STEM Is Not a Threat to a Liberal Education
A MiddleWeb Blog
Okay, one more time – let’s try to defog the STEM debate. Misconceptions about STEM education seem to materialize daily, particularly in op-ed columns. I tried to clear the air on this issue in a post titled Six STEM Myths, Misconceptions and Jaw-dropping Whines, but it’s pretty clear that some prominent op-ed writers are not reading this blog (smile).
For me, the most astonishing misconception still afloat is the idea that STEM education somehow sabotages other subject areas such as the fine arts, language arts, and humanities.
In defense of a STEM education
In his WaPo opinion piece, Zakaria contends that America’s “obsession” with STEM education is dangerous. He begins with this statement, which for him seems to define the STEM initiative: If Americans are united in any conviction these days, it is that we urgently need to shift the country’s education toward the teaching of specific, technical skills.
Specific technical skills? Really, Dr. Zakaria? Well, if you limit the definition of STEM education to teaching a set of specific, technical skills it’s no wonder you have problems with the idea. I would, too.
But consider this: authentic STEM education focuses on producing students who (1) have a deep understanding of science, mathematics, and technology; (2) are able to integrate and apply that knowledge to problem-solve, create, and innovate; and (3) use engineering design processes to think about and develop solutions for real world problems.
So, this is dangerous? Or defined as simply a set of technical skills? Not in my book. Let’s look at a couple of Zakaria’s other statements (in italics):
- No matter how strong your math and science skills are, you still need to know how to learn, think and even write. Well, of course. And nothing about STEM education prevents that. STEM is not exclusionary! It’s an initiative designed to teach and apply science, math, and technology differently. Students must learn other subjects with equal rigor. I’d even add that all students need to have a background in the arts – experience in expressing the beauty and the best of what makes us human. Applying exclusionary statements to STEM indicates a real lack of understanding about the vision for STEM education.
- Critical thinking is, in the end, the only way to protect American jobs. Again – a no-brainer. But to Zakaria, critical thinking is somehow excluded from STEM education. Or can only be obtained apart from STEM education. (This portion of the article seems to equate STEM with computer technology.)
To be fair, Zakaria is aiming his article at what he sees as a short-sighted view of education by politicians who want to de-emphasize liberal arts education at the college level in favor of science and math content. That does show their lack of understanding of the value of liberal arts and its critical place in society, but it doesn’t make STEM studies any less valuable to our nation’s well-being.
If you read his article, you will agree with much of what Zakaria says about the need for a broad-based education. It’s not that his points are incorrect – they are mostly on target, in fact. But he builds his case by setting the liberal arts against STEM education – and a vastly incomplete view of STEM education, at that.
The scary thing about his article is that it perpetuates the myth of a face-off between STEM and the liberal arts. And others may begin to apply this kind thinking to K-12 education. Ever heard this kind of rhetoric?
- We can’t have STEM because that means we have to de-emphasize language arts, social studies, etc. Or,
- We have to build all of the other subjects into our STEM initiative. (See STEM 2015: Are We Losing Our Focus?)
Nonsense. Let’s try again to clear up the fog of confusion.
Combine – Design – Create – Solve
STEM is an initiative that focuses on combining knowledge from science, mathematics, and technology to solve real world problems using an engineering process. It focuses on math, science, and technology in a different way – one that prepares students with a variety of 21st century workforce skills, including critical and creative thinking.
Schools have a curriculum that offers students language arts, history and social studies, fine arts, and a plethora of other subjects in addition to math, science, and technology. STEM education does not replace the other subjects. It does not de-emphasize other subjects. It focuses on science and math, through an engineering lens.
STEM relies on the other subjects to join in the task of producing the well-rounded students who can read, write, think critically, and do all of those things that Zakaria identifies as important.
As far as building other subjects into the STEM initiative: if other subjects can correlate their curriculum objectives with STEM, then that provides benefits for students as they begin to see connections among all their subjects. However, if you try to build a STEM program that mashes all of the curriculum into one initiative, don’t call it STEM. Call it project-based learning or PBL – an integrated program that does this quite well when implemented properly.
Drilling down a little deeper
Zakaria’s quick condemnation of STEM might be understandable from one perspective. If you google “STEM” you will immediately see that educators and policymakers often slap the STEM label on very traditional science, math and technology coursework. For those who may still think that STEM education is just a new name for old-style curriculum, take a look at what a good K-12 STEM program does:
- Involves students in compelling real-life problems. Think real social, economic, and environmental situations in their local and extended communities – clean water, food shortages, increase in diseases, energy shortages, and air quality to name a few. Students can relate to (and get excited about) developing solutions for problems.
- Integrates and applies science and math grade-level objectives through engineering challenges. High quality STEM curriculum is not math and science “lite.” Rather, through authentic experiences, students understand how key science and math concepts are applied in the world.
- Uses an inquiry-based, hands-on learning approach that engages students, welcomes their innovative ideas, and allows for multiple possible solutions to problems. STEM education encourages critical thinking and creativity in a low-risk environment where failure is regarded as a necessary part of developing a solution.
- Involves students in regular collaboration and teamwork to research, brainstorm, plan, design, and create prototypes for their engineering challenge.
- Engages students in testing, analyzing, and evaluating their results; and in using that information to redesign and improve their proposed solutions.
- Involves students in using a variety of communication approaches to discuss and describe their work.
- Involves an appropriate use of digital and other types of technology in addressing STEM challenges.
These components comprise the acid test for genuine 24-carat STEM. When you hear people disparage STEM as simply a set of technical skills (which, by the way, are valuable skills), or vow that STEM hurts the liberal arts and other programs, please help to clear the fog for them.