we hear “Math isn’t my strong point,” or “The humanities are more for me, I’m not a science guy,” but the reality is that not only are all school subjects equally relevant to life experiences, favoring one subject over the others deprives your brain of developing to its fullest. Intelligence is widely distributed throughout the brain, not in one concentrated area. The foundation of all learning lies in one quadrillion connections between the brain’s neurons. From preschool, all the way through the university-level classrooms, a connected curriculum underscores the context of the topic under study, rather than delivering isolated content for students to memorize. Interdisciplinarity is not only brain-considerate, but yields the deepest learning returns, because human brain cells actively look to make an unlimited number of connections, or more technically, synapses.

Being fed new information, our brain’s already active connections are “rewarded” with neurotrophins, which fortify circuits and increase the brain’s capacity for learning. Synapses are created and strengthened as the numbers of meaningful connections are made, as we apply this new information to previously acquired knowledge and experiences. These connections become less vulnerable to deterioration if they are activated repeatedly, delaying the onset of dementia. The hands-on nature of STEM-related activities fosters student engagement, higher-order thinking, and deepens their understanding of how science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) influence the real world around them.

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We believe that neuroscience is the next great scientific frontier, and that advances in understanding the nature of the brain, consciousness, behavior, and health will transform human life in this century.

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