The Importance of STEM
[This is an adaptation of a paper written by Harry Roman and published in the Journal of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children, March 2012.]
STEM is a potentially new educational powerhouse, and when applied properly, this curriculum integrating process can make a big difference in how our future leaders see the world, and solve problems. It is an exciting paradigm for giving children the tools to compete in the highly competitive global economy.
The Philosophy of STEM
STEM is a philosophy grounded first and foremost in the solution of problems from a multi-faceted and inter-disciplinary perspective. However, it should not just cater to the science, technology, engineering, or math aspects of a student’s education. A well-thought out STEM-based approach to education includes the integration of all subject matter that may be brought to bear on problems, such as the; environmental, social, regulatory, legal, institutional, political, and economic aspects. This is how engineers solve problems large and small everyday, and for this reason engineering and its study is an important part of any STEM program. Let us begin with an enumeration and discussion of how STEM makes sense for the classrooms of today.
The emphasis on STEM will make more students aware of the science/technology/invention triad that has been so important to our economy and standard of living. Fully 60% of all economic growth in this country is due to scientific and technological advances, embodied in new inventions, products and engineering achievements. STEM-based problem solving will help students understand the process by which new ideas become products; and how those products are driven by consumer wants and needs. It will allow students to better grasp the operation of their capitalist economy, and their function and purpose within it.
2) Elevating Math-the Quantitative Element
Too often we lament poor mathematics test scores and student appreciation why they need to study math. In a STEM-based learning environment, the relevance of math will be shown and used often, demonstrating its purpose, transforming its perception, removing its mystique, revealing it as another way to help solve problems. Mathematics should be used in problem solving to show how impacts and concerns can be quantified, for only in quantification can we comprehend the extent of a technology’s impact on society—cutting to the very heart of what societal risk means to a mature civilization, the very basis for regulation and large-scale expenditures in a democratic system.
3) Language and Communication
When done properly, the teaching of STEM principles will be thoroughly integrated with enabling subject matter like language and communication skills, for these are the bedrock of all other skills needed. One cannot solve problems well without the ability to comprehend and understand what one is faced with at the outset. Fundamental to any problem solving activity is the asking of questions and the ability to understand the problem in great detail. Good communication, verbalization, and writing skills are absolutely imperative to the world of STEM. Too often, language and communication teachers feel left out of the STEM juggernaut now steam-rolling its way through school districts. This is wrong! STEM is meant and destined to flower the long-awaited integrated curriculum, and it should include this important subject matter. Also, the powerful analogies, metaphors, and speculations one finds in literature and writing can stimulate and energize creative activities which help trigger new ideas, concepts, and physical inventions. Many scientific and technical experts are avid readers and writers … science fiction being a particularly popular genre that attracts many engineers and scientists. Why wouldn’t STEM benefit from this integration of literature and language?
4) The Timelines of History
With history we see and appreciate the effect that ideas and movements have through time and space. Concepts like democracy, socialism, feudalism, imperialism have meaning and consequent socio-political impacts, as we have learned well over the centuries. We likewise see how technology has made our world a better place to live, saved lives, and can help solve international problems like pollution, global warming, and less dependence on fossil fuels. How can we “do STEM” without including this very valuable historical perspective into our problem solving? For instance, can we not see how historical subjects impinging for instance on individual liberties, will impact our social, economic, and political activities; and our ability to freely create and innovate? History has much to tell and remind us of, and has valuable lessons concerning how and why we have used certain technological advances. Witness World War II and the cornucopia of technologies it gave birth to, virtually re-defining our science; and also completely dominating world thought and geographical boundary lines for the second half of the 20th century.
5) Art and Creativity
In the arts, like the written and spoken word, we find creativity, non-traditional out-of-the-box thinking…so often very crucial to the very concept of invention….and the foundation of technological advances. Art lives from advances in technology and advances it at the same time. One has only to look at how the advent of new materials, paint pigments, and even computer graphics has totally revolutionized how artists express themselves. What about sculpting in various new materials, even metals? The mathematics of fractals has generated amazing new art representations. Notice how high-tech a stage play has become! Art affects us all and is a primal instinct of man- note the leaving of drawings on cave walls…an early attempt to understand one’s world and leave a record [education] for those that followed. How can the arts not be a consideration in an integrated education?
6) The Sound of Music
What a wonderful opportunity it will be to integrate music into every student’s day. Here lies great opportunities to show at the very least, the relationship of music to science, acoustics, the biology of the ear, the design and engineering of instruments, the tone and meter of music and its cousin poetry, how math and music intersect, the impact of music on society and the technological advances of recorded sound and modern music of today, synthesized music, and a world of other fascinating aspects of music. From music we can also learn the teamwork of the orchestra and band—for teamwork is an absolutely fundamental underpinning of life-on-the-job after graduation. Music is powerful stuff and it too, like the arts, rides the buffeting waves of technological change, taking from and contributing to it.
7) Lessons for all from Sports
So much can be brought into the STEM classroom from sports. Great lessons of science, math (sports statistics), biology (the design and use of the body in sporting activities), the social power of sports (the Olympics) and like music mentioned above … teamwork!
