image:Matt Damon in the Martian

Why STEM Isn’t Moving the Needle

The Case for X-STEAM

First of all, it’s hard. Tell a bright young kid today who “wants to go into marketing or sales” that he or she needs to buck up and take a pre-calculus class and prepare for the worst.

Second, we’re selling it wrong. STEM is an awkward, schmooshed-together acronym that does a disservice to its component disciplines and muddles the mindsets each one of them requires.

image:Matt Damon in the Martian
“I’m going to science the hell out of this.”
Matt Damon in “The Martian”

Conflicted and Confused. In my own reporting, countless Scientists (S) have insisted to me that they are researchers and experimenters, primarily, not Technologists (T). And they’re especially not, God forbid, Engineers (E). The Engineers (E), on the other hand, emphasize their practicality and hands-on approaches to problem-solving, “not theory but real work.” Furthermore, the Technology (T) guys (and they’re almost all guys) mostly claim computer science as their root stock. They really don’t soil their hands with gadgets and doodads. Their holy mission is saving the world one app at a time. And, finally, the Mathematicians (M), who rarely exist in a pure state, except in the halls of Academe, boast that their skillsets are fundamental to everything, hence they’re as hard to classify as they are to preach to.

Skills Gaps. Selling STEM is big business, however. It’s attracted tons of dough from foundations and those of us obsessed with engineering-gaps, science-gaps, and skills gaps. There are STEM Academies a-forming and well-meaning re-emphases pledged for schools and colleges. But in fact we’re not coming close to bridging the gaps: enrollments in STEM subjects continue to languish; girls and minority students continue to be drastically under-represented; and China continues to crank out dozens of engineers a day to our one.

So, why isn’t STEM moving the needle? Here are a couple of reasons.

Integrated Disciplines. First, despite our desperate need for the specialized expertise and disciplined training required to produce a fully-formed Scientist, Technologist, Engineer, or Mathematician, the winds of real business are in fact blowing the opposite direction. What 21st Century enterprises say they really require is broad-based, integrated skills sets – the ability to cross disciplines, communicate, learn flexibly and adaptively, work effectively in interdisciplinary teams.

Behavioral Skills. And this requires a healthy dollop of the out-of-favor Liberal Arts, and the so-called behavioral skills. A counter-faction now arises that wants to put an “A” in the STEM mix, representing the Arts. Their re-fashioned acronym, STEAM, is gaining traction. STEAMers regard the “people skills” as the critical mortar that can hold the bricks and boards citadel of expertise together. In the practical world of business, if you can’t share it, sell it, synthesize and systematize it, STEMmers risk marginalization in nimble, change-adept corporate cultures.

In short, you don’t need an “A” in your acronym to note that the Ivory Tower and the dreaded Silo bear more than a metaphorical resemblance to each other.

Experiential Learning. The second reason STEM languishes is that we’ve put the theoretical ahead of the experiential. People become scientists and engineers because they want to do things, make things, fiddle with things. Today, long before you ever get to make anything you have to spend years and years thinking about it, studying about it, being tested upon it, and becoming certified in it.

The spark that ignites enthusiasm and illuminates even the most exotic discipline is kindled by discovery and wonder. And it’s usually “hands on.” The true Scientist, Technologist, Engineer or Mathematician usually cites an “Aha!” moment which first lit that fuse. That catalytic experience may well have come from a textbook or even an inspired teacher, but in its transformative effect it was likely more an experience than an idea. It solved a problem.

We need to bring back the Field Trip.

Applied STEM. Or send everyone to see “The Martian,” that hymn to applied STEM that brings back the excitement of Getting Something Done with Science.

Expose students to people doing real work in real businesses, organizations, and labs. Show how theories translate into productive practices. Demonstrate the applied results of concepts, ideas, and systems. Get their hands dirty and their minds inspired. Create the fertile ground from which spring the “Aha” moments that can transform their lives and careers.

Revolution at Stanford. Even the traditional STEM incubators are re-thinking their approach. Stanford University takes a back seat to no institution in its ability to crank out engineers and technologists. Yet, on a business mission a few years ago, I heard first hand from Engineering School leadership that “we are in danger of losing the best and brightest” simply by putting years of mind-numbing classroom curriculum ahead of practical experimentation and practice. In a dramatic shift in its teaching program, Stanford has inverted its entire four year teaching plan, promising entering engineering students a hands-on project in their freshman years. Theory and analysis can follow.

Let’s call this experiential, catalytic, motivating process “X-STEAM,” where the Experiential (X) moment precedes the immersion in the particulars and theory.

Evolution at Home. My own X-STEAM Aha Moment occurred recently at a Seattle elementary school. There, under the auspices of an innovative organization called Washington Green Schools, third to sixth graders were championing their “Greening” results to a school-wide assembly and a group of rapt parents. Their substance was interesting, everything from tree planting to composting to recycling to energy management, but the affect was even more profound – contagious enthusiasm, advocacy, and passion. Experience trumped Theory.

“This is really just a stalking horse for STEM,” whispered one of the parents to me, “look how excited they are — recording, reporting, and bragging up their results.” So, there it was: experiential STEAM, with plenty of behavioral skills on display to put the message across.

And, by the way, all those calculations the kids did to get there – determining Room 16’s energy use per amount of fuel consumed by the basement boiler – those are called Algebra.