Focus on STEM education only, good or bad?

According to an op-ed by Fareed Zakaria in the Washington Post, if Americans are united in any conviction these days, it is that we urgently need to shift the country’s education toward the teaching of specific, technical skills, expand STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math) and deemphasize the humanities. “It is the only way, we are told, to ensure that Americans survive in an age defined by technology and shaped by global competition. The stakes could not be higher.” But according to Zakaria the dismissal of broad-based learning, however, comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts — and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future.

Full article is here

Why STEM won’t make us successful.

I’ve always thought it should be STEAM (Arts). When our local school district started a STEM High School I was in the core planning group. I had to push hard for “art stuff” like Art, Music, Poetry.

One of my often used phrases is “It does not make any difference how smart you are if you can’t explain your ideas.” I’m a big fan of students learning to write (not Powerpoint blurbs or Txt Msg 2 others), so writing courses would be on my list. It helps to read other great writers to get ideas on how to shape your own writing, hence Literature.

I think we should teach METALS - Math, Engineering, Technology, Arts, Literature, Science. (or Language for Literature)

I read that article yesterday, and admittedly went in pretty skeptical, however he does raise some very good points. I have read many similar articles that read like they were written by someone who was bitter that their degree was not held in the esteem they thought it was worth. This article is different, and is worth a read.

There are somethings in this article that I strongly disagree with. For example writing of our low math score because we are “creative” as a culture. That of course is all fine and good, however the fact we have succeeded in spite of low math performance as a country is not enough in my opinion. What could we accomplish if we were more math literate without giving up our creativity?

His facebook example is great. I have very good friends who majored in Psychology, and now work in the HMI field. These people are very successful and are applying a multidisciplinary approach that is very valuable. I also have friends who majored in Psychology and work in restaurants and retail with no desire to apply that degree. If they were able to afford college, then no harm done, but some are sitting on 100k+ of debt that they struggle to pay off. It is impossible to group these two groups together. There is huge value in the arts and social sciences when they can be applied to the real world.

I strongly support STEM (as STEM, no extra letters) as its own education model. I went to a top Engineering school, and ever social science and humanities class I took had a strong science base. Philosophy was taught through ans AI course, my writing intensive courses were related to Farms and the food supply chain. This same thing needs to be applied in the other direction. Arts, Humanities, and Social Science majors need to develop a strong technology background that can be applied to their discipline. To address Gov. Rick Scott’s question, “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?” I think it needs to be divided into two questions. First Is it vital to the state to have more people with Anthropology degrees? Probably not. Second, Is it vital to have more Anthropologists who understand big data, can mine that data for cultural information, and apply it to decision making? Absolutely.

Seems to me that the competing philosophy is to pick a degree you love; in my humble opinion that is the wrong advice to give to college bound students.

Worst thing you can do is to go to college, pay $40,000 per year, change your major once or twice, graduate in 5-6 years and then be saddled with ~$250,000 in debt only to find that you can’t find a job in your field / with your degree, and end up being a cashier at a coffee place (nothing against that position, just you didn’t need to spend all those years and that much money to get there).

When I talk to students about STEM, I really want them to realize that these jobs are well within their reach and that they’re going to be in demand now and in the future.

Disclaimer: I have not read the article

I am a strong proponent of STEM/STEAM education for many reasons. One being I am a maker, I like to make things, a paper plane, lego building, logo bot etc. This keeps me occupied and not get involved with “jackass” stuff. This making stuff keeps my mind active, improves critical thinking etc.

STEM may not be for everyone, someone may be good in maths, others in languages or history. Supporting STEM will help those who not sure of going in to science and non science related fields. If these kids get interested in STEM and pursue relevant subjects, they can choose career of their choice, but they are already trainined in thinking process. I am sure non-STEM related curriculum also deals with thinking process, not trying to make less of them. Math is not easy for everyone, sometimes kids need some motivation and may be bit of nudge. If a kid says math is difficult and parents don’t help him/her, the student may not study math (little nudge…not force).

Anyways the education policy makers must pay close attention to this, not promoting STEM will reduce number of students attempting to go into STEM. We need engineers as much as we need doctors, nurses, teachers, receptionist etc. There needs to be some sort of balance.