The Promise of STEM
In the perfect STEM world, all the subjects must be blended. Perhaps it is a shame that we now call this whole shebang…STEM … certainly an over-simplification for now…until a more appealing, and appropriate name comes along. As I have been alluding thus far, the name of the game is really subject or curriculum integration
Any attempts at STEM utilization must be consequent to a serious look at changing the academic day, a new taxonomy for how we blend and integrate a student’s perspective; about how subject matter is like a series of tectonic plates rubbing and grinding against each other. It is such forces that up-well new thinking, disclose unanticipated opportunities, and thrust ideas to the forefront. Nuggets of academic gold gleam at the interfaces between these plates, places to ponder and ask exciting new questions, using our imagination to dream about what might be! Is this not what graduate students do in search of meaningful questions upon which to base their research? Why not get our kids started early on their question-asking life-long quests?
The nub of the challenge will be to design a new academic day to allow students to comfortably and confidently “linger and learn” at the interfaces between those tectonic plates, exploring and discussing potential new ideas…and learning how to solve problems in a blended, mediated way. Students need time to think and formulate questions, to learn from each other. Educators need to respond to this challenge, to break away from the 140-year old pizza-pie slice model of the academic day.
Maybe students should have subject matter arranged in clusters; or perhaps block scheduling. How about a studio approach, like architect students use in college? As a matter of fact, studying architecture is a wonderful way to see how they view the world through the integrated eyes of science, technology, art, design, and culture! Yes, take the time to look at how and why architects design structures, examine the ancient iconic structures of past civilizations. What were they trying to say to their contemporaries, and future generations?
Could we benefit from teamed teacher groups? Should the business community and other members of the “grown-up world” be more visible in the classroom, presenting case studies or examples for students to hear about and discuss? Should we be discussing product failures, analyzing the contributing factors? Perhaps more panel discussions involving professionals should be hosted, so students may question and learn. Let’s have student teams try to solve some real-world problems that business leaders challenge them with. Let’s also have more unstructured problem-solving and design challenges for students to grapple with. Why not have students attend municipal project meetings in local town halls, where major construction in a community is discussed in a public forum, and blended solutions among competing interest groups are hammered out. Could this not be an important microcosm to observe about life after school?
In the workplace of today, teamwork is a paramount aspect of complex problem solving. This is the inter-disciplinary part of STEM personified. This is where the heavy-lifting of business takes place. There are few if any lone-wolfs in the business world. In my past discussions and lectures to the school community, some teachers have taken me to task for this and tried to defend the notion that their students are striving for individual excellence—to which I have no disagreement; but there is much to be gained from looking at school sports teams and music classes/orchestras/bands. Here we have students who are best in position and strong in team skills. There is much to be transplanted from music and sports to STEM. Both of these activities are fundamentally based on teamwork. Music does not sound so good if all musicians are not playing in time to the conductor; and sports teams do not have winning seasons if each player is out for themselves.
Form partnerships with the business community. Both of you have a great deal in common, for the modern workplace is a bastion of continuous learning that more and more takes on the mantle of a school in practicum.
STEM teaching will also allow students to get more involved from a head and hands perspective—so long overdue in a student’s development. Consult any modern brain-based text and you will soon discover how intricately linked the head and hands are to learning, long-lasting learning. This success with manual manipulation will lead to students creating physical objects, realizing instant confidence, self-esteem, and a sense of having achieved relevance from their studies.
Here is some additional news from the business front. The high-paying professionals in engineering, architecture, medicine, research…etc. actually touch things, and get dirty on the job-even college professors in labs. Head and hands activities are quite prevalent in the business world. The hands are the extensions of the mind, and they will be an essential part of the preparation for transitioning from school to work. STEM will smash this lop-sided heads only academic day we now have, restoring perspective to how humans really learn. Just for the record, STEM professionals command starting salaries of between $50,000 and $90,000 a year. STEM pays well.
The Edison Connection
One can track the start of STEM type thinking back to the famous invention factory concept of Thomas Edison at his legendary West Orange labs in New Jersey. Here the great inventor initiated the model for the “new product development project manager”, leading to the great R&D labs now operating in all Fortune 500 companies. When asked why he had experienced such success, Edison always, and with great reverence, mentioned his mother, Nancy Elliot Edison, who had home-schooled him…for the little one room schoolhouses of yesteryear knew not what to do with young Thomas. Her four great pillars of his education went something like this:
- Learn by using both your head and hands.
- Read and learn from the entire stock of literature-not just what you like.
- Experience the world and learn from it, not everything comes in books.
- Learn from your failures and never stop trying-keep learning.
From that boy sprang the man who defined our modern world, giving us recorded sound, motion pictures, the light bulb and the modern electric utility industry, the concept of R&D labs, how to perpetuate technological progress indefinitely, and a host of other advances and improvements. His early work led to the modern era of electronics and radio as well. Here was a man who thought through his concepts from a multi-dimensional and multi-disciplinary viewpoint.