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The STEM Conundrum

Via the Eduwonk, I came across this discussion on STEM Education over at the National Journal. Steve Peha (scroll down and read his entire response) argues that STEM “is not a real thing” and we should instead focus on aligning curriculum with specific careers:

Smashed together in a nifty though semantically useless acronym, STEM looks like a tight bundle of sci-tech opportunity. But it’s more a case of category confusion.

Science is not a single thing, but many things, including the social sciences—which I imagine have been left out of STEM, right?

For example, where would the work of Everett Rogers (the guy who came up with the “early adopter” technology innovation model) fit into a STEM curriculum? He was a social scientist studying technology adoption patterns, but not often computer technology, so is his work fair game for STEM programs?

And later on:

A program that elegantly integrated the elements of STEM could be interesting, but it could also prove unwieldy since the disciplines are so diverse. STEM itself is a conglomeration of things we think should go together but that really don’t, an artificial grouping of disciplines that obscures rather than clarifies what it is we might do in school to make our kids more future-ready.

STEM is a well-intentioned but ill-conceived approach at marketing technical and scientific literacy—a curricular Rube Goldberg Machine. I’ve asked many people what it is, and many people have asked me what it is. None of us seems to know—and that’s not for lack of trying to find out.

In theory, STEM is the wave of the future. In practice, “STEM” is wonkspeak for “We want to stop handing out H-1B visas and off-shoring tech work.” But we don’t need the H-1Bs and the offshoring because we’re short on techy types here at home. We seek tech help beyond our borders because it’s cheaper and because technology itself facilitates the management of distributed teams. Regardless of what degrees our kids end up with, Americans will continue to be more expensive and technology will continue to make distributed teams more effective. STEM may not only be confusing; it may be irrelevant compared to more “traditional” high tech disciplines like computer science.

If we want more scientists, let’s create amazing science programs, and push them down to the lower grades. If we want engineers, let’s create cool engineering programs. If we want more computer kids, let’s start teaching kids computer science instead of just PowerPoint and Word. If we want more kids to get hooked on more math, we probably need an age-appropriate, ultra-relevant applied math track for kids to pursue in parallel with traditional math instruction.

If we weren’t hung up on STEM, it wouldn’t be hard to see how simple sci-tech programs could be created, programs with direct links to sci-tech career opportunities. I learned computer programming in my freshman year of high school in 1976. I guess Mr. Erickson, one of our math teachers, was pretty STEMy for his time (though he didn’t try to teach us math during computer class, so perhaps he wasn’t so STEMy after all).

He also argues that we need to emphasize the literacy component of all STEM training, and suggests the new (catchier? worse?) acronym L-STEM. Oh dear!

While I agree with much of this, I think he does get very close to arguing that STEM education  should simply be job training (even though he insists otherwise!).

An interesting read.

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Categories: Education
  1. David Bruggeman
    May 24, 2011 at 10:11 pm

    Where Peha thinks that STEM must be an integrated whole thing is unclear, but he’s flat wrong. Active parties in STEM are heavily represented by disciplinary societies, and none of the ones I deal with as part of my work at a computer science society (which is committed to STEM boosting) would object to anything he describes in the second to the last paragraph that you quote.

    His agenda is the literacy agenda, getting students capable of using technology, when the real emphasis from an economic competitiveness perspective is in developing the technology. You can get literacy from getting your hands dirty.

    Arguably, if you dig into his little consultancy, he’s focused on writing, a fundamental literacy. Too bad he can’t write a cogent post.

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