FIRST’s mission is to “transform our culture by creating a world where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders”. Right now, more young people then ever have that dream (with the glaring exception of young women). That certainly wasn’t the case when I went through school , which is about the same time FIRST began. (Geek was still an insult in the early 90s).

So hypothesis: FIRST has achieved its mission (for boys, anyway). Thoughts?

Is there a danger with pushing the mission too far, as Fareed Zakaria suggests?

The article is mixing two different issues: 1) How many technicians are being educated; and 2) The average knowledge of STEM subjects.

The latter is the average performance of students in math/science tests. The former is the number of graduates of STEM fields.

The question of “focus on STEM” education is similar. Do you teach everyone to be better at STEM, or do you create more STEM workers?

The article implied the USA does not need to raise the general level of STEM knowledge. That is a separate issue from whether the USA needs more STEM workers.

If you look at Graduation Rates as Graduate/Job, there is a higher ratio of Graduates Per Humanities Job than there is Graduates per STEM job. Thus, the Higher Education System needs to focus more effort into graduating more STEM majors than Humanities majors.

That is not to say that Humanities (as knowledge) is not valuable (“Companies often prefer strong basics to narrow expertise.”). Many STEM programs require a certain component of Humanities classes. It would be nice if STEM majors could write like Hawthorne, but, in general, that is not there forte. Just as, we don’t expect Humanities majors to be able to do physics like Hawking. What a student needs is “strong basics” and a marketable skill (some type of expertise). Just be careful about what you define as “basics”.

Note: There is an argument whether the USA really does have a STEM Graduate deficiency. Whether we do or not, there is much more excess in non-STEM fields than there is in STEM fields.

Here is something to consider. Our view of our education system rests on some probably false assumptions that we just know are true. Such as the idea that we had a good education system and it is broken, or that your choice of major is hugely important in getting employment. I know a lot of people are blowing up at that last one, so I will address it first.

Yes, there are differences in the amount of money that people make based on majors chosen. But two factors need to be addressed. The first is that way too many of the surveys on how much people make by major are based on the starting salaries or the first three, five or ten years of a career. Biology majors consistently make the least money of any science majors in those years. Yet they tend to earn as much or more over the course of their careers as any others. Why is this? Because so many of them go to medical school. So they spend a lot of time after getting their degree working on getting another degree. So looking at salaries needs to be done very carefully. Another example: Philosophy majors have really high average lifetime earnings because so many of them because lawyers.

The second factor is that choice of major and choice of career are not the same thing, but they are closely related. Not everyone can have a job that they love. But most people can find a career that they can live with, if not love. My dad was an economics professor at Denison University. DU has a good econ department, and it was always the most or second most popular major. He had lots of students who majored in econ because they wanted to go into business. His advice was to take the econ, math and writing intensive classes they would need to get a job in business and major in something they enjoyed, because they would get better grades were more likely to get jobs they wanted as a result. (This was advice developed out of the evidence DU had from several decades of students.) If that subject they enjoyed was economics, great. But if it was something else, fine. There is a corollary to this advice as well. Majoring in something you don’t like tends to lead to worse grades and worse outcomes. Plus he pointed out to them that if you wanted to really advance in business you needed to get an MBA, and once you do that your undergrad major choice was less important.

There are differences in unemployment statistics by major, and it is certainly easier to get a first job in engineering than in some other fields. But those differences are not nearly as big as some imagine. And if you control for other factors such as grades, desire/ability to relocate and family economic status the differences are smaller still. There are certain kinds of jobs that are very hard to come by, and some people really want those jobs so they set themselves up to have a difficult time. For example being a tenured faculty member at a college or university in just about any field is really difficult. Faculty members tend to hang on to their jobs for a long time and universities are hiring many, many more adjunct faculty members. Being any kind of published author is difficult. If you want to support yourself that way it is just about as hard as being an actor or an athlete. So you get a lot of people who want to pursue such careers and choose majors to do that. If you look at people who say they want to pursue careers in business and look at their choice of major, you don’t see much difference between choice of major and employment in business. One recent study I read concluded that a foreign language major was the best choice if you wanted a career in business. Again this assumes that you know you want a career in business so you get the requisite technical and communications skills. These days if you really are just concerned with getting the big bucks, there is no contest. Be a math or physics major and go work on Wall Street.

