Thoughts on STEM Education

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — commonly referred to as STEM. We have grown quite an obsession with this acronym. Children in STEM, women in STEM, STEM education: these are all noble ambitions that are both practical and necessary. As STEM industries continue to grow and progress, we are going to need more people to man the machine, both literally and figuratively. What I wonder, however, is if we have gone overboard in our pursuit of technological development. If I were to ask people to describe the future, say the year 2500, what would the most common responses be? Flying cars? Teleportation? Virtual steak? Autonomous shoes? All legitimate possibilities. The point here is the common theme. When people imagine the world of tomorrow, they imagine the gizmos, gadgets, and tech. Why is that?

One could argue, and I would tend to agree, that this sort of thought process comes from an overemphasis on hard sciences and mathematics in addition to overlooking the aspects of our world that give STEM meaning. We stress the importance of mathematical literacy among our youth, but does this come at the expense of humanitarianism? We encourage students to become scientists and engineers, but who is to say we are not simultaneously discouraging them from becoming authors or poets? I support the galvanization our youth to take on subjects they may have never explored before. However, I would caution putting all our eggs in one basket. It seems that schools in the United States may not be giving the humanities the fair shake they deserve. The greatest minds throughout history have been shaped by questioning the world around them, by asking the question and trusting that they would find the answer. Isaac Newton first theorized his law of gravitation after an apple fell on his head. Einstein drew inspiration for his theory of relativity from the fictional writings of Felix Eberty and Aaron Bernstein. Inspiration comes from the world around us, from profound thought and questioning. Before Newton and Einstein could be scientists, they had to be philosophers. How can we expect our youth to become the former without a proper education in the latter?

In the same vein, I am reminded of yet another great philosopher: Rene Descartes. Descartes theorized, “I think, therefore I am”. In Descartes’s eyes, thought is being, yet being is unknown. We rely on our senses to process the world around of us, yet our senses constantly deceive us. If I wake up during a dream, can I ever be certain that I am not dreaming? Can I know that anything around me is real? How do I know that I am not dreaming now? If we cannot trust the nature of our reality, then there is nothing we can be sure of. These abstract concepts help make Descartes’s point: all I can definitively prove is that I am indeed thinking, for to question whether one can think is, in itself, a thought. Therefore, no matter how unreliable my thoughts are, they prove to me that I am a thinking being. I think, therefore I am.

Descartes wrote his Discourse on the Method in 1637. Yet, its message is no less true today. We live in a world defined by subjectivity, constantly changing and adapting with the times. Though there is nothing we can truly be sure of in the ever-changing landscape of human civilization, we can begin to develop an understanding. We lean towards STEM because we seek to define ourselves and others in a finite and quantitative manner. After all, understanding gives us comfort. We strive to define our reality, but we cannot do so without a basis of understanding. Before we attempt to understand a machine, we must first take it apart, piece by piece.

Rene Descartes

If the human world be a machine, its parts are vast in both complexity and amount. Psychology, the study of the mind and behavior. What motivates us? Why are we driven to do the things we do? Political science, the study of government systems. What drives certain groups of people toward different political ideologies? Can radically different governments coexist in a civil manner, or is war inevitable? Anthropology, the study of cultures and society. What can we learn from those different from us? How do the beliefs and practices of past cultures define us today and into the future? Environmental science, the study of nature and the physical world around us. How will rising sea levels impact farming practices in coastal regions? How can we mediate the rate of our resource consumption to combat the deterioration of rainforests?

At a glance, these fields are separate entities, studied and examined individually. Together, however, they form this ever-important basis of understanding. To have broad perspectives, to be multifaceted in thought — these are the things that propel individuals towards great ideas. These are the foundations that we need in education, should we hope to strengthen STEM fields among our youth. If we are to be scientific pioneers, we need to approach our learning like Descartes, like Newton, and like Einstein. These men took sight of the world around them, thought about it from every context they could capture, and tore everything they knew to the ground, all in hopes of understanding.

A young Newton, sitting under the apple tree that changed physics forever

I myself intend to enter the quantitative realm as a career, yet I am not blind to the fact that the quantitative is simply the finishing touch on the collection of abstract and amorphous elements that compose the qualitative. Without an intent to understand, there is no basis for math at all. Numbers are the language by which we may name the unnameable, by which we express the inexpressible. However, if there is nothing to be named, nothing to express, math falls flat.

Children should be excited by science and math. However, they should be equally excited to expand the foundation that STEM relies upon. Our education system is the facilitating mechanism for children to build their foundation. As such, it should promote the same inquisitive nature that spurred Descartes, Newton, and Einstein in their pursuits of truth. As our youth embark on theirs, we owe it to them to make schools into institutions that are willing to cross boundaries and explore the unknown. As I see it, education must make us think. Only then may we be.