STEM education creates an increased focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, but it shouldn’t be that alone. The foundation of a true STEM education is using all that is known about how learning takes place, and that certainly should encompass and embrace the liberal arts. An assumption that schools based on the principles of STEM diminish the focus on subjects other than those four is a critical misunderstanding. Perhaps the name itself is a starting point for confusion.
By calling this kind of education STEM—or STEAM, as some now refer to it, with the addition of the arts—we have pulled our 20th-century mindset toward the subjects central to advancement in the new century. It may be natural that some schools have begun their programs with the narrow interpretation of STEM as an emphasis almost solely on science, technology, engineering, and math. Some have even limited STEM education to the higher grades, or to enrichment classes, extracurricular clubs, or special events. But teaching and learning in these subjects, and developing the abilities and qualities of mind to master them, holds the promise of engaging all students and closing the gaps that exist between those who enter schools exceptionally prepared for success and those who do not.
The misunderstanding about STEM and the potential for a transforming shift from 20th- to 21st-century school design goes beyond the boundaries of schools. In his recent book In Defense of Liberal Education, the journalist Fareed Zakaria exposes the public’s narrow view of STEM, writing that the move toward this educational emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math is motivated by arguments stressing the need for more vocational preparation. That may be true, in part. But, as Zakaria points out, learning how to write clearly, express yourself convincingly, and think analytically is a byproduct of the liberal arts. Creativity, lateral thinking, design, communication, and storytelling, he says, all flow from development of the capacity to continuously learn and enjoy learning, which is a hallmark of the liberal arts.
All of these capacities are the foundations of a true STEM learning environment. All of them. As Zakaria notes, a long list of America’s pioneering tech leaders—Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg among them—have had liberal-education backgrounds. How many successors to Jobs, Gates, and Zuckerberg are sitting in today’s public school classrooms? How many more can be developed? That is the crux of the issue. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of our public schools, the burdens of the poking and prodding they have been subject to over the past half-century, and the new vision of possibility for all students is the key.
STEM offers a broadening of possibilities for learning. The schools and leaders we learned from while doing research for our book The STEM Shift were not creating a narrower focus. They were expanding the possibilities for all students to reach beyond, break ceilings, and meet with successes unimagined. Their focus was to use all the potential that springs from a STEM learning environment to narrow the achievement gap, with some offering a STEM environment beginning in elementary school, and others starting in middle or high school. Many, we found, have plans to grow from their beginning point to the other grade levels over time. Nothing, however, takes the place of becoming a confident reader, writer, thinker, problem-solver, mathematician, scientist, artist, musician, and historian in the early years. It is more possible when the environment is based on STEM learning foundations.
What we call a STEM shift—a movement toward comprehensive and fully integrated STEM education throughout a school or district—is the first real and promising development with the potential to re-envision educational orientation from the bottom up. A STEM shift encourages the reimagination of schools, from kindergarten through the 12th grade, including the way curriculum is designed, organized, and delivered. Done well, this includes the learning processes of inquiry, imagination, questioning, problem-solving, creativity, invention, and collaboration—and certainly learning, thinking, and writing.
A STEM shift encourages the reimagination of schools, from kindergarten through the 12th grade, including the way curriculum is designed, organized, and delivered.”
The attention that STEM education brings to public schools includes that of business, health care, and higher education. Partnerships are essential in this area. As curriculum moves to include more application, the interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary nature of teaching requires learning on the part of the teachers and leaders.
Time and money are the barriers schools face in making the STEM shift. Adequate time is needed for pursuing professional development, learning new methods, and planning new ways of working with others. Enough money to make the space for this to happen will be required. Partnerships and support from outside the school walls, including from communities, offer a solution for providing the needed talent, time, and money. Partnerships also invite the world of work and application into the classroom. Connections and choices can be made, as students interact not just with information, but also with the professionals who apply that information in their daily work.
STEM education is a new and exciting concept. But if we are not careful, the baby may be thrown out with the bathwater. STEM holds the potential for creating 21st-century learning environments for the students who are with us now. Implemented with clarity and understanding, it will engage teachers and students in new ways. But it is not a narrow focus on four subjects. Rather, it is an integration of subjects and perspectives. Arthur I. Miller, in his book Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-Edge Science Is Redefining Contemporary Art, offers examples of how, in this century and the last, science and art have been interrelated. Yet, without the kind of STEM mindset we suggest, it is unlikely that discovering this relationship would be part of a public school student’s journey toward graduation.
When used as the lever for systemic change, STEM offers a new environment in which all educators and all students are part of a more engaging, all-inclusive, and invigorating learning experience. Who wouldn’t want that?
A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2015 edition of Education Week as STEM Doesn’t Narrow the Curriculum