STEM: Why It Makes Perfect Sense

June 22, 2012

Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, posted a blog on Education Week’s website titled, “STEM: Why It Makes No Sense.” In it, he posits that countries who exceed our education achievement levels in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) have no actual STEM programs. They just have superior overall education programs. As such, he argues that we’re all effectively wasting our time by focusing on STEM specifically and should devote those energies to improving our entire education system. 

Now, I’ve done a lot of work in STEM over the years, and I believe wholeheartedly in our need to improve in those subjects. Our organization put out a report on the subject last year that examined the role of business in improving STEM education. So while you might expect me to say otherwise, let me be the first to say this: fundamentally, he’s not wrong. After all, it only stands to reason that if a child can’t read anything competently, that they won’t be able to read a science textbook competently either. Thus, one of the best ways to improve science education is to improve literacy.

Mr. Tucker is far from alone in his contemplations. In fact, like clockwork, every time I speak publicly about improving STEM education, I receive some variation of a question that leads to a discussion of how we can improve STEM education by doing something other than improving STEM education. They aren’t bad questions by any stretch, but my response to them is the same as my response is to Mr. Tucker’s blog—we focus on STEM because we have an enormous need in filling STEM-related jobs.

Without a strong field of STEM focused scholars, there is no innovation. Without innovation, there are no new products and no new industries. Without a talented pool of technicians, the new products and new industries go nowhere. And ultimately, without new products and new industries, there are no new jobs. As it stands right now, there are millions of unfilled jobs due to a lack of STEM skills. Worse, as baby boomers retire, sectors like the energy industry which have an alarmingly high average worker age for many of their jobs, millions more jobs will continue to go unfilled if we don’t do something about STEM education. This is exactly why a lot of people are devoting a lot of resources towards improving STEM education.

Of course, there’s a lot more to improving our productivity in STEM education than merely focusing on the instruction itself. Sadly, there is much work to be done in motivating students to pursue a STEM education or to simply excel in the courses they have to take. There’s still so much we can do to inform students about the opportunities waiting for them in the world if they study a STEM subject. And there are many structural and pedagogical issues outstanding that must be addressed that are specific to STEM education, the biggest being that the vast majority of educators who teach STEM subjects are not certified to do so.

Ultimately, the problems with focusing on STEM education have nothing to do with STEM education. They have everything to do with us. Societally, we need to learn how to handle multiple issues at the same time. If, for the next 20 or 50 years we continue to implement education reforms on an ala carte basis like we have for much of the history of education, we will be lucky to find ourselves in the exact same position we’re in today. 

So make no mistake—Mr. Tucker is absolutely right that focusing just on STEM education makes no sense. It’s just that there’s no good reason why we can’t or shouldn’t put an emphasis on STEM education while still fixing the other ills of our education system. This isn’t texting while driving we’re talking about—it’s walking while chewing gum.