From the Department for Education administrators to educators and from parents to students - in short, anyone with a stake in education knows what STEM stands for. Whether any of the skills needed for STEM education are included in their now-urgent calls for more STEM education is debatable.
Setting that idea aside for later discussion, there are many other reasons that STEM skills are important - and not just to the professions that demand those skills.
Your Superprof now lays out some considerations that generally do not - or, at best feature only minimally in mainstream conversations about STEM fields and the skills required to work in any of them.
Remember that this needn't be a one-sided discussion; please contribute your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below.
The STEM Debate in a Nutshell
The chief focus for parents, when considering their children’s education, tends towards academic subjects - reading, writing and arithmetic - the so-called three-Rs, and any others that might fall into those broad categories.
Schools, too, tend to direct their focus on academic subjects because intellectual learning can be easily measured, tested, and scored. Society at large prefers focusing on academics as well because the examinations administered by the schools lead to qualifications - demonstrable proof that an individual is qualified, albeit up to a given capacity.
However, some of the most essential skills children need, not only to continue to succeed with their learning but also in their working life beyond formal education are the more individual skills associated with STEM skills.
STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.
At first glance, parents might rate skills in the first three as less important than other academic ones, like reading and writing, for example. Oddly enough, that same attitude overshadowed students in Ancient Greece. Then, the learned believed that the powers of oration were far more marketable than any scientific or mathematical capabilities.
Plato was known to shamelessly apply mathematical modes of argument to philosophy while never embracing the significance of math.
It's not just parents who embrace the Sciences v. Humanities split. Our schools are set up in much the same way, usually giving more weight to the latter.
We only need to think about how GCSEs are structured to make this point clear. Students are required to sit exams in five core subjects: three Humanities and two Sciences. Of the electives on offer - subjects the student chooses to test in beyond the required ones, statistics show that Humanities prevail.
This disparity is clear throughout education systems worldwide.
Besides a marked favouritism for Humanities, STEM classes show a decided gender bias. It is not necessarily evident in primary - or even secondary school classrooms but devastatingly clear in higher education. Visit any university Maths, Engineering, Science or Technology classroom or just take a peek at their rolls and you'll find that females are in scarce attendance.
Those statistics are mirrored across STEM career fields.
One argument contends that women simply don't have the mind for science or engineering; it's not a popular one. Another theory, becoming more relevant due to the growing number of legal cases, is that women suffer from lower pay, fewer opportunities for advancement and outright discrimination in STEM-related professions.
Let's compare Jocelyn Bell Burnell with Stephen Hawking to make our point.
We all know who Sir Hawking is but, mention Dame Burnell and you'll likely be met with blank stares. They are both physicists, they both made important discoveries and significant contributions to their field. They were even only one year apart in age yet, only one of them is internationally renown.
The same disparity holds across all professional STEM fields. Among the list of economists that won a Nobel prize, only one is female. The list of Chemistry Nobel recipients includes six females and, as for the Physics prize, Marie Curie narrowly missed being left off of the one she earned jointly with her husband and another scientist. Only two other physicists who are female won the prize; both of them in the last two years.
A profound gender disparity in STEM, coupled with the lack of emphasis on (or a lack of preference for) STEM education worldwide would be bad enough. Now, let's add glossing over teaching STEM skills in mainstream education into the mix.
What Do We Mean by STEM Skills?
At one point, innovation drove technology. The cotton gin, a mechanical device that separates cotton fibres from seeds, was patented by Eli Whitney in 1794. It is a prime example of innovative thought paving the way for later, greater inventions.
Henry Ford's assembly line is another such innovation. The component parts of his invention had been in use for a long time but, visualising how those parts could be used in concert revolutionised the concept of factory production.
At some point in the last 50 years or so, our technological advances have outpaced our ability to imagine what could be. Now, we hold 'Technology Drives Innovation' as an immutable truth that entire business models are built around.
The only trouble is, if we lack the minds to keep up with technology, civilisation will become stagnant. Innovation will be a rarity and progress all but halted. That is why skills such as creative thinking and problem-solving; communication, collaboration and inquisitiveness are in such high demand.
To succeed in STEM subjects, students need a whole range of skills.
The ability to use written language effectively and manage research is a given. Reading and writing are integral parts of the skills that need to develop in pace with STEM skills.
Alongside those, but maybe less well understood, is the fact that youngsters also need the types of skills that help them
- think creatively
- solve problems
- seek solutions from different perspectives
- have a developed spatial awareness (something gaming’s good for)
- communicate effectively
- work as a team and accept others’ ideas
This is why creative, experiential and social activities in schools are as important as academics, since they help develop these skills.