Another part of all of the statistics about jobs and majors is that most of the surveys look at majors and jobs within “that field.” I first noticed this when I looked at English majors and their unemployment stats. Which at first glance look really high. But I noticed that the total number of English majors was too low. Then I realized that all of the English majors who became lawyers and business execs were not counted in most of the studies. Side note, the reason you see so many philosophy and English majors (and history) in law is that being a lawyer is large about writing effectively.

Another thing to consider that a significant part of the shortage in STEM professionals is due to the fact that so many unfilled STEM job openings have relatively low pay. I have been teaching for 23 years. In my 20th year I got to the salary I walked away from as a programmer/data person. But I keep current enough (and occasionally consult) so I have a CV on a few sites. I get offers for interviews and jobs all them time. Almost always for way less money than I was making two decades ago. I know some head hunters, and they say that at least half of the companies who come to them to find employees are offering wages that make it pretty much impossible to get someone with the qualifications they want. So those companies make do with less qualified and/or temporary workers. This doesn’t mean that there is not a genuine shortage of qualified people in many STEM fields, or that there are not good jobs in those fields. Just that the shortage is not quite as simple as it might seem.

As for the first point, I have gone on for a while and I don’t want to rant too much. I will just say that we don’t have an education system that used to work fine, broke and needs to be restored. We have an education system that used to be asked to do something different than it is being asked to do now. Specifically we are no longer trying to produce millions of people with the skills to work in a factory, because there are many fewer manufacturing jobs now, and they don’t pay as well as they used to on the average. I am a teacher, and I firmly believe good schools are important, but they can’t solve all of our problems. Most people think the drop out rate is higher now that it was “in the past.” This isn’t true. But it used to be possible to get a decent job even as a high school drop out, and to get a good, family supporting kind of job if you graduated from high school. Both of those eventualities are much less likely now. Even some ideas about who we do relative to other countries are pretty misleading. Once you control for poverty, and in particular concentrated poverty, the majority of differences between the U.S. and other countries go away. In fact, the majority of difference between almost any two countries goes away.

So in closing, these words of advice. If you want to be an art major, take some computer science classes. If you want to be an English major, take some statistics. If you want to be a computer science or engineering major, take some English or History classes and learn how to write effectively. Seriously, on that last one. If you want to advance in your career you need to be able to communicate effectively. And everyone benefits from studying things outside their comfort zone once in a while. It’s just like practicing for a sport. If you are good with your right foot and not your left, you need to spend time practicing using your left.

The focus of FIRST is STEM, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However the program encompasses other types of interests, and the problem starts when we start to invalidate those other fields. The point of an FRC team is to be a mock engineering firm, which includes advertising, community outreach, spirit, graphic design, administration, and many other non-STEM elements. As someone who works in those extra branches, it’s excruciating to constantly be discredited and not regarded as a real contributor to the team. One of the best things about FIRST is that it is inclusive, that you have diversity. But the condescending manner many non-STEM students face discourages that. So while STEM may be the focus, people need to start respecting that there’s more than one way for people to fit into this program.

As someone with a “STEM” degree working as a “STEM Professional” I like this.

I put those in quotes because so much of my job is outside of the STEM wheel house. Presentations to customers, writing project proposals, user interface design… I’d say well over half of my job has little to do with STEM.

STEAM gets us closer, but I don’t think it really does justice to just how important communication is. I like METALS, it covers things that are important.

(this comment ensures at least one major spelling or grammar error in this post)

One of my personal pet peeves is engineers who can’t spell or communicate. If you can’t communicate your idea in a professional manner it’s not going anywhere.

The bigger issue with STEM education isn’t that we aren’t doing it. It’s that people just flat out don’t give a crap about education. Being smart isn’t cool. That is what we need to change if we want to compete in the new economy, education needs to be valued.

Full Disclosure - I haven’t read the article… yet.

Firstly, it is imperative that we give students a well-rounded education. In my college education (albeit only one year so far), though I am an engineer by declaration, the most rewarding classes I have taken have been those that have challenged me to think in a new way about our world, and reconsider my personal stances. Those courses are economics, philosophy, and theology, not physics and math.

