Moment of Inertia, Issue #12 | Root and STEM

There's no doubt technical innovations are transforming (and have been transforming) every corner of our world, but is the current approach of STEM education the best way to equip ourselves with the tools we'll need in the future?


Root and STEM

We are living in what is perhaps the golden age of acronyms, many of which carry great cultural, social, and economic weight. When it comes to significance, though, I would like to submit for your consideration the acronym STEM, aka "Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics". For as long as I've been aware of educational policy, this acronym and the four "pillars of society" it encompasses have been upheld as the superior fields of pursuit for students across the United States and around the world. The logic goes that the innovations currently transforming our world have by and large been derived from advancements in these four disciplines, so our future generations must learn to master these levers by which to move the world, or risk being moved by them and those that do possess those technical skills, instead. Despite being a STEM student myself (arguably, pursuing a PhD in biomedicine is about as deep into STEM as one can get), I have been opposed to this notion of "STEM" for several years, and there are two major reasons why I don't believe it's the best way to approach the very real and very pressing need for us all to be more literate in the advancements shaping our world. First, the dichotomy of STEM/not-STEM is leaving far too many people out of crucial educational opportunities; and second, despite the integration of the 4 STEM disciplines that is often spoken about, we're largely failing when it comes to ensuring literacy in all 4 areas.

I'll start with the second point first. There's no denying that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are all derived from the same "job description". Dating back to antiquity, there were individuals who were expert practitioners of all 4 fields (although one might wonder what the difference between the T and E would have been in ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia). More contemporaneously, the concept of STEM can trace its routes back to the WWII-era military-industrial complex, where disciplines like theoretical physics and mechanical engineering worked side-by-side on the Manhattan Project and mathematics, mechatronics, and computing were used to both create and subsequently break the Enigma Machine. In the 80 years since the official start of WWII hostilities in Europe, however, each of these fields has advanced, expanded, and specialized far too much for experts in one field to truly be experts in another as well. This isn't to say we couldn't accomplish a Manhattan Project-scale endeavor today, there'd just be a lot more job titles. Heck, you couldn't even do materials science in 1942, not that the activities that comprise materials science weren't being done back then, we just didn't have a separate name for them. Despite what some people say, words and names do carry with them great importance, and in the world of STEM, giving a STEM sub-field a new name gives it the power to have its own professional societies, conferences, and sub-specialties. This branching and expanding is one of the primary reasons why we have been able to advance so much in the past century, but it is also why a talented developer likely knows very litter about cell biology and why an expert in gene therapy probably doesn't know much data science. What we write as STEM is these days probably better represented as S|T|E|M. Those boundaries aren't hard and fast, but they're certainly there.

Going back to the first - and in my opinion more important - point, by focusing on STEM as a package of disciplines and majors to be taught in school, we end up creating two groups of people: STEM and non-STEM. Nothing could be further from the stated goals around STEM as preparing everyone for the future. This isn't to say everyone needs to be taught an in-depth STEM education - not everyone needs to vector calculus (I'm not even sure I needed to learn vector calculus). What everyone does need to be, though, in conversant in the language of technical innovation, and it wouldn't hurt if more people could also add some key STEM skills (e.g., data analysis, coding for task automation, basic chemistry) to their toolbelts. I use the term toolbelt very deliberately here, because there is a whole lot of STEM that is not a college major so much as it is a tool to be leveraged in our day-to-day lives, like email or word processing. An example I always like to give is that 3D printing is frequently housed within the domain of engineering (sometimes technology) but nothing I learned in the course of my engineering education made me particularly well-equipped to work with 3D printing technologies, virtually all of my exposure to that manufacturing method happened extracurricularly, largely in entrepreneurial, startup-type environments. Furthermore, a lot of 3D printing feels a lot like repairing a car or some other kind of "blue collar" industrial machine.

The attempts to rectify this in-group/out-group discrepancy have largely consisted of adding letters to the acronym. I'm sure many of you are familiar with the modified acronym STEAM, giving the creative arts writ large a seat at the table in the form of the word "Art". I made up my own, recently, ESTEAM, which adds "Entrepreneurship" to the start, since that often seems to be a field that gets mixed up in all of this too (and rightly so, in my opinion). Even more recently, I came across this one: STEM2D, standing for "Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, Manufacturing & Design" (personally I think ESTEAM rolls off the tongue a little bit better). There's no denying people working in fields as disparate as mechanical engineering and the fine arts are all leveraging the technical innovations we have brought into the world over the course of the past century, but at what point do we, in the name of making sure STEM education reaches everyone, just add a letter for every discipline that already existed?I would argue no one can be a STEM2D expert (or an ESTEAM2D expert, for that matter). We can all specialize in our sub-fields, but trying to teach every student in america ESTEAM2D the way we try to teach STEM right now would be bombarding them with so much content that they'd have no chance of truly learning any of it. And it's true learning and retention, coupled with practical applications that truly empowers us to leverage our learning in our day-to-day lives?

If we ought to throw out STEM education as we know it today, though, how should we best prepare future generations for the world they will inherit? Even more so, how can we do even better than past generations and truly empower everyone to take advantage of the innovations we've brought into the world, instead of a select few?

There are many proposed solutions.I'll offer some of my own in two weeks with the continuation of this series. Until then,I'd love to hear your thoughts and insights- and I'll also mention that I'm looking for some guest editorials around these topics as well.