STEM Locomotive

STEM ≠ Science, Technology, Engineering and Math

That’s right.  I am standing in front of the multi diesel locomotive driven train we call STEM with my hand up saying, “Hold up a second.”  I know the lag time to come to a stop will be great and I risk being flattened.  I have faith however, that the embedded systems we are attempting to instill in our students via STEM education will prevail and thus, create a way to slow the train quickly, and I’ll be safe.  So, here it goes.

STEM Locomotive

“Hold up a second.”

Those systems are kicking in and so far, I see the train beginning to slow.  While I start to sweat the reality and weight of that approaching mass of metal, let’s talk about why I am standing here.

I imagine many of you have limited time to play out this scenario. So, I’ll jump to the end.  STEM…it may be popularly represented as an abbreviation for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, but, it shouldn’t be.  I suggest we re-frame our conversations to something more like,

STEM = Service, THINKING, Engagement, Modeling 

Why?  STEM as we know it is just a list of subjects.  That means, we’ve opened the door for subjects NOT on the list to feel left out.  They may not be left out, but boy, when you’re not on the list, you can feel that way.  Enter the “ARTS.”  Now, I am a life-long musician and past music teacher.  With the current STEM labeling, I can see why those supporting the arts feel like STEAM should be our focus.  But, I think that’s wrong. I’ve shared with my fellow music educators my justification for that reason.  My life has given me a ton of great opportunities, and one of those was serving as a project manager for a multi-year, grant-funded after-school “STEM” project.  I learned, through intense focus on the real meaning of STEM that the arts are inherently present in true STEM education.  I know the argument is that we need to build the arts into the name or it won’t “stick.”  That’s why it makes more sense to redefine the STEM formula.  Maybe tomorrow, we think Sociology is missing and we’ll need to add another “S”. That gives us “STEAMS.”  Maybe then we notice History, Interpreting, and Photography are missing.  Then, we’ll have “STEAMSHIP.”  I kind of like that though…humm.

Anyway, my point is, we’ve create a label that is nothing more than a short list of subjects, not much different that labeling courses such as SCI 101, or ENG 204.  STEM is just a perceived list of prioritized subjects that is supposed to do more than list the subjects.  And, I believe our intent is to focus on the deeper meaning behind STEM.  So, let’s get there from the top.  Let’s change our model of STEM by NAME so it reflects what we really see as the value behind the pedagogy.

Enter…STEM = Service, THINKING, Engagement, Modeling.

Service:  I can’t think of a better word to start off our new modeling of STEM.  Service describes the very purpose behind any work done within the fields of study embedded in STEM.  When we teach kids about Service, we are teaching them to discover with purpose.  And, that purpose is one of Service.  Service to others, Service to community, Service to Country, Service to Self.  Making the world a better place is a pretty awesome endeavor.  Scientific discovery is aimed at Service, or at least it should be.

Now, I want to share a bit about current methodologies.  STEM solutions abound.  Apps, gadgets, tech, games, computational devices, and kits fill our shelves.  I am a techie, so don’t think I don’t defend our gadgets.  I’ll take a little bird walk and share a story to set my perspective though.  If you’re pressed for time, you can jump ahead.

From 1993-1998, I was a music educator.  I taught for a district that was tech focused and eager to integrate tech tools.  Remember, this was 1993 and the internet was just finding a mainstream purpose in schools.  I helped setup labs, test computers and fix printers even though it wasn’t in my job description.  I loved helping others move past the basics so the kids could use the tech.  In my classroom, I established a tech presence.  The school supported the purchase of equipment to turn my classroom into a recording studio, MIDI lab and digital music performance center.  I had multiple keyboards, a digital drum set, a wind machine, multiple computers with notation and composition software and other gadgets.  My story is about that digital drum set.  I had a student in general music who profoundly changed my perspective on gadgets.  His name was Jack (for this story), and Jack struggled.  He struggled to be a motivated learner.  He struggled to come to school on time and struggled to pretend to be asleep in my general music class.  He had no real musical training or skills, but one day, after the arrival of the digital drum set, he came and ask me if he could use it.  I showed him the basics (that took about 1 minute) and he was hooked.  He would put the headphones on and pound away.  I say pound because that’s what he did.  This barely awake kid, pounded away.  The tool created something for him an acoustic drum set could not.  He could be in his own world through the headset, change sounds, and experiment and create within his own capabilities.  He showed up each morning for some time to play.  He seemed excited and more motivated to come to school.  And, he stayed awake in general music.  I don’t know what he’s doing now, but that story reminds me that our gadgets are vehicles, not destinations.  And, we need not elevate them beyond.  I spent ZERO time teaching the gadget.  It taught itself. 