However, as schools' hands are pretty well tied with curriculum demands and other, more prominent issues, it's good to know that parents, caregivers and tutors can help their charges cultivate those skills.
How to Develop the Skills Associated with STEM
Many essential skills, thinking critically among them are personal and often develop outside the formal learning environment as much as in it. This is where parental involvement matters, through parents encouraging a variety of activities, rather than just reading or academic study at home.
Personal skills are regularly overlooked, yet are important to a young person’s ongoing achievement. For example, a child who is social and able to chat and communicate well and express their ideas through the spoken and written word are more likely to be listened to and respected which in turn builds their confidence, another valuable life skill.
There is a collection of ideas in this article here with suggestions for activities which encourage this kind of personal development.
It also illustrates how much the child’s success can be governed by what goes on at home. How creating an atmosphere which supports and values time spent learning and doing a range of activities, along with being inquisitive and curious, having discussions as a result of questioning, all builds skills which, in the end, reflect upon a young person’s success.
Parents shouldn’t just focus on academic skills as a way of supporting their child’s educational achievement but, instead, incorporate a range of activities that will build a diverse range of skills.
As Darwin suggested, and many employers would uphold, it is diversity that will help our species succeed and it is individuals with a diverse intelligence and skills set who become the more employable and successful.
STEM skills help that happen.
The Social Impact of Minimising STEM Skills
It's not just that we need to look to the future or the fact that our lives are now completely dominated by technology. It's not that there is a lack of recognition or desire to accept input from half of the population in planning or realising future innovation. And it's certainly not that we have no need for diversity in our thinking.
It's that, slowly, our ability to think, visualise, create and execute is eroding.
If nothing else, this current COVID pandemic has illustrated a profound lack of reasoning skills across societies. For instance, proclaiming that cellphone towers will infect you with a debilitating disease may take a measure of creativity to come up with but has absolutely no basis in fact. How does it escape proponents of that theory that an electronic device cannot infect you with a biological agent?
Problem-solving is a key STEM skill that is woefully disregarded, in part by the ease and convenience afforded us by our modern standards of living and in part because of the long-held belief that students are empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge.
How do you put an elephant in the fridge?
Believe it or not, this simple question is answered correctly by children under five. Older children and adults of all career paths and walks of life struggle to find a way to fit a very large animal into a limited-size appliance... but, the thing is, nowhere in that question is indicated how large (or small) the refrigerator - or the elephant is.
You might think it strange that questions such as these would feature on a job interview.
Hiring managers ask these seemingly nonsensical questions to get a handle on how quickly you can think and do math, how well you work under pressure and how you use your reasoning skills. Being unable to give a satisfactory answer could mean the difference between the career of your dreams and perhaps lower-prestige employment.
More importantly, though, is the fact that more and more people are losing out on those career opportunities precisely because they've not been trained to think quickly or well. Where will that leave the workforce if we don't start now to build up the skills needed to succeed?
Contrary to popular belief, critical thinking has nothing to do with, say, picking apart the latest film, song or YouTube offering. Rather, it involves information analysis, evaluation and coming up with creative solutions to persistent problems.
One language learner was having trouble mastering perfective and imperfective verbs in the language he was studying. His teacher's advice was not helpful because that particular language's grammar rules were fraught with exceptions. He finally mastered the use of those verb forms by hunting for and analysing reams of phrases using each form of the verb, in turn. He then formulated simple, concise rules to help him remember which verb form to use.
This is a rather trivial example of someone using critical thinking to master an admittedly difficult language. Our planet and civilisation are faced with much more challenging circumstances that demand immediate solutions.
How will we mitigate climate change? How will we level inequality - both economic and civil? How will we protect ourselves from as-yet- unknown diseases?
Perhaps it is time for another Age of Reason.
The Age of Enlightenment (or Reason) gave way to some of the greatest ideas and innovations of the 17th and 18th Centuries. During that time, significant advances were made in the fields of philosophy and law, politics and sociology. Unrestrained by convention and taking license to think in every possible direction, Isaac Newton, Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon and many others shaped human existence for centuries to come.
We need great thinkers again, which necessarily demands that people be taught how to think. We need people who can visualise creative solutions to the challenges blocking the way to future security but, first, we need people who can see both the obstacles and the ways around them.
We need people with STEM skills; not just people who are adept at mathematics but entertain no other creative thoughts. We need visionaries to fill the jobs going vacant for the lack of problem solvers and communicators.
And we can't train them soon enough.