There is, however, an important note to make. These courses and types of experiences are not auxiliary to a STEM education, but rather central to becoming an engineer, scientist, mathematician, etc. Engineering isn’t only about knowing what equation to plug in, it is about creative adaptations of known principles, and solving problems in interesting new ways. And then, once we have created something, as engineers we MUST be able to communicate our ideas clearly to others, and justify our means and motivations. STEM education is and will be central to our nation’s growth for decades, but it is not the only discipline we need.

As the population grows beyond what has been traditionally sustained on this planet, there is an ever noticeable gap between the quantity/quality of problem-solvers and problem-makers. The problems are well documented in Art, Literature and the like. However, the problems don’t go away just by communicating about them. Moving forward we will need more problem solvers with work ethic than people who talk about the problems, which is what STEM programs like FIRST specifically address.

There will always be plenty of artists & writers. It takes effort and investment to make a problem solver.

Rather than write an essay on my feelings on this topic, I think JesseK nails a central part of my argument. We have initiatives pushing towards more STEM education because we need more people capable of understanding STEM issues. It’s not about “deemphasizing the arts” but rather increasing the portion of the population capable of working directly with STEM and comprehending STEM problems. Increasing the portion of the population that is functional in STEM is not going to destroy the arts, and we definitely need more people who are capable STEM thinkers.

I think there are reasons to have a very STEM focused education, and equally good reasons to have a more rounded education. Every subject that is taught is important, because if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be taught. Of course, that doesn’t mean that every subject is equally important for every person, but in general, having a strong foundation in many areas will be useful.

In some ways, it’s similar to what we try to do on our team (or at least what I think we should try to do). The year that I joined, many rookies had the tendency to focus on one area very early on, which is what I did with CAD. It was a great experience, and I definitely don’t regret choosing it, but I do regret that I didn’t get to work more in other areas. For example, although I have a general idea of how the electrical system on our robot works, I have no way of knowing if the way we designed it is best or how certain decisions I made about our baseplate it affects it. [1]

That said, there are many reasons that going in depth into areas can be very nice. My parents based my curriculum very heavily on what they knew from Singapore (I’ll explain a bit more later), which not surprisingly had a very strong STEM focus. Math would be be probably the only subject my mom never let me decide when/how much I wanted to do, although I did indirectly decide the pace I would learn it at. For several years, I focused only on subjects that we had workbooks from Singapore in: math, science, English [2] , and Chinese [3] with a stronger focus on the first two. The one main exception to this was reading. Until high school, I read a few hundred books a year (once I counted, and it was ~5bks / wk or ~260 bks / yr), mostly fiction but in almost any genre. [4]

I don’t feel like that focus on math/science has hurt me with humanities subjects, or at least not to a degree that I’ve noticed. But I also don’t see the same lines dividing them that some people–like my parents–draw between them. I’ve always used the same ways of thinking and reasoning in all subjects. I approach English essays very similarly to my math homework, and I haven’t heard complains from teachers in either subjects. However, I personally believe it’s far easier to apply a given skill from STEM into humanities than vice versa, the one main exception being communication (which is more a soft skill than something studied in school anyway, in my opinion). Therefore, although I think a well-rounded education is useful, I believe it can also be easily achieved after a focus with STEM. If I had to point out the one thing that has helped me in all subjects, it would be my mom’s unrelenting push for me to do well in math followed very closely by all the books I read. [5] Math taught me how to think logically, and reading taught me to see other viewpoints, and both have been extremely valuable skills.

I personally think the largest issue with education in many countries, but US in particular, is they’re not teaching students to think. The skills necessary to do well on the math section of the STAR test could be easily replaced with memorization. There were no word problems to decode, no multi-step questions to work through, and no combining of skills necessary to see how different theorems/rules work together. (Yes, I know that’s what Common Core is supposed to fix. But honestly, asking people to “explain” what they do isn’t any better and I don’t see it as much of an improvement). Math can require critical thinking skills, but not if it continues to be taught how it is now. The English, science, and history sections, from what I remember from 8th grade STAR testing, weren’t much better. All could be done with pure memorization and no actual understanding/analysis was necessary. Whether US decided to become more focused (e.g. STEM), stay rounded, or even scrap subjects for general concepts (like Finland), the issues with education will continue until they teach thinking, not memorization. (and until the culture here changes to put education as a priority)


