Are STEM Programs the Future of American Education?

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) is all the rage these days.

Though President Obama is not the first president to fund and emphasize them in American schools, his presidency — when it comes to education — has been defined by his dedicated support of STEM subjects. Race to the Top, Educate to Innovate, STEM Teacher Pathways, and other programs have all been marshalled to address what many consider a major problem in American classrooms.

Are STEM schools and programs really the future of American education?

Are they actually addressing the problems our children face?

Will they lead us to, in President Obama’s words, “Out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world?”

We discuss the benefits and questions raised about the legitimacy of STEM as a way to boost better education outcomes and better job placement in the future for today’s students:

The Benefits

STEM programs can inspire students to fall in love with math and science again. These programs are designed to introduce computer programming at a younger age to help kids get on track earlier. STEM-emphasis in K-12 can encourage girls to pursue that field study, thereby potentially closing the current gender gap in STEM today.

Inspiration

What STEM programs are bringing to schools throughout the country is a renewed vigor in science and math classrooms. The introduction of robot building classes, NASA engineers, elementary rocketry, and 3D-printing is adding inspiring and visionary versions of science and math that many schools lack.

For many students, STEM programs are the first time they have felt engaged with math and science — instead of overwhelmed.

It’s starting early, too. Acknowledging the need for STEM education, Girl Scouts of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho have crafted programs for kindergartners and up. Girl Scout leaders are finding ways to incorporate STEM-related material even into seemingly unrelated domestic areas, like baking cookies.

Programming Front and Center

STEM’s emphasis on computer programming is introducing a whole generation of students to what may be the most important field in our modern world. Comp-sci courses have been spotty at best in American schools.

“Many kids come to high school without any experience in computer science , especially in lower resource schools,” Jan Cuny of the National Science Foundation told Time magazine. “They’re not really ready to take a year-long course in Java.”

STEM aims to fix that problem, making programming and coding a legitimate staple in our educational repertoire. In fact, non-partisan groups like Computing in the Core advocate regularly that computer science be treated not as an elective, but as a subject on par with English, math, history, and science.

Addressing the Gender Gap

Intense debate surrounding STEM programs has brought into focus the dearth of females in many math and science fields.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the field of engineering is comprised of 14 percent females, while computer science clocks in at only 26 percent. While this gap has existed for decades, the focus on STEM programs has brought greater attention and an intensified willingness to address it.

Already many organizations, schools, and educators are seeking ways to bring girls in greater numbers into STEM programs and ensure they can be successful. In part this means breaking down gender biases.

A Princeton University study revealed deep bias even at the collegiate level, where men were rated “significantly” more competent and hirable than females (and were also offered a higher starting salary) when competing for a laboratory manager position.

Gonzaga University professor Joanne Smieja has not only studied gender bias in STEM fields, but is making an effort to change it with a national project to advance STEM instructors in colleges. Smieja believes the more women teaching STEM, the more likely young women will see STEM-related fields as viable options.

The Cons

The drawback for STEM-implementation in schools is whether or not there’s actually a gap between the U.S. and other countries who have better excelling STEM programs. Experts also wonder if the heavy involvement of companies funding and pushing for STEM programs in schools can potentially alienate other fields of study that are still necessary and good for students to enjoy learning about. There is continued worry that STEM might not be properly integrated in the classroom.

A Legitimate Gap?

More than one education specialist has argued that the gap between American students and their international competitors is a problem of perception, not actual facts. It may be true that American students rank poorly on international standardized tests, but there are numerous problems with using such tests as the be-all-end-all benchmark.

First, American schools are simply more diverse and face challenges other countries do not. While American schools must educate all students — and all students must take the tests — other countries often funnel their best and brightest into special schools and test only those students.

Perhaps more revealing, however, is the fact that American students have always ranked poorly in math and science … but it hasn’t mattered. The First International Mathematics Study ranked American seniors 12th out of 12 nations. The First International Science Study placed the same kids 14th out of 18. This was in the 1960’s. Lowly numbers, for sure, but that same generation went on to manage and grow the most prosperous economy in the world. Poor international test scores didn’t hold back students in the U.S.