That brings me to my second point about Service.  The apps, gadgets, tech, games, computational devices, and kits are NOT stem.  They Service our human needs to create and we must always keep that in mind.  The new model of STEM is meant to be bi-directional.  From one perspective, Service gives the work focus.  From another perspective, the tools we use to teach provide a Service back to our efforts and those of the learners.

With a focus on Service, let’s explore the rest of the new framework.

THINKING:  I capitalize THINKING for a reason.  THINKING is everything.  STEM pedagogy prioritizes THINKING.  We have to think in order to be Service minded.  We must think to create solutions (oh…wait…a sub category of Service.  If we are Service minded we THINK in order to create solutions…Love it!).

Metacognition in a framework of STEM is not my idea.  Many way smarter people than me created that connection.  I started the conversation around gadgets above for another reason.  Consider the tools you use most.  Why do you use them more than others?  Could it be they help you produce?  Produce ideas, products, and results.  The tools, i.e., gadgets we use should do that for us.  I recently had a conversation with a local start-up company about the shelf-life (life of customer interest) of their invention.  It is a game with physical movement and measurement involved.  It is winning many awards and being well placed within large sales channels.  I applaud the group.  They’ve done amazing work.  I also see a significant challenge.  During a recent awards ceremony, a mother shared with me that she bought the game for her two kids.  I asked her how the kids liked it and she said, they used it a bit during Christmas and haven’t had it out since.  What’s missing?  I think, the THINKING of the user is missing.

No matter what device, or gadget we put in the hands of learners, we must frame it around the THINKING to be done.  It is great that we have shelves of gadgets to choose from.  But, we must keep in mind that the even the best gadgets may not get kids THINKING on their own. That’s where our educational systems must play a role.

THINKING is not just related to gadgets.  The projects, challenges and problems presented to learners within a STEM context will be solved via THINKING. The effort to think must be prioritized so students understand how to do it.  A fundamental purpose of STEM is to create problem solvers.  A friend of mine also says, we need “problem identifiers.”  I love that phrase.  As we think about STEM, we have an opportunity to build a student’s capacity to THINK, to identify unnoticed problems, and solve them.

Engagement:  By now, you should see the relationship between the components of the new STEM framework.  When we humans are THINKING, and taking a perspective of Service for the purpose of helping solve problems, we are…wait for it…yes…. we are Engaged.  That’s fantastic.  So, what’s the challenge with engagement?  If we get the students thinking and they have a perspective of service, they will be engaged, end of effort, right?  Noooooooo…… Let’s talk about sustainable engagement.  Long term, not lesson engagement, project engagement, activity engagement, conversation engagement as our measure.  Let’s pull in our gadgets again.  We try gadget A, we try gadget B, we are engaged, we move on to gadget C and a new day, I am engaged.  Great…What am I engaged in?  Is there a relationship between gadgets and my engagement?  Is there a theme I am engaged in or am I engaged in the moment and not the mission?

As a music educator, I saw the power of true engagement. A year, after year, after year commitment of my students to their gadget, their musical instrument, meant they had to be engaged in the bigger picture.  That shiny new instrument dulls over time and the repetitive lessons start to become tiresome if they aren’t engaged in something higher, something beyond the idea of playing the saxophone because their best friend does too.  As a musician myself I feel the pull of engagement that is lasting and so personally gratifying.  That quest, that inner, untiring ability to keep “at it”, call it GRIT, call it what you want, but it should be our focus in STEM.  Engagement beyond the moment, engagement in the deeper journey.

Modeling:  I feel like I saved the best for last.  But, it’s just because I had to build a new Framework that ended in an M.  Modeling ties everything together.  I’m doing it now.  I’ve modeled a new way of thinking and I am adding the words to share my thinking.  I’ve shown a picture (the formula above) to help explain the complexity of my thinking, but simply.  I read an article on the Feynman method.  The gist was that to test what you are thinking, teach it to a young child.  This forces you to REALLY know your stuff. Using simple language enables you to explain clearly and assume little.  Modeling is similar from my perspective.  Modeling takes the complex and simplifies it.  What if we could get every student to build a model showcasing the thing they are going to pursue in life after high school?  What would that mean to our country?  Where are we teaching modeling?  Modeling can and should be applied to ANY subject area.  Therefore, I started this effort to redefine STEM.  We don’t just model in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math fields.  We should be teaching modeling in all subjects.  Why?  Because we need more modelers, more content creators in the world.  We need ideas to come to life and they won’t come to life if we can’t model.

