I recently had a fascinating conversation with a curator at the National Museum of American History named Peggy Kidwell about math education and the tools that are used to enhance it. Kidwell has an unusual specialty: she collects math tools that have been used in classrooms (Sliderules! Calculators! Protractors!) over the years and learns why they became so popular. According to the Kidwell, one of the big reasons driving the popularity of tools is a federal declaration that the United States needs to pick up the pace in a particular field (Think of how Sputnik and the space race accelerated math/science education).

Which leads to STEM. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education. President Obama has said that students must be inspired to be more innovative and declared that STEM education should be a priority, particularly for minority students. So now comes a deluge of events throughout Maryland. A sampling from this month alone: A former astronaut meeting with 2,500 Prince George’s students; the start of a climate, ocean and weather program at Drew-Freeman Middle School; a middle school conference was held at the United States Naval Academy to get girls interested in the science field.

“Right now, our nation is on a race for discovery and new knowledge, a race to remain competitive and to foster an innovation society. At the heart of this race is education," Sen.Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said at the inauguration of the ocean and weather program at Drew-Freeman. "I am glad to see the funds I put in the federal checkbook for science, engineering, technology, and mathematics education at the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in action. I am so proud of the students and faculty at Drew-Freeman Middle School who are making Prince George's County a national hub of science and technology with students ready to fill the jobs of tomorrow.”

Of course, this movement goes beyond Maryland. In Florida, there’s been some controversy over what exactly counts as a STEM subject, as the St. Petersburg Times-Miami Herald’s Politifact Florida has reported.

But there is little doubt that one of the key features of STEM education is hands-on learning. White coats, video game joysticks and computer simulations are but a few of tools that we’re seeing pop-up in this movement. One of our Virginia Schools’ insiders, Kevin Sieff, wrote a story a few months ago about STEM education with my favorite building block, the Lego.

What were some of your favorite math tools growing up? And what STEM projects are you seeing at your schools?