I was quite amused this week by an article on The Onion website entitled “Young Girls Creeped Out By Older Scientists Constantly Trying to Lure Them Into STEM”. The article concludes with the observation that so much of STEM outreach also focuses on recruiting racial and ethnic minority students to study science, technology, engineering, and math.
Don’t misunderstand: I am fully aware that there remains a critical shortfall of talent and expertise in the STEM areas. A quick glance at the career prospects projected by Bureau of Labor Statistics quantifies the shortage rather clearly: many STEM-related occupations are projected to experience a 20 to 30 percent growth in available positions by 2024. We are not graduating enough students in this country to fill those positions, so innovative work will be left for other countries to do instead of the United States.
I get it. But I’m just so tired of STEM, STEM, STEM.
And don’t get me started on STEAM, also known as The Humanities Strike Back. I fully embrace STEAM’s premise: appreciation for and knowledge of the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences help prepare scientists and engineers who can create more comprehensive solutions to today’s inherently interdisciplinary problems. I’d like to say this is obvious, but I know from reading blogs by other people in the technology industry that it is not, and that the arts and humanities, and even the core theory of the computing and mathematics disciplines that power today’s technologies, are terribly undervalued to the point of being pushed entirely to the side as impractical wastes of time. (Take, for example, this article, that includes the irksome sub-headline “Theory Distracts and Confuses”, as if it were better to hire people who simply know which buttons to push when.) So, STEAM’s message is extremely important to hear and to put into practice.
But the derivativeness of STEAM gives it a really bad look. The arts and humanities have an innate value completely independent of STEM. As ways by which humans search for and express truth, their purpose must be to inform and color all academic and professional disciplines. Otherwise, we educators fail to prepare future thought leaders who know enough and consider enough to solve real problems, the kinds of challenges that can’t be addressed simply by writing an app and pressing a button.
We need to invest more in STEM, but we cannot do so at the expense of the liberal arts, business, nursing, or any of the other ways of experiencing and interacting with our world. We need BALANCE: an educational focus that Boldly Applies the Liberal Arts to Nurture Critical Expertise. How do a student’s general education courses connect to the professional disciplines and the sciences? Surely they do, and when we forget that they do, we risk abusing and making decisions about technology that imperil us. So, let’s be very explicit about those connections. Let’s make it a priority to identify the ways that arts, humanities, social sciences, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics connect, and let’s assess our students’ understanding of those connections and their ability to identify them on their own. And, coincidentally, let’s create lots of funding opportunities for implementing these kinds of curricular enhancements, as zealously as we have pushed STEM, and much more fervently than we have embraced that fog that is STEAM.
Let’s strive for BALANCE.