STEM & the Need for Balance in Education

By Namkyu Oh

Credit: University of WarwickIn President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union Address, the President presented a blueprint for the economy that relies upon a foundation of workers who meet the practical/training needs of the ever-growing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) sectors of the job market.  The President has been quoted multiple times as wanting to see the U.S. regain its position atop the math and science fields, and this desire has trickled down into recent policy measures and political actions.

Earlier this year, the President hosted the third annual White House Science Fair. During the event, he presented a few long-term announcements about the state of STEM education.  Among the announcements, which can all be found at [1], are…

  1. The STEM AmeriCorps, a group created by a federal partnership with the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) that aims to have participants help inspire, create programs, and hold competitions relating to STEM.
  2. Launching of the US2020, a cohort of ten leading nonprofits in education as well as U.S. technology companies (including Cisco and Cognizant), that aims to make mentoring the new normal in the STEM professions.  This initiative involves the member companies working to have about 20 percent of their STEM employees perform 20 hours a year of mentoring and teaching by the year 2020, and includes an effort to create 1 million STEM mentors by the year 2020.
  3. The MakerCorps—a collective of volunteers tasked to give younger individuals the opportunity to design and build something personally meaningful to them.  It is expected that in the first year of action, over 100 MakerCorps members will work with 34 different partner organizations to help push the initiative.
  4. Expanding the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI), in partnership with Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC) and the Military Impacted Schools Association (MISA), to help lead a campaign that gives public high school students, with emphasis to those coming from military families, greater access to Advanced Placement (AP) courses in Math and Science.
  5. Time Warner Cable committing $100 million, as part of the Educate to Innovate Initiative, to inspire the next generation of students through various STEM-related after-school activities.
  6. Continuing the 100Kin10, which is the President’s goal to have 100,000 excellent STEM teachers in the next ten years.  To date, more than 150 organizations have become a part of the 100Kin10 coalition, whether through monetary donations or in the creation of STEM teacher development programs.
  7. Discovery Communications, as part of Educate to Innovate, launching a multi-program campaign that includes dedicating a commercial-free educational kids block on the Science Channel, in order to help get more students excited about STEM.

All of these future plans come about a month and a half after the implementation of the national sequestration cuts, which somewhat shocks me because $3 billion of the $1.2 trillion federal cut is to come from education. Ironically, $3 billion is virtually the exact cost of the U.S. government investment in STEM related education in December of 2011 [2].  Now, the coupling of these budget cuts and the implementation of costly STEM initiatives, indicates a government-led emphasis on creating a more STEM-focused education system, in hopes of creating a stronger work force.  With greater incentives for focusing on STEM, and the simultaneous emphasis on standardized testing results as tool for educational evaluation, comes the narrowing of non-STEM related curriculum. Moreover, with far greater media publicity on the subject, STEM is promoted as a groundwork solution for both education and the dearth of professionals in the current job market/economy.  The confluence of these factors indirectly frames a hierarchy of values within the established curriculum and shifts the purpose for education, both of which could be problematic for the future.

That being said, I do see more STEM integration as a positive and necessary improvement to American education policy, for it acknowledges that our society, and subsequently our job market, is becoming increasingly technology-driven.  However, what worries me is the very apparent imbalance in government-backed efforts, in terms of budgetary expenditures and policy proposals, between STEM education and non-STEM, or liberal arts, education.

I don’t think STEM implementation and integration should come at the denigration of a general liberal arts education. The various new plans and initiatives hastily create a false culture within education policy that implies that STEM improvements are the key towards general education reform and a more practical and capable workforce. Though these assumptions contain grains of truth, the recent overemphasis on STEM has a variety of implications that are often overlooked amidst all the positive dialogue about the implications of a more STEM-prepared student population of students in the job market. I’d like to simply touch on one of the many implications of an overemphasis on STEM education at the expense of liberal arts education.

STEM is an inherently self-affirming model within a test-driven education system, which I, as well as various scholars of the field, such as Diane Ravitch, point to as one of the most significant problems within education today.  STEM subjects are numbers-based, with very little subjectivity, and, therefore, lend themselves to using standardized assessment as a quantifiable way to measure proficiency of not just the student, but of the district’s policy and of the teacher’s instruction.  This is where STEM could have very negative effects in education.  Already, without a STEM bias, and with standardized assessments becoming a more heavily weighted method of achievement evaluation, we are witnessing a narrowing curriculum in school districts, specifically in urban areas.  Additionally, we see the marginalization of non-tested subjects, such as history and the creative arts, because of the implicit importance placed on tested subjects.

Assessment is unfortunately becoming the main, and sometimes sole, measure of academic achievement; and STEM’s inherent quantitative and quantifiable nature can help solidify the continuation of utilizing assessment in the unfortunate way that it is currently used.  If STEM becomes the premier focal point of education, then there will be that much more justification for districts to continue measuring achievement through testing, thus allowing for the persistence of all the negative consequences of test-driven achievement.  Though I am not posing a rejection of STEM integration because of this fact, I am arguing that a heavily STEM-skewed model of curriculum, which seems to be something the government supports, could lead to a self-perpetuating model of education that promotes a newly set educational ideology as an institution; an ideology that favors and rewards the end goal of employment rather than learning and curiosity.

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