Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Dangers of Over-focusing on STEM

STEM has become a very powerful buzz word in association with education.  If you are not familiar with the acronym, it stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  

I think that STEM is important for students, but I have worried for a long time that we are putting too much focus on those subjects to the determent of the humanities and arts.  When we shift our focus solely on one concept, we risk damaging all the others.  

This summer I attended a training session for librarians and the focus of the four days was on STEM. I asked where was the arts, the fictional reading, the study of where we came from?  The answer that developed from one of the sessions was that they must all be intertwined.  When we ignore the other components of education, we run the risk of under-preparing students for life in the world after school.  How do they interact with others?  How do they push their creativity to create the next big idea?  How do we as a society continue to flourish and grow as human beings.

Fareed Zakari wrote in the Washington Post on March 26, 2015 this warning:
The United States has led the world in economic dynamism, innovation and entrepreneurship thanks to exactly the kind of teaching we are now told to defenestrate. A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity. Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross fertilization. Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education, but so are English and philosophy. When unveiling a new edition of the iPad, Steve Jobs explained that “it’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.” (Side note: I have to love a quotation that uses the word defenestrate.  It is one of my all time favorite words.)
Unfortunately Daugaard has fallen into this narrow paradigm of thinking.  Most recently it was noted that at a meeting at the Gifted Education Summit.  During the meeting it was pointed out that education must be well-rounded, but not by the Governor.  It was pointed out by one of the student speakers.  

A parent of one of the campers and a community member that supports STEM activities had this reaction on a Facebook post:
Governor Daugaard owes each and every camper and staff member at the SD Governor's Camp for the Gifted (no relation to politics) an apology. The same man that refuses to support gifted education just told an audience of almost 300 kids - the brightest, most creative world changers you'd ever have the honor of meeting - that creativity is economically worthless. They should avoid "intellectually worthy", but otherwise (what he views as) worthless college degrees and focus on STEM. 
STEM has it's merits of course (speaking as a robotics coach), but it's not the be-all and end-all. (Megan Dahle, July 31, 2015).
A newer acronym is beginning to make the rounds and that is called STEAM.  The letter A stands for the arts.  We need to recognize the importance of all forms of education and not just focus on the STEM.  As Larry Edmunds stated on the International Society for Technology in Education on May 30, 2014:
This means that neither STEM nor the humanities alone can be the answer. We need to share funding across these crucial disciplines to create a teaching mélange in which STEM skills are supplemented by citizenship, effective communication and practical life skills. 
In other words, as always, one basket does not fit all the eggs. Today's students certainly need STEM courses to understand the physical and theoretical world, but they also need courses that will help them to better understand the people they will meet along the road of life. We must create funding schemata that will allow our students to succeed in the world, not just in the laboratory or the class room.
Daugaard, Obama (Obama is also too over-focused on STEM), and other leaders that try to "fix" education need to remember that a STEM can only hold something up, but STEAM can power the world!


  1. I'm gonna protest STEAM, just to be contrary. One measly letter for Arts? 20%? Nuts to that! If my daughter only gets to spend 20% of her time engaged with arts (reading, writing, speaking, drawing, singing, playing musical instruments, learning foreign languages, studying history... what else is packed into that one little A? and where's P.E.?), we will pull her from that school and take her elsewhere... or at least raise holy heck at parent-teacher conferences.

  2. Feel free to be contrary. The idea is that we need balance. We should not exclude the teaching of science and mathematics, just like we should not encourage students to become philosophers. Ironically, many of the classic philosophers also had a background in mathematics and science.