Stemming the Tide of STEM

I’m generally in favor of STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math – education, especially when girls and young women are welcomed into the programs and treated with the same attention as males. (As long as they don’t junk it up with a pink color palette.)

But it’s being oversold.

(Typically, at this point I would produce a rant about how STEM is being glorified and promoted ahead of reading, writing, literature, art, music, social studies, and various other humanities. That’s a rant for another day, though. I’ll get back to it. I promise.)

To see all the STEM programs and magnet schools, you’d think Sputnik had been launched just this week. We’re not in the same kind of Cold War/space race with the Russians now, yet science is king in schools.

Admittedly, science and technology are vital today and will be for the future that our students are preparing for. But just as you don’t have to know how to program a computer to write using a word processor or play a video game, you don’t need to know engineering to fill one of the many service jobs; or banking, human resources, business management, or sales; or professional pursuits such as law or teaching, that will also be vital for tomorrow’s society.

Financial services and business management were the most recently hyped “hot careers” that students were being funneled into, with courses in entrepreneurship and leadership skills filling up the curriculum. They seemed to overlook the fact that only a few students would become business leaders, managers, or owners. With the middle class shrinking and the job market tightening, even the middle echelons of business have proved to be out of reach for millions of students.

The same will likely be true for many of the STEM students. How many research scientists can universities and the private sector afford to hire? Since the dot-com crash, how many openings are there for techno-wizards? What we need are more computer educators, who can teach hapless, hopeless adults how to use their home and business computers effectively and efficiently.

It’s profoundly ironic that schools are pushing science, when the Powers That Be are science deniers and proud of their scientific ignorance. Even if we give students an outstanding STEM education, who will listen to them? Not legislators. Not the general public, at least those that think TV shows about paranormal hunters, ancient aliens, and assorted prophecies are scientific.

What we need are science educators, and not just for the brainiest STEM students. We need teachers in elementary schools that can make science engaging and teach students that early humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs. We need middle school teachers who can teach the foundation of all the sciences – the scientific method – and how to recognize bogus scientific and especially medical claims, how to examine evidence. And for high school science, we need teachers who keep up-to-date with their fields – and texts that do the same. Those kinds of learning are what the general public of the future needs.

We also need science popularizers. Though the scientific establishment sometimes looks askance at the likes of Carl Sagan and Neil Degrasse Tyson, they perform an invaluable service. They remind us that science isn’t just something you learn in school and then forget. That general understanding of the weather or earthquakes or DNA testing or vaccines is vitally important for more people than learning to build a robot is.

(And popularizing science demands outstanding communication skills – writing and speaking clearly and effectively. But I’ll get back to that another time.)

STEM is promoted for elementary students as a way to make science engaging. But is STEM really what does that? In “STEM: It’s Elementary!,” Erin McPherson says, “[K]ids who experience STEM early through hands-on learning are the ones who will be best equipped to develop a strong understanding of STEM concepts as they get older.”

It’s hard to argue with that. But isn’t hands-on learning what elementary students should be getting in writing, history, and art, too? McPherson does talk about art – “By adding art and music concepts like design, rhythm and movement to STEM education, students are able to fully visualize STEM concepts” – but only as an add-on to STEM, not subjects worthy in and of themselves.

Also, is STEM becoming a de facto gifted and talented program – and that only for brainy kids with a penchant for math and science? Do the less talented, less able students or the artistically gifted fall away and get less attention?

One purveyor of online STEM curricula touts that its offerings are “for all students based upon National Academies research with a strategic emphasis on gender, racial and socio-economic concerns.” But look at the “pathways” of courses they list: architecture, biotechnology, engineering, entrepreneurship, manufacturing, renewable energy, science, and technology. Do these really meet the needs of “all students”?

And what about those heavily emphasized future and futuristic jobs? Elaine J. Hom, LiveScience Contributor, claims that “STEM jobs do not all require higher education or even a college degree. Less than half of entry-level STEM jobs require a bachelor’s degree or higher.” (She doesn’t list any.) Meanwhile, the Department of Education reports that the STEM career with the most projected rate of growth (a whopping 62 percent) is biomedical engineering.

Want more telling statistics? J. Maureen Henderson, contributor to Forbes, says, “The future is already here and it brings with it low-wage temporary or contract work as a way of life….According to the Economic Policy Institute, almost 30% of American workers are expected to hold low-wage jobs – defined as earnings at or below the poverty line to support a family of four – in 2020. … Given that roughly 50% of recent college grads are unemployed or underemployed and those who do work are much more likely to hold these types of jobs, this is a particular grim prospect for young workers….”

Another member of the Forbes staff, Jacquelyn Smith, suggests, “If you want to ride a crest of increasing employment over the next 10 years [through 2022], get into health care, personal care, social assistance, or construction. That’s the advice you can glean from a report issued by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics today [2/01/2012].”

After all, the future technocrats will still need baristas, day care workers, plumbers, chefs, massage therapists, pastors, firefighters, hairdressers, and sales clerks; and their companies will still need freelance and contract (read: low-paid) writers and designers and even accountants for their ever-tightening workforces. And I hope that society will still need works of literature, art, and music, and the people to create them.

So, is STEM education a valuable educational approach? Certainly, for some students. For all students? Maybe not so much.





6 thoughts on “Stemming the Tide of STEM

  1. The new rallying cry I’ve been hearing is STEAM – adding arts to the mix. I haven’t quite figured out how this is anything different than what we were taught going through public school in the 70’s, but it is at least being discussed.
    Not that I’m a trained teacher, but I think the best thing that I’ve seen coming in elementary education in the last 15 years or so is integrative teaching (combining all disciplines in real-world, hands on projects) and place based learning, which uses the addition of local resources and community projects to give kids a feeling of investment and tries to eliminate the “When will I ever need to know this?” moan.


  2. I was interested in your post, though I don’t know much about the issue. I do see the irony of legislators, school board members and the like who don’t believe in an ancient earth or global warming talking about the teaching of science.

    I did occur to me, though, that STEM is a pretty cool acronym. When you eventually write that other post bemoaning the fact that reading, writing, literature, art, music, social studies, and various other humanities are begin ignored, I think you may need a better acronym than LAMSSAVOH. (It reminds me vaguely of some ancient Middle Eastern deity.)


      1. I hope it doesn’t make people think of hot air. The A does seem like a bit of an afterthought, now you mention it. Here’s hoping literature, music and the humanities get a fair shake in future curriculums. I have the greatest respect for (non-politically influenced) science and think it should be taught well, but it really is only one part of the picture.


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