Today’s Focus on STEM Education Is Missing A Crucial Point

A student in a contemplative pose.

(© Matthias Stolt/Fotolia)

I once saw a fascinating TED talk on 3D printing. As I watched the presenter discuss the custom fabrication, not of plastic gears or figurines, but of living, implantable kidneys, I thought I was finally living in the world of Star Trek, and I experienced a flush of that eager, expectant enthusiasm I felt as a child looking toward the future. I looked at my current career and felt a rejuvenation of my commitment to teach young people the power of science.

The well-rounded education of human beings needs to include lessons learned both from a study of the physical world, and from a study of humanity.

Whether we are teachers or not, those of us who admire technology and innovation, and who wish to support progress, usually embrace the importance of educating the next generation of scientists and inventors. Growing a healthy technological civilization takes a lot of work, skill, and wisdom, and its continued health depends on future generations of competent thinkers. Thus, we may find it encouraging that there is currently an abundance of interest in STEM– the common acronym for the study of science, technology, engineering, and math.

But education is as challenging an endeavor as science itself. Educating youth--if we want to do it right--requires as much thought, work, and expertise as discovering a cure or pioneering regenerative medicine. Before we give our money, time, or support to any particular school or policy, let's give some thought to the details of the educational process.

A Well-Balanced Diet

For one thing, STEM education cannot stand in isolation. The well-rounded education of human beings needs to include lessons learned both from a study of the physical world, and from a study of humanity. This is especially true for the basic education of children, but it is true even for college students. And even for those in science and engineering, there are important lessons to be learned from the study of history, literature, and art.

Scientists have their own emotions and values, and also need financial support. The fruits of their labor ultimately benefit other people. How are we all to function together in our division-of-labor society, without some knowledge of the way societies work? How are we to fully thrive and enjoy life, without some understanding of ourselves, our motives, our moral values, and our relationships to others? STEM education needs the humanities as a partner. That flourishing civilization we dream of requires both technical competence and informed life-choices.

Think for Yourself (Even in Science)

Perhaps even more important than what is taught, is the subject of how things are taught. We want our children to learn the skill of thinking independently, but even in the sciences, we often fail completely to demonstrate how. Instead of teaching science as a thinking process, we indoctrinate, using the grand discoveries of the great scientists as our sacred texts. But consider the words of Isaac Newton himself, regarding rote learning:

A Vulgar Mechanick can practice what he has been taught or seen done, but if he is in an error he knows not how to find it out and correct it, and if you put him out of his road he is at a stand. Whereas he that is able to reason nimbly and judiciously about figure, force, and motion, is never at rest till he gets over every rub.

What's the point of all this formal schooling in the first place? Is it, as many of the proponents of STEM education might argue, to train students for a "good" career?

If our goal is to help students "reason nimbly" about the world around them, as the great scientists themselves did, are we succeeding? When we "teach" middle school students about DNA or cellular respiration by presenting as our only supporting evidence cartoon pictures, are we showing students a process of discovery based on evidence and hard work? Or are we just training them to memorize and repeat what the authorities say?

A useful education needs to give students the skill of following a line of reasoning, of asking rational questions, and of chewing things through in their minds--even if we regard the material as beyond question. Besides feeding students a well-balanced diet of knowledge, healthy schooling needs to teach them to digest this information thoroughly.

Thinking Training

Now step back for a moment and think about the purpose of education. What's the point of all this formal schooling in the first place? Is it, as many of the proponents of STEM education might argue, to train students for a "good" career? That view may have some validity for young adults, who are beginning to choose electives in favored subjects, and have started to choose a direction for their career.

But for the basic education of children, this way of thinking is presumptuous and disastrous. I would argue that the central purpose of a basic education is not to teach children how to perform this or that particular skill, but simply to teach them to think clearly. We should not be aiming to provide job training, but thinking training. We should be helping children learn how to "reason nimbly" about the world around them, and breathing life into their thinking processes, by which they will grapple with the events and circumstances of their lives.

So as we admire innovation, dream of a wonderful future, and attempt to nurture the next generation of scientists and engineers, instead of obsessing over STEM education, let us focus on rational education. Let's worry about showing children how to think--about all the important things in life. Let's give them the basic facts of human existence -- physical and humanitarian -- and show them how to fluently and logically understand them.

Some students will become the next generation of creators, and some will follow other careers, but together -- if they are educated properly -- they will continue to grow their inheritance, and to keep our civilization healthy and flourishing, in body and in mind.

John Krieger
John Krieger has been developing curriculum and teaching science to elementary and junior high students for the last 12 years. He holds degrees in physics and mechanical engineering, is fascinated by the history of technology and the development of scientific thought, and is working on writing textbooks and educational materials that reflect his views on science education. He lives and works in Orange County, CA.
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David Kurtz making DNA sequencing libraries in his lab.

Photo credit: Florian Scherer

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