Note: I’m basing a lot of what I’ve written below on my own education, which I should probably explain a bit. I’ve been homeschooled since 2nd grade, when my parents combined other activities with workbooks from Singapore, where they both grew up. For later elementary school and part of middle school, I roughly followed the Singapore curriculum in math, science, and English (and to some extent, Chinese). Just to note, though, while my parents emphasized the material, they didn’t focus on testing to the same extent (e.g. I did some practice PSLE / O-level tests in some subjects, but my actual score wasn’t that important to them). In later middle school, we started turning towards the US system, and for the first time since 1st grade I got to deal with it.

[1] Design is probably the area in mechanical (at least on my team) that has the most overlap with other areas. For example, I’ve heard girls in fabrication comment that they understand even less about areas that don’t directly affect them.
[2] Strangely, I’ve found the workbooks I did in Singapore for secondary 1 or 2 to be harder than any English test I’ve done in the US, including AP English Language, so I’d argue US isn’t that well rounded at least in that aspect. Also, it’s probably worth noting that since Singapore uses the British system of spelling/grammar, it is very confusing to have to switch between them and I therefore wouldn’t recommend it.
[3] Chinese was probably the only subject I never stayed near my grade level equivalent in Singapore with, and I am nowhere near their standards on it.
[4] I read mostly historical fiction until 6th grade, fantasy in 7th and 8th, and science fiction / classic dystopian novels after that. Despite what my mom says, I still believe there is a lot to be learned in every genre including fantasy. Fantasy was when I started exploring what in life really mattered, what would last, and why certain ways of thinking didn’t work. Exploring political systems between different novels led me to dystopian classics (1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, etc. (note not Hunger Games)) and a long obsession with comparing them to various civilizations.
[5] I’m probably understating the value of reading since it’s less measurable. However I still believe that math and reading gave me a stronger foundation than if I had followed a split-subject path. I’d argue that the ability to see other viewpoints is something that only parents can really influence, though, and critical thinking is the one that needs to be taught.

Summary (and to answer the original question): like anything else, a purely STEM education is not bad, but it needs to be done well, and it’s not the only way.

I’m a ramblin’ wreck from Georgia Tech,…
(You can Google the rest of the song)

I am primarily drawn to work with other engineers, but have also been inspired by artists, designers, storytellers, and most especially by leaders with vision.

For me, STEM education was a gateway into the path toward informed, critical thinking and gracious professionalism as a way of life. I have met many people who got quite a long way down that path after entering by other gateways.

I believe in STEM, but I also know that what you are taught in STEM classes can be used in several avenues of careers. I myself was a quality inspector, then became an industrial electrician. I used math a lot, but also the logical thinking that comes with STEM elements. It can make students more well-rounded and productive part of society. We need engineers, but also the basic craft people to maintain and build the machinery.

This topic is one of interest to me because I recently began graduate studies in curriculum and instruction with a STEM concentration. During my brief studies, I’ve seen that there are many misconceptions about what STEM actually is and what it should do for our students and nation.

First, STEM is lacking a complete identity because of the different interpretations of its implementation. There are a few publications that go over these interpretations but the large majority of people seem to believe that if you are doing/teaching STEM, you are using all concentrations of the subject area. If you’re teaching it or studying it, you cannot withhold math. It would be like withholding the “B” from the BLT.

Second, part of the identity crisis is because people are creating alternative acronyms outside of just STEM. People mention STEAM a lot! Doesn’t good design and engineering involve a recognition of form and function? If you’re doing STEM correctly, you need to include skills and information from art, writing, social sciences (think about who benefits from STEM products), and other liberal arts classes. Innovation takes place when people think creatively, and a good STEM program will do that.

Putting more of an emphasis on STEM in our classrooms is probably not going to improve our nation’s test score against others unless the tests are changed to reflect the curriculum. The education game in our country is much different from others, and comparing the two is tough. We’ve achieved great technological things in our country because we do it our way. If we’re worried about competing in a global marketplace, then we need to infuse more of those skills into our current curriculum regardless of the subject matter.

