REACH is neat, but STEM is still a fad. Let’s go bigger!

April 30, 2015 § 1 Comment

My February 2015 Sailing Magazine column “Kids should sail because it’s fun, not because it’s homework”, struck a nerve with reviewers who sought clearer key points.

The article explored US Sailing’s foray into education reform with a STEM sailing school curricula being offered by sailing schools around the country under the name REACH.

Jack Gierhart, Executive Director of US Sailing, came to the defense of his organization’s work, as he should, and wrote a rebuttal on the US Sailing blog and a letter to Sailing Magazine’s editor, in this month’s issue.

And sailing school directors and staffers from around the country came to the defense of their REACH programs. I was invited to learn more about their programs, and am always glad to do it.

But I’m no rookie here, having helped raise money for favorite sailing schools offering STEM/REACH programs all over the country. I can report, through work with leaders at some 200 sailing schools, no coincidence that the vibrant organizations, measured on popularity and participant enthusiasm, also offer rich, multi-faceted lessons beyond basic sailing or racing. In many, students learn to navigate, harness wind and water energy, predict the weather, and learn to use tools to design and build boats. A few special schools couple sailing with environmental science, oceanography, biology, ecology and data collection and analytics. These schools are breaking new ground each year and US Sailing deserves credit for hosting a forum for sharing ideas. Hurray!

However, as you might expect, everyone is working on the flimsiest financial shoestring. It may be telling that I’ve fundraised for sailing many more hours than I’ve sailed in the last six years and so have most other advocates.

Given that, my article suggested that STEM might be a response to the sloshing around of donor and tax dollars chasing alternative education methods, and that like anything bought during a transition driven by politics, STEM can’t last and could do some damage.

Some key questions:

1.) Is sailing a good platform for learning things other than sailing?

You’d be hard pressed to find a lover of sailing who doesn’t credit it as the source for many other things that they love, know and do. The physical nature of sailing is explained mathematically; sailing tools and techniques are improved every year by advancing science and technology; sailing teaches creative design and problem solving within tight limits — one of the proven best methods to arrive at a solution.

But equally importantly, sailing teaches teamwork, leadership, communication skills, inquisitiveness, resilience, the value of practice, strategy, creativity, organization and commitment. So yes, sailing is a fantastic platform for learning, but the focus of that learning need not be reduced to the left brain.

Answer: There are limits to STEM. It isn’t comprehensive enough to do justice to the opportunity to teach through sailing.

2.) Is a sailing school the place to learn advanced skills in things other than sailing?

Sailing as a teaching medium is inherently broad in what it can offer a student, but it is not inherently deep or specialized, unless it is the sailing that you plan to perfect. An aspiring engineer needing advanced calculus is not going to find it at a sailing school, although they might become an accomplished sailor at that school if they can find the time outside of math class. Of course, for the advanced math, they’ll need an advanced calculus teacher. Their calculus might nicely support their quest to become a champion sailor, but it won’t train them physically or strategically for it, in the same way that sailing can’t comprehensively support their quest to become a calculus expert, because sailing isn’t merely equations. So while integrated curricula can help to well-round a person, an expert becomes one by committing unpolluted time and focus on an advanced subject. Kids need both general and specialized educations.

Answer: It’s easy to over-promise with STEM. Sailing schools can’t do everything and they shouldn’t try.

3.) Is STEM new and will it last?

Professional educators often say that everything has been tried in the education laboratory, and most new things are just new names for old things. It isn’t new that a city has a school focused on technical subjects and another focused on sports. As long as ample funding flows to support both institutions, a student and their family and teachers are free to choose a path that fits the child.

What is new is that many more institutions – like sailing schools – now can call themselves schools while, at the same time, longtime schools are starved for cash. So today, anyone aspiring to teach kids, whether on boats or on blackboards, is at the mercy of the whims of the Gates Foundation or blows in the shifting winds of education politics.

Answer: Since no educator can count on sustained support, STEM potentially limits all of education.

Indeed, between the lines, my first article was an invitation to US Sailing and sailing advocates everywhere to think beyond STEM and the limits of a fad.

Sailors know that sailing isn’t just a program. It’s bigger. Sailing makes our lives exciting, fun and even worth living, because it constantly teaches us. It trains our minds and bodies to do more and be more. It brings us closer to mother nature and human innovation and expands our spiritual selves. It inspires us to share and stretch what we have. It reveals the power of compromise and cooperation. It strengthens our friendships, which, in turn, strengthen our communities and neighborhoods. It is gender, race, income, age and religion neutral. So it can be an essential ingredient in an educated, peaceful, aspirational and productive society.

Instead of marketing sailing as just another alternative to failing schools, or as one neat youth program among many, I would challenge US Sailing to go big and shout to the nation:

Sailing is the university of a well-led life from which no one need graduate.

To do this, US Sailing should elevate its mission. As a proud dues-paying member, I humbly offer this proposed draft: “US Sailing calls on local and national leaders to make sustained and substantial investments to secure access to water, fleets, spaces, tools, outdoor classrooms, and the free time for people to come together during their whole lives to learn and share, building the nation’s capabilities, creativity and social capital.”

Sorry Jack. Math doesn’t rock. Sailing rocks. Math just helps explain why.

Intergen Sailing

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