There Are No Lowercase Letters in STEM
Ask anyone what STEM education is all about, and they will dutifully rattle off the meaning of the acronym: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Dig a little deeper, and you’re likely to hear responses like these:
“Oh, my kid’s school has a great STEM program. There’s a new robotics club with cool gizmos to play with.”
“Schools should invest more in STEM because coding is an essential twenty-first century skill.”
“Having a good STEM program makes it easier to get into college, study computers, and get a high-paying tech job.”
While these ideas aren’t necessarily incorrect, they’re very telling about how we have been trained to see STEM over the past decade or so. Notice that each one of these responses focuses on coding and gadgets as shorthand for four entirely different fields of study.
Technology has taken over our thinking about STEM, leaving the other disciplines — the sciences, engineering, and mathematics — out of our imaginations, and therefore out of the conversation.
And that poses a potentially huge problem.
Silicon Valley’s Long Shadow
Big tech companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google have undoubtedly changed the world, and technology now mediates nearly everything we do. And while it’s true that the country’s technology giants have pledged $300 million for STEM education, it’s also important to take a hard look at the motivations behind Big Tech’s reach into education, and exactly what we’re all getting in return.
For example, that $300 million collection plate is dedicated specifically to strengthening computer science programs across the country. Computer science in general and coding in particular are definitely worthy STEM subjects to pursue, but they’re not the only ones. Yet when Silicon Valley wants to support STEM, they nearly always mean technology.
This could be a simple case of “When you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” That is, tech companies deal in technology, so they naturally assume that everything can be solved with the right bit of code. We’re living that reality right now: From sending a message to practicing meditation, some tech company really does have an app for just about any problem you may have, real or imagined.
But the outsized focus on the T in STEM isn’t just an accident. It’s for profit.
Technology companies of all shapes and sizes need labor, and hiring a sharp programmer is expensive: In 2018, the median salary for a computer programmer was $84,280. We often hear about how well tech careers pay as incentive to get more students interested in STEM, but simple supply-and-demand rules explain why they earn so much. If there were thousands more qualified programmers available to hire, tech corporations and startups alike wouldn’t have to pay so much to attract talent. Developing a pool of tech workers will save these companies huge sums of money that can be shuttled away from workers and into the pockets of shareholders.
Of course, selling hardware, software, and educational management systems that go along with specific STEM curriculum is profitable, too. But it’s absolutely critical to ask who benefits, and in what way, from an outsized emphasis on coding and robotics in schools.
The Future: Brought to You by the Letters S, E & M
Just as we must focus on diversity, inclusion, and educational equity in STEM, it’s also the duty of STEM leaders to bring attention to the interdisciplinary forms of science, engineering and math that simply do not have the same powerful advocacy organizations behind them — but are still very important to our future.
What Does It Really Mean to Give Students an Equal STEM Education?
Can we really achieve STEM education equality by giving everyone the same thing?
Math stands out as perhaps the STEM subject with the fewest high-profile cheerleaders lobbying school districts and organizing fundraisers on its behalf, yet it’s a critical foundation for nearly all types of scientific inquiry and careers. Any student who wishes to major in one of the sciences — and even the so-called “soft” sciences like sociology, psychology, and economics — will also have to demonstrate a thorough understanding of statistics and higher mathematics. And of course, numeracy is a life skill that allows people to do everything from managing their money to doubling recipes.
Physicist Michael Marder also points out that the type of thinking required in one kind of science is not the same as what’s required in another discipline. For example, physicists tend to rely on mathematical models to solve problems and conduct experiments, while biologists design more traditional, hypothesis-based experiments. If we aren’t careful to expose students to all of the rich possibilities of science and engineering, they’ll miss out on new ways to think and approach the problems of the world.
The Battle for the Soul of STEM
Therefore, finding solutions to humanity’s challenges and developing exciting innovations are definitely not the sole provenance of Silicon Valley. As we head into a new decade, great advancements will be made in other STEM-heavy industries following current trends towards a new multipolar, geopolitical order. It will be a departure from what we have witnessed for much of the post–World War II era that many in the West have grown accustomed to since the fall of the Soviet Union.
So while there’s certainly value in learning to code, it’s important to make it clear to the moneyed interests who are trying to co-opt the STEM movement for personal gain — STEM education is not for sale. As long as there’s a passionate, decentralized group of educators and innovators looking for ways to enrich the lives of the common man, woman and child in the spirit of peace and human progress, STEM will continue to flourish in all its marvel. It will not be controlled solely by governments or corporations with deep pockets nor by lobbyists with ulterior motives.
It’s time to disrupt the disruptors and make it clear that there are four capital letters in STEM, and that it belongs to everyone.
This article was originally featured in The STEM.org Informer™: A Newsweek Publication on August 7th, 2020 and updated for Medium on September 20th, 2020.