So is a focus on STEM education good or bad? I’m very biased, but I believe it is good as long as it has the right focus. FIRST and other STEM related competitions normally do it right because they science, technology, engineering, and math are common tools used to teach communication, collaboration, and other skills needed for our students to function as citizens of our world. They don’t need to pursue STEM careers and it doesn’t hurt for them to be conscious of STEM problems and solutions. Liberal arts studies offer enrichment for the same globally needed skill-sets, but STEM studies are now just the new kids on the block because the collaborative aspects of it were traditionally not as important.


Lots of good comments.

I can see how you could make writing classes more towards tech writing classes than fiction. OTOH I’m not sure that I want to see the CD of 2020 with nothing but dry tech writing posts.

I’m also on the fence about the STEM job market. I know that there is a huge push for H1B visa’s to fill these jobs. As someone that will soon be looking for a new STEM job (my boat trip is coming to an end), I’m pretty sure while I have the skill set for these jobs, the much lower salary will be a issue. My email is looking for people with a huge range of skills for about 3-4 times min wage rates.

I do know that large companies are moving engineering team jobs to overseas locations to take advantage of the lower pay. I know of one company that has hired about 7,000 new engineers, all of them in Asia while reducing their US workforce.

But I do see that what were the mfg jobs of my early career are starting to be more higher tech in areas like bio-science / medical than anything else. So this may be just a transition time. We’ll have to wait and see.

I do think that we are not doing a good job of funding our schools and that is a real problem, STEM school or traditional school. I’ve watched state after state lower budgets.

I have so many conflicting feelings about the topics surrounding STEM education and FIRST. I went all the way up through the progression of programs – starting in FLL, moving through FRC, graduated with a STEM degree, and now serve as an FRC mentor while working as a STEM professional.

To be honest, I’ve never had much interest in the robot end of things. I’ve always been a Chairman’s and scouting/strategy student through and through, and that’s mainly what I mentor now. The skills that I learned through these activities were incredibly important to my academic success while in college, and serve me well now in my career. I learned how to speak eloquently, write clearly, work with groups of very different and/or difficult people, and keep an upbeat attitude in the face of frustration.

FIRST proclaims that the Chairman’s Award is the most important award in FIRST – because it teaches us that it isn’t all about the robots. In order to earn this award, the team is required to apply technical and persuasive writing skills, effective public speaking skills, the ability to improvise, marketing and imagery design, video editing skills, etc. All of these are what many people might categorize as “soft skills”, but they’re things that as an engineering consultant I use all the time.

I think the question we should be asking ourselves is not “are we emphasizing STEM too much?”, but rather “Do we include the right subjects and skills in STEM education?”.

I am a proponent of a well-rounded education, STEM, LA, everything. What I don’t like about the current direction of education in the US is that if it can’t be applied directly to standardized testing, it’s going to get marginalized.

That translates to most of our industrial arts, drafting, art, and music being cut from funding in public schools. It doesn’t matter that these all contribute towards raising IQ’s, vocational readiness, relevancy, or creative problem solving skills. Our budgets are being slashed nationwide and we have become entirely too focused on written and computerized skill assessment.

Quite a few FIRST robotics teams have been kicked out of their schools, simply because their admins don’t see their value. It’s important for all of us to advocate on all levels to retain and restore hands-on learning experiences, even if they aren’t applicable to the Common Core standards. If anyone is interested in helping make a petition to the US Dept of Education and Congress advocating for FIRST I will help write and circulate it.

I think FIRST is the perfect example of STEM education done right. In my experience during high school, FRC obviously taught me a lot about engineering and technology. I’ve always been interested in engineering, and FRC reinforced that. But beyond that, FRC got me hooked on business and other aspects of the competition. Now, as a college freshman, I am trying to somehow balance STEM and other interests, but finding it more difficult. But, my university does a pretty good job actually at mixing entrepreneurship and engineering.

Education needs to be less compartmentalized. As others have said, STEM majors should learn business, literature, philosophy, etc. and vice versa. I would love to see more combined majors, such as a business/engineering combo, but I don’t know if that is practical or useful.

In the end, we need to be educated in more than STEM. We should be building robots, not becoming one.