I hear the wheels of the heavy locomotive screaming against the momentum of STEM as we know it.  Yet, I have faith we can be introspective and use the core values STEM is intended to create in learners and quickly find a path that goes beyond four subjects and the perceptions that naming convention communicates.  I see great work in this area and by no means feel it is my place to say this work is not happening. I am not a bait click producer hoping to get 100’s of comments saying, “this is already happening, open your eyes.”  I believe it is happening and that’s why I am writing this.  I want to see more evidence, more stories shared, more perspectives on the meaning of STEM.

I’m feeling the breeze from the air being pushed by the approaching train. Will it pause for this moment and consider these thoughts?  Let’s find out.





Your Manifesto is Your Compass

Manifest Your Manifesto

By Mark T Burke

Your Manifesto is Your Compass
Your Manifesto is Your Compass

Highly successful people have a clear compass that guides them forward.  That compass is not only clear to them, but clear to others.  It is visible, tangible, in sight at all times. Their beliefs and what they do each day, each minute, is manifest in a way that showcases the path you’ll take when working with them.  They decisively guide themselves and those they work with using that compass on personal and organizational journeys.  The compass eliminates distracting side trips yet allows for exploration and learning.  That compass is their Manifesto.

Developing a written, personal manifesto is a fantastic way to sort through your personal beliefs and make choices about what really means the most to you in your work and personal life.  A manifesto has a few key components.

  • Beliefs
  • Commitments
  • Principles

An example of one of my beliefs is:

“Build beautiful things.” 

I confess, this belief statement solidified for me after spending time reading and listening to Mr. Todd Henry, author of the Accidental Creative.  By the way, he has a great post on the value of building a manifesto.  And, it’s okay to borrow from others. In fact, we should.

Years before finding Todd Henry, I committed to building every product I could in a beautiful way.  Now, before you start thinking that is some lofty belief there Mark.  Well, look beyond the simple definition of “beautiful.”

“Build beautiful things” is my commitment to building products that are complete, finished.  Whether I am building a training, or a PowerPoint, or a spreadsheet for a client, my commitment to that work is to build it COMPLETELY.

“Build beautiful things” is my commitment to building products that meet a need.  That means I need to clearly understand the need and the expected end result.  If I’m working for a client, I want to know that what I produce will help them, serve a purpose and benefit their organization.  If what I build becomes a file in storage or a product on a shelf, we have more work to do.

“Build beautiful things” is my commitment to building things with design and human interaction in mind.  Functionality is an aspect of beauty that pushes me to create items that people like to interact with.

As you can see, a belief means a lot. The commitments and the principles develop naturally from the belief statements as you further share each belief.  Let’s deconstruct one of my statements above.

“Build beautiful things” (Belief) is my commitment to building products that meet a need. (Commitment)


  • That means I need to clearly understand the need and the expected end result.
  • If I’m working for a client, I want to know that what I produce will help them, serve a purpose and benefit their organization.
  • If what I build becomes a file in storage or a product on a shelf, we have more work to do. 

Manifesto work is ongoing.  A few years ago, I adopted the Serious eLearning Manifesto.  I won’t go into details here.  You can read all about those who authored it and promoted it from their website.    A copy of the complete manifesto hangs on my office wall beside my desk.  Throughout my days, I refer to it often as a way to focus my thoughts, to stay the course.  It is a compass that guides me.

Over the last few months, I’ve had a deeper desire to firm up MYMANIFESTO.  This will be my personal / professional manifesto guiding my work as I continue my journey.  I encourage everyone to think about the value of building your own manifesto, your own compass.  If you do, please share.

Go Ahead…give away your processes.

That’s right, give away your processes. But, they are my bread and butter you say.  No, they’re not.  I’m 26 years into my professional life as an educator, musician, trainer, instructional designer, project manager, entrepreneur, company leader and organizational developer and if I have learned anything, it is that you CAN and should give away you processes.  Your students, clients, reports, friends and family know it. Now, you need to know it.

Think of a process like a roadmap.  Give someone a map and watch what they do with it.  Some will frame it and hang it on the wall.  Others will grab hold and start an adventure of a lifetime.

Road Map Adventure of a Lifetime
How do you use roadmaps? Are they in frames on a wall or do you USE them to create amazing experiences?

