STEM education focuses on providing students with a well-rounded view of science, technology, engineering and math with the hope that it will inspire a culture of lifelong learning. This, in turn, will encourage students to pursue degrees and careers in the STEM fields, reducing the risk of a shortfall in properly prepared individuals to take on these jobs in the future. These goals have sparked initiatives throughout the United States that have called for teachers, policymakers, parents and students to rally around the STEM subjects and ensure that students are better prepared through innovative teaching practices, hands-on learning, earlier intervention and proper academic support. But for every person tuned into this conversation, there are dozens who never give STEM a second thought. So while stories about the military engaging elementary students in field trips to help develop 21st century skills remain interesting, these sorts of stories that are typically released on websites and publications with a limited audience do not always have the dissemination into the wider society that STEM needs to help advocate for systemic education change.
That is what makes the Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate so troubling from a STEM point of view. It received a great deal of publicity and societal exposure due to not only its entertainment value but also due to its ability to create conflict. This is not to say that Nye and Ham participated in the debate to sow discord; on the other hand, both remained respectful and reasoned throughout the proceedings. But it seems that only controversial science education issues get talked about in the wider culture. So while the debate over teaching intelligent design in classrooms has spilled over into political, religious, educational and local news, the debate over how best to engage students in computer science and engineering does not receive anywhere near the level of support. Controversial subjects should, of course, be discussed; it helps communities understand what all of the constituent members believe and helps people arrive at consensus or compromise. But controversial issues, whether related to the creation of the universe or healthcare topics, such as abortion or sex education, continue to steal the spotlight of science education.
When the spotlight is stolen, it can easily make science education out as a scapegoat in one of two ways. First, it can give science the feeling that science is directly against the values that many hold dear to themselves due to ongoing debates. Second, and more importantly, it can help to eclipse the fundamental importance of a rigorous, evidence-based science education for all students by boiling down this incredibly vast field into only a few headline-grabbing subjects. STEM education has made gains in recent years, but it still has a long way to train the entrepreneurs and leading thinkers of tomorrow. All students deserve the best education possible, no matter where they come from or what school they attend.
Debate is good. Ongoing discussion of controversial issues is good. But at a time when so many students are losing interest in science and math at young ages, at a time when employers fear an ever-expanding STEM skills gap, and at a time when STEM education needs more support than ever, it can be discouraging to see so much science education energy used in such an unproductive manner. Maybe next time, the debate can be on how to get more women and minorities involved in STEM or how to keep STEM relevant to all students of all ages, no matter their backgrounds or religious beliefs. After all, education policy and student engagement may not have the controversy angle or the star power to draw a million hits in a week, but science, science education and the broader STEM world need to help focus energy on bringing the best, most positive results out of students.
A solid STEM education is for every student, and that is something that needs no debate.