Moment of Inertia, Issue #13 | Full Bloom

In the last Moment of Inertia, I discussed the detriments of STEM education as we know it today. In this edition, I'll put forward some of my own ideas on how we can ensure students (of all ages) are equipped with the technical tools they'll need to be empowered in the world of tomorrow.


Full Bloom

When last we left this two-part series, I was making a case for the notion that the biggest detriment to advancing the goals of STEM education is STEM education itself. The bundling of STEM skills, technologies, and training, rather than being more accessible to all students, has to date resulted in a kind of winner-take-all educational situation where, instead of treating each letter in that acronym as different subjects that people can independently choose to learn, you have to subscribe to the whole bundle, like it or not

Well, I've got news for you, folks. You don't need to know much more than elementary school math to be a great technologist and coder. I would argue that you don't even need to know the "S" in STEM at all to be competent at the "T".

That being said, I do think everybody should have working knowledge of each of the disciplines represented in the STEM acronym, I just don't think STEM should be its own, standalone curriculum. The centuries-long removal of the STEM disciplines from the liberal arts has left entire generations and populations behind, not because they weren't interested in learning STEM topics, but because they weren't interested in subscribing to the whole package.

What I'm really proposing, then, isn't the end of STEM education as much as it is the reintegration of STEM education. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics represent a set of tools that everyone should be utilizing in their lives regularly, if not daily. Political science stands to gain as much from big data and APIs as computer science, and sociology benefits as much from differential equations as aerospace engineering does. Whenever possible, we should be exchanging teaching expertise between disciplines, creating opportunities to show both students and peers new opportunities and capabilities created through the utilization of tools from the STEM toolbelt.

One of my favorite examples of such an opportunity is the Sunlight Foundation "a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that uses civic technologies, open data, policy analysis and journalism to make ... government and politics more accountable and transparent to all." They provide a collection of APIs that make it easy to comb through the myriad amount of government data that gets generated every day in sessions of Congress, publications in the Federal Register, and meetings between politicians and donors, among others. For anyone who knows how to navigate a simple python code, these tools provide an amazing level of access to information and, perhaps more importantly, the power to very quickly aggregate a lot of data for the purposes of gleaning trends, outliers, or any other collection of information you might be interested in. The problem here is that the intersection of people who have the time, interest, and skills to do anything with these technological tools is very small. (At best I've got 2 of those 3 things.)

Wouldn't it be amazing if everyone in the United States had the ability to go through this data? The amount of political action and government accountability that would result would be unprecedented in the history not only of the United States but of representative democracy writ large. And it's just sitting there, out in public, waiting for those few people who both possess the technical skills needed to access the data and the care to do so. I don't know about you, but I don't only want to empower a small subset of the US's software developers to hold their government accountable, I want everyone to be able to do it.

The problem is that we've created a system where, in order to leverage this tool, you're expected to also be taught, broadly, how to code. As someone who codes very frequently, I can attest to how backwards this concept is as an educational strategy. Nobody really "codes". 99% of the time software developers google the problem they're having, or the function they want to perform and then copy-paste some lines of someone else's code into their own. (So yes, I suppose someone had to "actually" code at some point, but the bigger picture here is that the vast majority of the "T" workforce doesn't even regularly put their STEM education to use, they just pull from existing examples and snippets, kind of like a mosaic.)

If our STEM workforce isn't even writing their tools from scratch, why do we want to create a STEM training paradigm where we expect students to do it? You want more people to use technology in the social sciences? Give them the code they need to get data from one of Sunlight's APIs. Just give it to them. Don't tell them to figure it out themselves, or even understand exactly how it's working. That's not STEM education, that's a bachelors degree in computer science. People are naturally inquisitive when they get a new tool. Show someone how to get the legislative data from the most recent session of Congress and in short order they'll understand the patterns and structure of the code enough to understand what one section they'll have to change to get data from previous sessions of Congress.

When the only difference between one set of data


and another


is the dates you write into one line of the code, then you don't really need to understand the fundamentals of computer programming to be able to leverage the technology in a meaningful way. You just need to be shown how to set it up and make it run on your computer.

I think somewhere along the line, we got a little carried away with STEM education. It went from adding new and important tools to everyone's repertoire to trying to make everyone into a software developer or aerospace engineer. That's not what this world is going to need. You don't need to understand how a website server works to know how to get data off of it, and you don't need to understand how to synthesize a polymer to know how to use a 3D printer. STEM education shouldn't be about training everyone to reach the ultimate level of technological competency and achievement. It should be about making people aware of the tools and opportunities that exist and then showing them just enough to understand how to make use of those tools and opportunities. If you teach a man to fish, he'll be fed for a lifetime, it's true, but nobody ever said anything about teaching that same man how to make his own fishing line.


If many of my comments and prescriptions here over the past few weeks have felt generic, it's because I've tried to keep this core argument intentionally broad. Ultimately, the tools we add to our belt with vary from person to person, and from field to field, but we should all be well-versed enough to hold our own at a surface level - not everyone needs to know how to operate a router, but we should all probably know how to use a drill.

I do have some more specific thoughts on these subjects as they relate to graduate education, and graduate education in the life sciences in particular, and I do plan on sharing those thoughts here as part of a tangential series, "GRO Your Own" (if that series title doesn't make sense to you yet, I promise it will). The GRO Your Own series won't be coming in the next edition of Moment of Inertia, though. I've got some other, unrelated, musings that've been knocking around in my head for a while that I'd like to share first...