Finally, the need for advanced STEM training may be significantly overstated. According to Harold Salzman and B. Lindsay Lowell, of The Urban Institute and Georgetown University, respectively, American schools already produce “an ample supply of [science and engineering] students whose preparation and performance has been increasing over the past decades.” Indeed, there are three times more STEM graduates than science and engineering job openings.

Business Needs to Mind Its Business

STEM programs are heavily funded by American corporations, primarily from the tech sector. These firms have a vested interest in schools producing more scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and computer programmers.

A growing concern is whether or not the interests of the business community should be the main interests of American classrooms.

Noted Berkeley linguist Robin Lakoff stated the point clearly: “Education is invaluable not only in its ability to help people and societies get ahead, but equally in helping them develop perspectives that make them fully human.”

But Lakoff’s perspective is not often the perspective of American businesses. What the business world needs are employees with specific skills, not necessarily a citizenry capable of contemplating philosophy, history, language, and religion.

Few schools have the level of funding they truly desire. Most are more than happy to take what they are offered from major corporations. How else will we ever have a robotics program? But funding always comes with strings.

Revered educator and author Alfie Kohn wrote in the “Washington Post”: “In fact, even algebra teachers should be frowning because the reasons for a politician’s (or the Chamber of Commerce’s) STEM-centricity carry implications for what’s taught within a STEM course, and how it’s taught, and whether K-12 education is conceived as nothing more than an elaborate, extended exercise in vocational preparation.”

STEM Mismanaged

For all the potential, STEM programs are not a cure-all for our country’s educational woes, nor are they a road map to some educational promised land. Some programs may be excellent, others might not.

In the end, local educators must be able to study these programs and integrate them in ways that will benefit their students.

I worked in a school district on the verge of adopting a STEM-based curriculum for the upcoming year. The superintendent had attended multiple STEM conferences and was fully convinced that STEM was the future.

The district’s mathematics and science departments, however, were not convinced. One of the most eye-opening meetings I’ve ever sat through was a math/science debate. Without any administrators around, the local middle/high school math and science teachers tore apart the STEM curriculum and noted the various reasons it wouldn’t work, how their students were not prepared, how the textbooks didn’t address real educational problems, and how basic, key learning was being pushed aside in favor of flash-in-the-pan lessons that relied on pizazz instead of substance.

The math/science department gave a solid thumbs-down to endorsing STEM in the district, stating that it wasn’t needed and would be to the student’s detriment. They were overruled by the superintendent and told to prepare for STEM in the coming year.

Conclusion

The motivation behind STEM programs is a good one. There is little doubt that producing advanced mathematicians and engineers is a worthy goal. Inspiring children when they are young and building on that excitement is likely the best way to encourage an interest in these fields. On the other hand, pushing STEM programs as a cure-all for America's education problems is certainly misguided. Coupling the goals of American businesses with the goals of American classrooms should leave parents with difficult questions rather than easy answers.

For now, the best course may simply be to thoroughly examine whatever STEM programs are available in your community. Encourage your kids involvement in science and math if that's the direction they want to go. Don't wring your hands too hard if they still prefer reading and writing over programming and computation.

Sources:

Kohn, A. (2011, February 17). STEM Sell: Are math, science really more important than other subjects? Retrieved from Washington Post

Lakoff, R. (2011, February 2). Education: Yes, but Why? Retrieved from Huffington Post

Lawrence-Turner, J. (2014, August 24). Local, national efforts aim to draw girls into STEM fields. Retrieved from The Spokesman-Review

Lowell, B., & Salzman, H. (2007, October 1). Into the Eye of the Storm: Assessing the Evidence on Science and Engineering Education, Quality, and Workforce Demand. Retrieved from Rutgers

Wagstaff, K. (2012, July 16). Can We Fix Computer Science Education in America? Retrieved from Time

Zhao, Y. (2011, January 30). "It makes no sense:" Puzzling Over Obama's State of the Union Address. Retrieved from Yong Zhao