What STEM Actually Is: A Zakaria Rebuttal
A MiddleWeb Blog
A lot of what makes you succeed in life is not related to STEM. They are things like how to think clearly, how to express yourself clearly, how to write clearly, and the ability to place things in context.” — Fareed Zakaria in PCMag
If Evan Dashevsky, Features Editor for PCMag, has characterized Mr. Zakaria’s views accurately, then Mr. Z, in his enthusiasm for the humanities, has again misrepresented STEM – at least K-12 STEM.
It’s scary to think how much misinformation about STEM one article (or one famous individual) can put out, and how many people may be misled as a result. That’s why I’m tackling this one.
I realize that a former science teacher and STEM curriculum writer taking on someone as eloquent and prolific as Mr. Zakaria is like a mouse going up against an elephant. But, here goes, anyway – because an accurate understanding of STEM is essential for a strong education system.
Let’s tackle four misconceptions that this PCMag article floats with regard to STEM – especially STEM in the K-12 community where I have put in a lot of “class time” in the past several decades. (See my definition of STEM.)
STEM is not indifferent to humanity
1. The article labels STEM as a cold, hard, and rational curriculum. I’ll bet that’s a surprise to the inventive, curious, and inspired folks who drive the progress in STEM education and related job fields. Many of them spend their lives creating solutions for problems that affect humanity worldwide – solutions that require a broad understanding of people as well as things.
As our students focus on the real and formidable challenges in areas such as health, environmental issues, and failing infrastructure, they generally develop genuine concern, empathy, and a desire to solve these problems that touch others. Yes, STEM is definitely rational; but “cold” and “hard?” Those are highly unlikely descriptors for folks in STEM fields. STEM positions are filled with many caring, inspired, and imaginative people.
Clarity of thought not related to STEM?!
2. Mr. Zakaria states, “A lot of what makes you succeed in life is not related to STEM. They are things like how to think clearly, how to express yourself clearly, how to write clearly, and the ability to place things in context.” Say what? Those skills are actually at the core of any STEM project.
Do STEM kids need to clearly communicate orally and in writing, art, and reading? Of course they do. And they must place engineering challenges in context as a necessary first step to solving problems (not to mention understanding the context in which technologies they create will be used).
In actuality, STEM naturally includes thinking skills, literacy, art, clear communication, and putting things in context. In contrast to Mr. Zakaria’s premise, most of what makes us succeed in life relates powerfully to STEM.
STEM ≠ Computers
3. Mr. Zakaria equates STEM with computers. In discussing STEM and the humanities he remarks that “computers are able to do some of those rote, repetitive skills that people used to learn technical skills for. But what a computer can’t do is be human.”
Consider this: STEM goes way beyond computers. It engages students in science, technology, engineering, and math as they exist in everyday life – interwoven and integrated. Any one of those subjects, taught in isolation, is not STEM. Computers are technological devices used in STEM projects, just as they are often used in humanities lessons and projects, and over at CNN.
Also, the “T” in STEM goes well beyond computers. Technology is any device created to satisfy a human need or want. Through STEM, students can learn how to use old and new technologies, understand how new technologies come about, develop technologies of their own, and analyze how specific technologies affect us and others.
Technology, in one form or another, is woven throughout STEM in combination with math and science to engineer solutions for problems. It’s something beyond using a computer.
Good STEM strengthens soft skills
4. Mr. Zakaria implies that STEM does not address the creative skills, soft skills, contextual skills, and the ability to work together. He asserts, “These soft skills are not things you easily pick up in an engineering or biology class.” Well, that probably depends on the teacher. But remember that engineering alone is not STEM; and biology alone is not STEM.
When kids combine what they learn in biology and engineering in a STEM project to collaboratively address, create, and design solutions for a real problem, they build a strong toolkit of those aptitudes. STEM education intentionally and consistently develops and rewards curiosity, creativity, self-direction, problem-solving, decision-making, collaboration, innovation, and communication – to name just a few skills. It’s an area rich with human interaction skills.
Mr. Zakaria also notes: “And the final part is the ability to work together. People have to want to work with you.” So, here’s the good news for Mr. Z. Students regularly work in teams during STEM projects and build social skills as they learn how to interact successfully and productively.
STEM education needs the humanities
This article got a lot of things right. Mr. Zakaria mentioned that the sweet spot is marrying the technical with the liberal arts. Absolutely on target!
If Mr. Zakaria’s goal, as the article says, is really “to put global socio-economic forces in context and translate them for the average person,” then folks like Mr. Z will need to get out into STEM classrooms and rethink their narrow understanding of what’s going on. Yes, they will find educators who fail to grasp the true vision of STEM education and need to be called to task. But criticize the execution, not the concept.
The humanities are in no way short-changed by STEM education. They are not something different from STEM education. They are absolutely necessary to STEM education. This is not an either-or situation. And there are many more reasonable defenses for funding and promoting the humanities than misrepresenting STEM or any other subject.
So now I’ve added my two cents to the subject, and as someone who began as a liberal arts major and is the mother of a classical musician, I say, “Go STEM + Humanities!”
Feature image: Jack Andraka from “Teen Inventors Who Are Changing the World.”