The Myth of STEM

Another of the somewhat vague concepts currently popular here in the overly-large school district (and many other places) is STEM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math. Subject areas that many politicians and other education experts declare American kids should studying more.

They tell us this is important since the US has a growing shortage of scientists, engineers and other so-called STEM professions. Failure to emphasize those skills in our work force will have any number of disastrous economic and social consequences. Or something like that.

But what if those claims are false? What if the STEM crisis is a myth?

That’s the thesis of a feature story in the IEEE Spectrum, a journal published by a large organization of electrical engineers. The writer says that that predictions of impending shortages of scientists and engineers are nothing new, citing statements going back almost 100 years. In addition, he’s also found many studies directly contradicting those claims.

He makes a good, well documented case that the call to add tens of thousand of new STEM degrees to the US work force may not be necessary or even productive. The article is well worth a read.1

However, does that mean the current efforts to push more STEM topics (which we are trying to morph into STEAM, adding arts to the mix) in the K12 curriculum are completely wrong?

The idea is probably no better or worse than anything else on the long list of somewhat vague, single focus ideas being pushed by ed reformers as a solution to our “failing” school system in this country.2

Certainly, as the author points out in his conclusion, more STEM couldn’t hurt. He notes that there is very much a “STEM knowledge shortage” in the US3 and it’s not necessary to push students into a degree program to improve their understanding of science and technology issues.

But I wonder, what ever happened to the original concept of K12 education, especially high school: giving students the opportunity to explore a variety of subjects, including not-STEM, before settling on one specific area to study in depth after graduation. Is it really necessary to channel kids into a career field before they are even old enough to drive?


1 The comments are also an intelligent extension to the discussion, far above the quality found on most general news and gossip sites like the Huffington Post.

2 “Failing schools” is also something of a myth, certainly when applied to every area of the country as a whole.

3 Seemingly emanating from the Texas State School Board.

STEAM: Don’t Stop With Just Adding an A

It’s pretty hard not to notice that STEM – standing for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – has become a pretty popular shorthand among parts of the education reform movement. It ties into reports that the US may not be producing enough graduates in those fields and thus is another reason why the economy is so screwed up. Or something like that.

Now come proposals to turn STEM into STEAM by adding the arts into the mix.

“There is creativity in STEM itself, super genius in it, … but in arts education, it really is the raison d’etre to be out of the box, to accept the chaos,” said John Maeda, the president of the Rhode Island School of Design, in Providence.

Artists and designers, he said, are “risk takers, they can think around corners.”

Hard to argue with that but why stop with the arts?

Work in science, engineering and the rest are not isolated to the US so it’s important that students understand other cultures and maybe even speak their languages.

Creating new technologies also requires an understanding how society has interacted with changes in the past, as well as something about the political and cultural context of today. So, throw social studies into the mix.

Certainly STEM people need to be able to write effectively in order to explain their concepts to the business people and laymen who will use them.

Keep iterating this process enough and you wind up with what used to be called a “liberal education”, the concept that student should graduate from their K12 experience with a general understanding of the breadth of human knowledge. Enough to be able to decide what fields they might want to specialize in the next stage of their education.

As for STEM, I’m not sure focusing the undergraduate curriculum on technical topics is any better than the extremely narrow concentration on reading and math (really just rote arithmetic skills) we have now, the consequence of teaching only what is tested.

The Hypocritical Love Affair With STEM

Alfie Kohn asks an excellent question about the education priorities laid out by our national leaders:  Why do STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subjects consistently attract so much money and attention?

He has one theory.

As compared with other “softer” disciplines, STEM usually provides us with the reassurance of knowing exactly how much, how many, how far, how fast, which means that these subjects are viewed (often incorrectly) as being inherently objective, therefore more reliable (another questionable leap), and therefore more valuable (yet another one).

Beyond that, I also think much of the love affair with STEM comes from the gut feeling of most people in this country that subjects like math and science are just more serious than social studies or music, like anyone who racks up lots of those credits will automatically get a better job, earn more money, and probably be a better human being.

Either way, there’s a big hypocrisy factor at work here.

Many of the politicians behind the big push for students to take more STEM classes (or at least increased test scores on international tests) are also the ones loudly disparaging the scientists and engineers who produce research and recommendations they disagree with.

Go to college, learn lots of math and science, but don’t use your skills to discover anything that challenges my preconceived ideas.

Great message to offer kids.

Where Have We Heard This Before?

President Obama on Wednesday announced a $250 million public-private effort to increase the number and quality of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) teachers.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone to know that almost all the money is going to major colleges and universities who have pledged to train more than 10,000 new science and math teachers by 2015.

And what then? What happens when (if?) those teachers are hired by schools.

They will likely find a few things missing from this and every other education reform plan announced by the administration.

Things like modern lab equipment, computers, decent salaries, reasonable class sizes, not to mention ongoing training for current teachers.

Along with any proposals to change to anything about the curriculum and how it is delivered (a term that all by itself defines much that is wrong with the way society views teaching and learning).

So, where have we heard this before?

During the last panic proposal to improve math and science education, of course.

How did that work out?

Curing Math Inferiority Complex

Educators in this area want students to know that there’s no such thing as a “math gene”.

To counter the notion that mathematics ability is inscribed in DNA, school officials and corporate executives are waging a public relations campaign for the hearts and minds of the average math student. Their goal is to immerse more middle school students in algebra and toughen high school math requirements so graduates can compete for increasingly technical jobs. Their message: Advanced math is not only for rocket scientists.

Agreed. However, it’s going to take a whole lot more than rap videos and a “public relations campaign” aimed at persuading students to love math.

WebFor one thing, the traditional curriculum in most American schools is far too repetitious in the early grades and does a poor job of incorporating technological tools.

Even worse, we spend way too much time teaching, drilling, and testing the mechanics of mathematics (or too often arithmetic) and not nearly enough on how the process is actually applied to real world situations.

Learning how to grind through algorithms rather than solving problems.

It’s no wonder so many students arrive at high school with both a distaste for math and a bad case of insecurity about their abilities in the subject.