I’ve been a process guy all my life.  I’m not sure why I am this way, but I love mapping how to do things.  My thinking is that if we have a clear process for something, we can do it really well and change it over time as needed.  I think I am this way because I want…no…need to get things out of my head and into some archived format for later consumption and application.  And, I think we (humans) just aren’t curious enough and if one thing can spark our thinking, it is process mapping.  To do it, we have to THINK.  We have to consider relationships, we have to take perspectives and build systems.  Wait…what?  We have to THINK?  Ok…side story here.

See, what I just offered is a roadmap, a process of sorts that I learned from two friends Derek and Laura Cabrera (  They discovered HOW we think. For now, I’ll call it a process.  It has parts, distinctions, systems, relationships and perspectives.  They gave me this roadmap years ago.  I started my adventure the minute I unfolded the pages of the map.  And WOW…what a journey.  I’m still on it.  This is my point.  When we share our processes with others, our hope, our DREAM is that they will take it on a personal journey.

So here I am, a consultant. I help organizations make shifts, change, build programs, train their teams, and THINK, and I’ve got this asset I call a process.  Why give it away?

  •  Process as Promotion

I follow great examples across my interests such as IDEO and Todd Henry.  Both are examples of how people are willingly giving away process in order to foster deeper relationships.  In essences, process is the new promotional tool.  But, please don’t think I think of process sharing as a marketing gimmick.  Yes, it is a way to reach people.  As I mentioned above, some will take it, frame it and hang it on a wall. Others will EMBRACE it, live with and BY it and really make great things happen.  If someone does that with a process I share, I KNOW they will connect with me at a DEEP level.  Those are the clients I want to work with. How about you?  The wall hanger, or the adventure taker?  Who do you want as a client, partner, or trusted comrade?  Those who see value in the process, trust the process and will engage with you for a long, long time.

  • You and Your Process are Connected

Building on the point above, processes you build are a reflection of you.  When folks engage with your process and ultimately you, they bring value to you (and your company, organization, school, etc.)  Your processes and you are joined by DNA.  While many can use the process alone, without you, the process is missing something.  I often find myself creating new visuals (maps) of my processes for clients.  For example, I just finished this one.

The Evolution of SOPs
Process Value = Intended Solution Value

This process reflects HOW I work based on what I’ve learned from others, how I have fine tuned techniques to work for my style and how I am confident and comfortable leading or helping others.  The process is me, I reflect the process. We are a system.  So am I giving it away?  No, I am making a real connection with those who choose to connect.

  • Avoiding the Gloss Over Moment

Again digging deeper into the points above, what about the visual (the map) is special?  When clients ask “how do you do x?” or “how WILL you do x?”, I can describe the process to them.  These moments often feel like a stranger in a car has pulled up next to me on my walk to ask for directions to the local gas station.  At some point in my explanation, they gloss over.  I can see they’ve absorb 10% of what they really need to know to fulfill their goal of getting to the gas station.  I persist and attempt to simply in hopes I can raise their understanding to at least 50%.  I can see they’re trying to paint a picture.  In the end, they drive off and I have no idea if they made it or not.  I don’t want clients to have that experience.  First, I want to them to visualize in the now AND the future (for reference and sharing with others).  I don’t want them to have to remember a complex system.  In fact, I know if I ask a client to do so, they will more often than not NOT connect with me on an effort.  They’ll seek out a connection that supplied them with the needed visualization and memory aid.  Sharing that aid throughout a relationship cycle keeps us all from glossing over.

  • Processes aren’t Sacred.  Outcomes are. 

I will always cherish the outcomes of partnership efforts.  On the flip side, when I’ve shared processes with others, those moments are fleeting.  I’m not a process bubble gum machine from my perspective, yet I have had a prolific process development career.  I’ve worked both on personal and client driven process building.  Process building is like Monopoly money.  It has value if you play the game.  Otherwise, it’s paper in a box.  I’ve shared and built processes for clients they never put it into practice.  Why?  Because they didn’t value the outcome.  Odd right?  When we value process over outcome, we lose sight of the purpose of process.  Sometimes, process mapping is a act of compliance.  For example, Organization A has to document their procedures for licensure or code audits.  After they complete it, it goes on a shelf.  Staff go about their normal routine.  The process lives out its life without value.  Life goes on. Process dies.  Outcomes go unrealized.  When good enough is enough, when possible outcomes outgrow staff or organizational capacities, when moving from A to A+ is just too much work, sharing process without practice happens.  Too often!  So give them away…but be aware, they need you to ensure outcomes remain sacred.  Help them take their adventure of a lifetime.

I hope something here sparks your creative process building.  As always, please share your thoughts and even a process or two.