STEM Education #1: Science Solves Problems

(Last Updated On: March 23, 2016)

STEM education blackboard evilestmark 200pxScience Fact: STEM education means science, technology, engineering and math. Different from the stem cells this blog featured last week (Part 1 & Part 2) — yet also vital to modern life and health. This post also comes in two parts: Part 1 discusses the successes of STEM education; Part 2 discusses how STEM education is sometimes no match for politics.

A practical knowledge of technology is essential to navigate the world we live in. We are avid consumers and expert users of smart phones and DVRs. And technical change happens so fast that it requires life-long learning.

As an example, the condo my wife and I own in Maui recently acquired high definition TV service, with most owners signing up. Guests under 40 seem to already know how to juggle one or more remotes to switch between DVD and TV. Those who are 60 have to be shown how to do it and for them we post a detailed instruction sheet. However, for our most elderly guests our manager has found that it works best to simply unhook the cable box for the duration of their visit. That is, he moves the TV service back in time to a simpler technology.

STEM education, in the form of technical graduates from colleges and graduate schools, has enabled the new devices that we alternately lust for and curse. And the technology created by STEM education is critical to the U.S. economy. As an example, consider the car: it began as a mostly mechanical device, but it’s estimated that soon 40% of automobile manufacturing cost will consist of electronics.

STEM education affects people’s day-to-day lives in several ways:

– Professional Careers. Most obviously, STEM education at the college and graduate school level trains scientists and engineers who help turn new ideas into products and services to improve our lives.

Various studies have projected shortages of STEM graduates yet those shortages, when they occur, are limited to specialized areas. Overall, the unemployment rates for STEM and non-STEM occupations are about the same, for the same level of educational attainment (see Figure 4 in the Department of Commerce’s 2011 study). For that and other reasons some recent books and articles try to discredit the idea that to secure our national economic future, we need to graduate more engineers and scientists.

However, STEM work is not just for 4-or-more-year college graduates: auto mechanics, medical technicians and the neighborhood geek shop are just as necessary to our high-tech society. And what about those brilliant game and app designers who are often self-taught?

Our biggest problem with STEM education at the college level seems to be that the job market fluctuates so much that students can’t choose a major subject with the confidence that they will find a job when they graduate.

– Technical Literacy. If we need STEM graduates to create new technologies, we also need a public who can use them. Just as basic knowledge of farming is essential in an agricultural society, basic knowledge of technology is a survival skill today. A previous post commented on how difficult an eighth-grade test from 1912 seems today, and some researchers have concluded that average IQ has declined since Victorian times.

It may be that we can bump along with just a few brilliant minds inventing the new stuff that the rest of us will use. However, with the prevalence of spammers, scammers and identity theft today, I would prefer to see everyone acquire the basics of logical thinking in middle school and beyond, and a healthy portion of STEM education would provide that. We may not need more scientists; but I believe that we do need more technically aware citizens. For this reason, STEM education should be one of the things parents look for in a school.

– The Limitations of STEM Education. One of the goals of science is to understand how the world works, even when the time scales greatly exceed the human life span. Thus astrophysicists try to understand how the universe evolved, a quest that has led to various variations of the Big Bang theory; archaeologists, paleontologists and geneticists study the evolution of life; and environmental scientists analyze the human-caused and naturally-occurring factors that change the global climate. Scientists who work in these fields see the accumulating evidence and often have a consistent view of the facts, and how much confidence we should have in the conclusions that may be drawn from them. Therefore they find it baffling that these big questions are controversial at all, and that 40% to 50% of all Americans disagree with what scientists have to say.

Part 2 of this post will discuss some fascinating research that shows the limitations of technical literacy when it comes up against our need to belong to a mutually supportive group.

Considering the many things that a young person needs to learn to successfully navigate the adult world, what priority should schools place on STEM education compared with other subjects?

Drawing Credit: evilestmark, on openclipart.org

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