How pervasive is this problem? The New York Times Science columnist Natalie Angier wrote an article in 2010 where she pointed out the confusion between STEM Education and flowers. She also pointed out that 86 percent of people in a survey did not know what the acronym STEM stood for in regards to STEM education. In the years since, the acronym for STEM has gone from pervasive to unavoidable. Google search for STEM Education shows over 100 million results. But are we any better off today than we were four years ago? I am amazed by many emails I get from teachers who ask me what is STEM or how to teach STEM, and many of them claim to be math or science teachers. If people cannot even properly identify the topic, how can they possibly be better informed about the subject matter itself? This can lead to a feeling among some parents that their children's education is being conducted in a manner that they do not understand or cannot fully appreciate. When people encounter things they do not know, they can react with fear, hostility and negativity. These emotions can further be intensified when the unknown things affect their children.
But STEM is not only facing a problem from the unknown. It is also facing criticism from those that say that it does not go far enough to include other necessary fields. Brian Dyak of the Entertainment Industry Council has noted that some educators and scientists have wanted to add a second M onto the end of STEM to include "medicine" (thus making the acronym STEM-squared). Others have advocated for a greater role for the arts, pushing a STEAM education movement. But overhanging all of these debates of what STEM education should include or should eschew comes from a recent Seattle Times editorial by James Behrend where he stated that he did not find meaning in the sciences as a child; instead, he took his meaning (and his later career) in the arts and humanities. The traditional response to a child losing interest in the sciences has been seen by the traditional STEM world as a massive negative event that should be curtailed whenever possible. This viewpoint has given rise to programs that seek to provide hands-on initiatives for kids so that they can develop a greater appreciation and drive for STEM subjects. In the eyes of the STEM education world, keeping students interested and on-track in science is a key part in eliminating the projected skills gap.
The problem with this conversation is that the two sides are talking past each other. STEM education advocates and policy only seem to take into perspective what is good for the STEM fields and for children who are interested in or could become interested in sciences. It does little to address how students who are interested in the humanities, the arts, or other fields may benefit. This in turn can make people in those fields uncomfortable with STEM education due to the often erroneous belief that for one field to prosper, another must suffer due to a lack of funding and available staffing resources. If STEM advocates truly want to create a revolution in education that ensures that no child's potential is squandered no matter where it lies, then assuaging these fears and understanding other perspectives can be a powerful tool in bridging these gaps.
People may wonder why they should spend time educating others about the importance of STEM. The principal reason is that many of these individuals are or will one day be parents. As research has continually shown, parents can have an enormously positive impact on a child's education. However, if a parent is not adequately equipped to know what their children should be learning, then those parents cannot possibly successfully advocate on their children's behalves. STEM education cannot just be for kids; education about STEM has to be something for parents as well.
And there's another reason, a larger reason, the reason STEM needs to reach out and form allies with people in other fields while at the same time educating those who do not know the current situation is that the skills gap and the expansion of STEM are real things that will have real consequences. The problem with a story that everyone knows to be true is that that story starts to lose its power due to how often it is repeated. But if the United States is to continue to be a leader in the STEM fields, if it is to emerge as one of the top countries for education in the world, and if it is to have a conversation around education that everyone can participate in so that the best can be achieved for all students, then those who are STEM advocates, educators, and policymakers must do a better job of educating those outside the field of the vital importance of this quest.