STEM: just a bunch of letters

Jatropha hybrid - Stem (110 DAS) Last week, at the NAIS Annual Conference, Cathy Davidson made a somewhat offhand remark in her keynote that by focusing on STEM in our schools, we’re going to raise a generation of kids who hate STEM thinking. Though I loved her entire keynote, that’s the thing that really stuck with me and I wanted to find out more about why she said that.

In a piece published in the Washington Post last year, Davidson and others argue that “[s]cience and technology are meaningful when interwoven with all of the other modes of learning. A STEM, without its bloom, quickly withers in the forest of everyday life.” Amazingly true – think of all the arguments for reconsidering the way we think of technology use in our schools, how it needs to be more transparent, ubiquitous, and purposeful, like the pencil is. As amazing as I think computers are, they’re nothing unless they’re used to engage and create. Much less my forte, I think science is the same way. Science is amazing because of what it makes possible and how it literally makes up everything around us. If I studied any of the sciences with that in mind instead of as independent disciplines, I bet it would make much more sense to me. And don’t even get me started on math. Even though it pains me to say it, the real world relevance and applications of math can’t be disputed. We need to start treating independent disciplines more like interconnected puzzle pieces, coming together to provide the full picture, instead of separate puzzles in their own right.

With the nation’s focus on STEM , it’s easy to think that the things that every school should focus on are science, technology, engineering, and math. It’s happening at the school that I work at, where a very specific STEM initiative has been rolled out this year, with plans to increase its footprint in the coming years. But STEM isn’t enough. Those subjects aren’t enough. So we throw a little arts in and we get STEAM. And then we decide to throw a little wRiting (or is it reading?) in there to get STREAM. When does it stop? We’re going to run out of words to morph that concept into. Shouldn’t we be rethinking this very narrow emphasis?

The warning from Davidson and her colleagues to everyone infatuated with cultivating science and math teachers is clear:

How shortsighted it would be if our nation’s community colleges — so busy right now gearing up to provide the necessary training in STEM subjects — are unable to supply these men and women with exposure to the literature and history that might help them face life’s obstacles.

I can’t think of many people who don’t want to see a student-programmed robot dance. If it weren’t for the technology that my school (and others) emphasize, I’d likely be out of a job. But the higher commitment has to be towards a more holistic approach to blending disciplines together to provide better better educational opportunities for our students instead of to emphasizing certain parts of a curriculum.

Isn’t that what learning is all about?

CC-licensed photo by tonrulkens

2 thoughts on “STEM: just a bunch of letters

  1. Matt Moran

    This is probably going to require a more detailed follow up response for me to elaborate, but I both agree and disagree with some of the points here. I can remember having a conversation in which I also expressed frustration with the idea of STEM, because it bothers me that it ignores the relationships you can draw between history (or any other subject) and science OR math. Ultimately, isn’t all knowledge interconnected somehow? Isn’t the web a physical and virtual manifestation of that fact?

    I do think that the point that students may grow up hating STEM is onto something, though not completely right in its judgment either. Students will hate STEM if it is forced upon them in order to serve a purpose that they have no interest in. If they do not want to become engineers, we should not force them into it in order to meet the demand for engineers in the labor market. BUT, if STEM is really about finding a way to bring engineering and technology into the required math and science curricula, which may otherwise stick to strictly to their own disciplines or testing standards, then STEM is giving students a broader education rather than a narrower focus. Who could argue with that?

    To me, there is an analogy in how our curricula need to change. At one time, a proper education was considered to be English, Latin and Greek, but no one would consider that a complete education today. It is now time to expand the academic shelf space again so that we also include some basic understandings of engineering, technology and other influential contemporary disciplines. We do not even have to remove non-STEM disciplines or lower them to the rank of elective subjects, as happened with Latin and Greek. We just need to make an extra effort with STEM disciplines, since, for many, they do not come as naturally as literature and history and do not always appeal to our basic need for stories explaining our daily experiences.

    I don’t think anyone is trying to remove literature and history from the lives of students. However, more people earn degrees in these disciplines than in math and science, and I think we can all agree that this has something to do with the experience and preparation that students receive in their primary and secondary education in math and science. STEM ultimately needs to transform math and science into languages that are as familiar as the narratives we learn in history and literature. When students are more familiar with how math and science apply to and explain their world, then we may see those secondary benefits of increased numbers of graduates and job seekers in the STEM disciplines. Until then, it seems to be a disservice to students to give them an education that does not include a solid foundation in some of the most progressive fields of study we have, whether or not we choose to call them by STEM or any other name.

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