Are we shifting too much focus to STEM?

5/30/2014 STEM & STEAM
Yes Larry Edmonds

We need to improve our global economic standing in STEM areas. You'll get no argument from me on that. Our laser focus on providing more STEM courses, however, might be blinding us to the fact that many students lack the crucial ability to put their STEM skills to use because they are not psychologically or socially prepared to participate in a global, collaborative economy.

We see students preparing to graduate who possess poor interpersonal communication skills, have no leadership ability and demonstrate no sensitivity to gender issues or ethnic diversity. These are vital skills for success in the digital age workplace. Unfortunately, an increased focus on STEM in our schools is not giving students the skills they need to effectively navigate their way through a job interview, lead a self-directed work team or accept and collaborate with people who are not just like them.

Diversity, communication and leadership skills are critical in today's global village. We have the technological ability to reach people in almost all regions of the world. But we can't count on that technology to ensure students will be able to effectively communicate with those who have disparate cultural norms and beliefs.

STEM education is important, but we must teach those subjects alongside, not in place of, the behavioral sciences, arts and humanities, and interpersonal and leadership skills. A well-rounded human being is better suited to today's world than a person who knows one thing very well but cannot communicate effectively with others, appreciate the arts or lead others to success. A graduate has to get the job (through effective interview skills) in which he or she will lead a diverse team (using interpersonal and leadership skills coupled with intercultural sensitivity) to produce results for an employer.

This means that neither STEM nor the humanities alone can be the answer. We need to share funding across these crucial disciplines to create a teaching mélange in which STEM skills are supplemented by citizenship, effective communication and practical life skills.

In other words, as always, one basket does not fit all the eggs. Today's students certainly need STEM courses to understand the physical and theoretical world, but they also need courses that will help them to better understand the people they will meet along the road of life. We must create funding schemata that will allow our students to succeed in the world, not just in the laboratory or the class room.

Larry Edmonds is a full-time lecturer and doctoral student at Arizona State University. He is also a member of ISTE, the World Communication Association and the International Leadership Association.

No Cindy Moss

We cannot accurately predict what jobs will be available in the future for the students currently in our K-12 schools. What we do know is that today's students will need to be problem solvers and lifelong learners. A strong focus on STEM education  is a critical ingredient for meeting this need.

STEM is not a curriculum or a set of resources. STEM is a culture of teaching and learning that gives students the opportunity to engage in solving real-world problems while addressing the Common Core literacy and mathematical practice standards. Our challenge in K-12 education is to maintain, encourage and empower natural human curiosity and creativity while helping students develop the skills they'll need in the workplaces of the future. Students in classes using STEM strategies are more engaged, have higher test scores and are able to build the types of skills they will need for long-term success.

While I was the director of STEM at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, we employed a number of strategies to create an effective STEM program. We used engaging real-world problems, digital content and professional development/coaching to empower our teachers. We connected with local businesses to use regional scenarios in our classrooms and create a vision that would contribute to economic development. Perhaps most important, we changed our district's culture to focus on STEM education.

The results of these efforts speak for themselves. Our fifth and eighth grade science scores rose 44 points in three years, while state achievement scores increased only 7 points. Our third through eighth grade math achievement scores skyrocketed 33 points, compared to the state-score increase of 5 points.

But the greatest accomplishment we attribute to STEM education is instilling in our students a strong spirit of lifelong learning. We are preparing them to change, adapt and problem solve, which will ready them to face a future whose opportunities are not yet clear. 

Our national approach to STEM education should not be based on fears that we are doomed to be overtaken technologically by other nations. Rather, our choices as educators should be driven by what we know is right for our children. Students today need authentic learning environments that mirror what's going on outside the classroom. In our increasingly global society, a STEM education and the skills it develops will propel today's students to succeed in college, careers and citizenship. That is why we should spend more time on STEM.

Cindy Moss, director of global STEM initiatives for Discovery Education, is charged with supporting school districts in their work to develop and deploy student initiatives to drive science, technology, engineering and math achievement nationwide.

Want to learn more ways to incorporate STEM skills into your lessons? Check out ISTE's STEM webinars.

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