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Seeking Success in STEM
Yongjin Park '22 Staff Writer
May 29, 2019
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When students and parents reflect on Deerfield Academy’s academics, many mention the discussion-based English classes or history classes and their in-depth analyses of relevant themes. Even among other prominent prep schools, Deerfield’s humanities program is widely regarded as one of the best in New England. Deerfield’s STEM program, too, is recognized for its prowess. However, our performances on mathematics competitions seem to lag behind some of our fellow prep schools, such as Exeter or Andover, whose students receive multiple honors in the field.

Two of the most well-known high school math competitions are the American Mathematics Competitions (AMC) and Harvard-MIT Mathematics Tournament (HMMT).   In addition to the student’s ability to think of creative solutions, these contests require robust knowledge of countless formulas to score well. While schools like Middlesex, Choate, and Hotchkiss score high on these competitions, only a few Deerfield students participate, and even fewer win awards.

This poses an interesting question: why do other schools score so highly on these competitions, and does this necessarily mean their STEM programs are more effective?

Credit: Madeline Lee

The most important factor in learning mathematics is having materials that constantly challenge and encourage you to familiarize yourself with the topics by figuring out how and when to apply the concepts. This does not mean that a student should memorize concepts or formulas, but they should  understand how they work and internalize that knowledge.

While many schools, including Deerfield, use textbooks to learn math, studies have shown that students find textbooks unengaging and unhelpful, which suggests that a discussion- or integration-based approach might be more effective instead. This is no surprise, as just looking at theorems written on the board and solving repetitive problems cannot help foster a deep understanding of the topics and have versatility in utilizing those concepts.

If we take Exeter for example, its math curriculum doesn’t consist of any textbooks. Instead, the teachers use problem sets, each one with over 3700 difficult questions. With non-lecture-based classes, students have to work together to come up with ideas on their own while solving these questions— this is the crux of Exeter’s success.

Different schools have different teaching styles, but there are fundamentals when learning any STEM subject. Undoubtedly, the most important factor in learning mathematics is focusing on ideas that constantly challenge and encouraging students to familiarise themselves with the topics by figuring out how and when to apply them. This way of teaching naturally incites creativity, the goal that many institutions try, but fail to accomplish. With creativity, students can find a genuine interest in math and the desire to further explore the subject by themselves.

It is important to recognize the fundamentals of Deerfield’s educational philosophies, in order to start answering these questions. One of the most effective aspects of Deerfield’s curriculum is inquiry-based education, and that philosophy should carry into the STEM classroom.

For example, in the Physics classroom, the teacher would show students an example of natural phenomena and ask us to explain it, or present a problem and the groups of students share their solutions with others.

Another example of this could be in the geometry classroom. After completing their homework, students would present a problem from the homework, guiding the class through each step. With the students essentially being the teachers in these classes, others can learn about the unique approaches that their peers took. Listening to different perspectives allows students to efficiently master all the key components of a concept.

These suggestions don’t mean Deerfield’s STEM program is ineffective, but the discussion-based approach represented in our humanities classes and Exeter’s STEM curriculum also has merit.

One simple way that Deerfield could achieve  is by integrating the discussion-based curriculum that is used in the humanities program into the STEM department. I believe that, in class, teachers could stimulate more critical thinking in students and intervene only when students require extra guidance, letting student-driven discussion take the lead.

Math competitions like HMMT and AMC are taken seriously among high school and college mathematicians. If Deerfield were to incorporate discussion-based learning within its curriculum, then that might help students be more prepared for these competitions and be recognized for their prowess in areas other than the humanities, where Deerfield students already excel.

Deerfield is a place with limitless potential, a place for nurturing students from diverse backgrounds who all contribute to the community in their own unique ways. Contributions to the STEM program are one such example, and those contributions should be equally supported. While Deerfield’s STEM curriculum is strong, there are still  opportunities for growth, designed to help every student achieve success.