SeanChron - STEM is Not Enough

I've had the idea for this 'essay', "STEM is not enough", in my head since Y2K...yes, over a decade now. It has taken me a long time to sift through a lot of ideas, to sculpt my thoughts, to research and keep tabs on things, and to pinpoint the essence of what was troubling me about all the attention on STEM. I finally decided, as the new year passed into 2011, that it was time to get it all out of my head. Thus, what you read below may very well continue to get updates as time goes one...updated facts, updated figures, and even updated ideas. That said, I most recently updated this post on: 2/1/11.

For the Love of STEM
If you don't know the acronym, STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math and it is used by teachers, parents, business leaders, politicians, and heads of states to describe the many and diverse scholarly and professional fields that fall within the broad acronym, from astrophysics to zoology. The belief is that by investing in STEM education from an early age, we will produce a more STEM-literate citizenry that will ultimately make the US more prosperous, competitive, and influential.

In the US, STEM education gets a lot of attention and money from many and diverse agencies, companies, and foundations. The US Department of Education, the National Research Council (NRC), The National Science Foundation (NSF), and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) - among many others – have all increased their support and funding of STEM programs, from K-12 to advance degrees, with the intention of producing more STEM professionals in the coming years. According to a September 2010 Whitehouse report, Federal agency STEM spending alone will reach almost $700 million. In 2010, the Obama administration pledged over $4 billion in its Race to the Top initiative to spark efforts in STEM education at the state level. The private sector is stepping up as well. In 2010, Exxon alone pledged $120 million over three years towards STEM education. But there is still much discussion on how America is falling behind the rest of the world in STEM fields and thus is missing out on innovation and losing our competitive edge in the ever-advancing international marketplace.

It may be the case that our multi-million dollar investment in STEM isn’t actually producing the results we expected, but to be honest, I think the STEM subjects are going to be OK. With the eyes and funds of so many constituents watching and supporting STEM so closely and fervently, STEM certainly won’t drop off the “what we must do to invest in our future” radar any time soon.

The Ocean of Misfit Fields
Since support for STEM subjects is solid for the foreseeable future, I feel it is time to express concern about some other key fields that also contribute greatly to our future prosperity, competitiveness, and influence but receive little political or financial support at any level of in our education system. These ‘misfit fields’ include flashy disciplines like architecture and industrial design, as well as more modest subjects like history and culture that help us better understand, value, and interact with one another.

A study by the Center on Education Policy in 2008 indicated that there has been a 35% decline in the time devoted to art and music instruction in a large number of public schools since 2002. In New York City alone, a city known internationally for its exceptional arts and culture, overall education spending increased by 13% between 2006 and 2009, while support for arts and music fell by 68% according to the Center for Arts Education (CAE). Furthermore, CAE also reported that in The Big Apple, nearly 30% of public schools do not have an arts teacher on staff and only 8% of elementary schools provide arts education at all.

To address this problem, I’ve made a first mini-step to help define these misfit fields so that they can be more easily understood, referred to, compared, and advocated for: I’ve given them the Holy Grail of advocacy work...acronyms.

All Hands on DACT
The first group of fields that can be grouped together (much like science, technology, engineering, and math were grouped together to form the STEM acronym) is DACT, which stands for design, applied arts, crafts, and trades. As you might imagine, DACT includes fields such as architecture, interior design, industrial design, fashion, graphic design, etc. It also includes training and education in skills like woodworking, welding, construction, and sewing. Of the small number of arts and music programs that do exist in K-12 schools today, almost none of them introduce actual professions like industrial design as a career path to students even though industrial designers are one of the biggest drivers of change in consumer products. What sort of new ideas might come out of young designers and craftspeople if we spent multi-millions of dollars on bolstering funding for early DACT education?

Time to CHAT
The other group of fields or subjects that can be grouped together is CHAT, which stands for culture, humanities, ancestry, and tradition. I am well aware that the last two subjects in that nifty acronym are new to discussions of what we need to focus on in education and that they might be a bit provocative, but I think they are quite important. Sure ancestry and tradition may come up in geography or social studies now and then or perhaps within the school international or culture club, but I firmly believe that it is time infuse and frame the education process with resources, references, and an overall learning environment that is meaningful and relevant to the student and I think that discussions of ancestry and traditions can do just that.

What I’m suggesting isn’t quite student-centered learning, nor is it throwing out the current standard-driven approach to learning. Rather it allows and encourages the education process to be flexible to meet students’ diverse interests and ways of thinking, being, and doing. A clear example of this would be a Native American or Maori student taking a Western science course but also bringing their community’s indigenous knowledge and beliefs to the lab to inform and enhance their personal experience. Another example would be allowing students in an English Literature class to choose the books they wish to read from a list classics, or - even better - identifying a new book that should be added to this list of classics.

Ancestry and tradition are vital aspects of each of us as individuals and is therefore important to bring into one’s learning experience in order to better understand the origins and trajectories of diverse world views. Knowing and sharing one’s own ancestry and traditions, as well as knowing the histories of people and place where we live today can only augment the educational experience. Needless to say, there is almost no extra or supplemental financial support for CHAT subjects in schools today.

Final Thoughts
In a perfect world, all of the subjects listed above, as well as all of the subjects not listed, would be showered with generous amounts of political and financial support in order to cultivate future generations of well-rounded, innovative, and engaged citizens and professionals that will benefit society in ways we can’t even yet imagine. Today, however, there is great competition for very scarce resources and currently political and financial support for STEM subjects are light years ahead of similar support for DACT and CHAT subjects. Many other countries around the world DO see the importance of DACT and CHAT subjects so - like any new trend that sweeps the school hallways - perhaps peer pressure from other countries will spark support of DACT and CHAT education here in the US.

Other 'Stem is Not Enough' Discussions

  • Antonelli, P. 2011. On Governing by Design. SEED Magazine: Global Reset Series.
  • Brazell, J. 2010. Connecting STEM and Arts (TEAMS) to Spur U.S. Innovation. Edutopia - Betty Ray Blog.
  • Caperton, I. H. 2011. Full Steam ahead on CS-STEM. SEED Magazine.
  • Davidson, C., Duffy, P., and Weinberg, M. W. Why STEM is not enough (and we still need the humanities). Guest post on Wall Street Journal. Davidson's follow up blog post on HASTAC.
  • Lehrer, J. 2008. The future of art? SEED Magazine.
  • Shapiro, D. 2010. Reaching Students Through STEM and the Arts. National Science Teachers Association website.
  • Taylor, J. 2010. S.T.A.M.P.E.R. not S.T.E.M. For Public Education Reform. Psychology Today Blog: The Power of Prime
  • Website: STEAM: A Framework for Teaching Across the Disciplines
  • Zwickel, J. 2013. Creative Class, City Arts

    On Arts Education

  • Bronson, P. and A. Merryman. 2010. The Creativity Crisis. Newsweek.
  • Tischler, L. 2011. A Teen Eye for Design. Fast Company
  • Von Zastrow, C. 2008. Arts Education and Economic Competitiveness. Learning First Alliancewebsite.