Interview with Dr. Sam Houston by Russ Campbell

Dr. Sam Houston is an advocate for education. His career spans the education spectrum. Teacher. Principal. Superintendent. Education advisor to the Governor of North

Carolina. President and CEO of the educational nonprofit, North Carolina Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Center, which was founded by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund in 2002. Dr. Houston is a sought after speaker on STEM education.

Traditionally, STEM is the acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – which many believe are skills needed for economic prosperity in the 21st Century. As you’ll read below, Dr. Houston has a redefined the acronym as “Strategies that Engage Minds” a unique perspective that provides much needed nuance.

What led to you coining the phrase “Strategies that Engage Minds” instead of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics for the STEM acronym?

There was this misconception that STEM was in conflict with arts and creativity — that there were no arts and creativity in STEM. . So we would see other acronyms being formed. That is simply not true. When you think of science in a broader context it’s as much about developing the skill set to deal with the unknown as it is with dealing with the parts of an atom, the periodic table, and molecules – the things we eventually forget.

It was a defense mechanism, I guess.

I was trying to tell the story of STEM in a broader context without resorting to every letter of the alphabet in the acronym. I heard people referring to STEAM with the A as agriculture. The E was being referred to as energy and environment. There was one school that wanted STREAM to be able to incorporate religion. I was concerned that people were not thinking broadly enough about the big picture.

I think in these changing times, “Strategies That Engage Minds” tells a better story of what education needs to be about. Education needs to be a preparatory situation so that students can deal with the unknown. I believe that creativity is best taught by putting students in unknown and uncomfortable situations and they have to figure their way out.

That’s when they get creative.

“Strategies That Engage Minds” led me to think about what do students really need from an educational experience. I call it interpretive and coping skills, which I believe is captured under “Strategies That Engage Minds.” There are three skills that every student needs. The first is the ability to demonstrate through performance that they are an independent thinker and learner. That’s critical. That doesn’t mean solitary, that doesn’t mean don’t use technology, that doesn’t mean don’t draw on outside resources – it means being smart enough to know how to address any particular situation. Secondly, they have to be thoughtful in order to deal with the chaos around them. Being thoughtless gets you in trouble. A great educational thinker once said to me, “The problem with students is that when they don’t know what to do, they don’t know what to do.” So lastly, we need to make sure students know what to do when they are not sure about what to do.

What about content?

The only way to learn these skills is by using content. That’s “Strategies That Engage Minds.” Students need to be in situations where they must demonstrate their performance skills and not by doing multiple-choice tests. I want to see that they have a command of the material and content by using the skill set that they learned. Show me what you can do.

How would you say that “Strategies That Engage Minds” in involved in civic engagement?

It’s about making content relevant to the student’s life. We can tie literary pieces to points and times in history. We can look at music from the historical perspective and the story it tells about those times. How history is tied to scientific advances; how do these things impact our world? We build civic responsibility by showing students that what they’re learning is connected to the world their in or a route to a better world.

If you take Strategies That Engage the Minds and the demonstrations I mentioned earlier and wrap them around a civic issue you’re making a difference. Civic responsibility is about understanding the reason and purpose behind a particular issue. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics can be removed from civic responsibility.

They can be a silo of disciplines and information. But Strategies That Engage the Minds help students understand where they can play a role to make a difference.

Originally published at Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE)