Thursday, July 23, 2015

The STEM Engine

In 1964, the legendary physicist Richard Feynman, then forty-six years old, delivered a 7-part series of Messenger Lectures at Cornell University on “The Character of Physical Law.” (Bill Gates has made videos of the lectures available to the world in 2009.)

Feynman began his lecture with these words: “It is odd, but on the infrequent occasion when I have been called upon in a formal place to play the bongo drums, the introducer never seems to find it necessary to mention that I also do theoretical physics. I believe that is probably because we respect the arts more than the sciences.”

“Respect the arts more than the sciences!” The suggestion was perhaps hyperbole on Feynman’s part to set the stage for his inimitable presentation on the basic laws of physics and their role in defining how nature works. But even if it was true in the ‘60s that the arts received more respect than the sciences, the table has certainly turned in the decades since. Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) appear to have left the arts in the dust.

Is this development for the better?

Surely from an employment perspective, anyone savvy with programming or big data analysis stands a better chance of earning a livelihood than someone versed in the nuances
of Shakespeare’s sonnets. After all, there are just so many positions available in English departments but those with proven ability to code or analyze data or conduct research on the mathematics of singularity or the strange properties of dark matter will be courted by numerous employers.

STEM has been expanded to STEAM, (STEM + Art = STEAM) and elicited support from industry and academia but there is a general feeling that the ‘A’ in STEAM is an afterthought, a way to pacify those concerned about the decline of humanities from our curricula.

But as Fareed Zakaria, a Washington Post columnist and author of ‘In Defense of a Liberal Education,’ pointed out in a recent column, a broad general education is a requirement for innovation and creativity. “Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross fertilization. Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education, but so are English and philosophy …”

What do community college students think of the ascendency of STEM at the expense of the Arts?

Luis believes wholeheartedly in the importance of STEM in revitalizing education in the United States. He worked on a STEM project in a summer camp last year and was amazed by the enthusiasm of boys and girls, particularly girls, from low-income families, in mastering STEM subjects. “In my experience, most girls don’t like to go for professions involving science and technology and math but these girls in my camp couldn’t wait for the next day’s activity to begin after a hard days of work. STEM is a way to lift students out of poverty and turn them into lifelong learners.”

Vanessa, on the other hand, believes that the emphasis on STEM is misguided. She finds the reach of technology disturbing. “Technology companies target even young children. I personally prefer for someone to be more artistic. Music and art of any kind help develop our brains. They allow us to actually think for ourselves. While STEM is important, art is equally important. I believe if we push more of the arts like painting and playing instruments, it will expand our minds and also improve our performance in reading, science and math.”

Cindy also believes that STEM education is limiting in many ways. “While it is good to be great test takers and have plenty of information sitting in our brain, STEM subjects by themselves don’t expand our horizon as much.  By cutting classes like English, Art History, and any type of Humanities, you are taking away any chance to promote critical thinking. I think all subjects are equally important to learn.  I have seen how dramatically Humanity classes have been cut from colleges. It's sad to see how everyone looks like robots taking the same courses!”

Garcia finds many benefits in STEM subjects but “there is also a downside to it as well.  When I was in grade school, there was a push for math and science. I was terrible at it but with tutoring I was able to get through most of the classes. Students today are influenced by technology and the media. The focus on STEM doesn’t include what students learn working in a group or with other peers with different social skills. It removes the social interaction many children need. I do not believe STEM by itself will work because it does not address the issue of diversity in the learning styles of students.”

Madisyn believes in the importance of STEM subjects but feels that it has to be complemented by an equal emphasis on the arts and the humanities. It will be a mistake to set up the ‘two cultures’ as rivals. “Knowledge is synergistic. Who wants to hire a scientist who can’t write? Who wants to employ an engineer who isn’t a creative problem-solver? Doesn’t technological innovation require critical reasoning, ethical awareness and sensitivity to the diverse populations in which such advancements are actually put to use? The brain has two hemispheres. It will be serious mistake to nourish only one half. In this day and age, promoting classes focused on technology and mathematics is much more of a surefire way to attain a career but I will argue that a CEO of a tech company must have a grasp on not just mathematics, but also of psychology and communication. Over-reliance on STEM education will be like putting all our ‘knowledge eggs’ in one basket. It may lead to short-term gain but will be disastrous in the long run.”

Jessica thinks that STEM or no STEM is a false dichotomy. She feels strongly in a balance between STEM and the Humanities. “If we cut funds from Humanities courses, thinking it will improve our math and science teaching, it will only handicap us and make us regress. The probability of kids becoming more interested in the STEM subjects is not guaranteed. If there is anything Americans know about their youth today, it is that if they are forced to do something they are not interested in, they will rebel. Unfortunately, our youth have become lazy. They are more interested in celebrities and social media than in subjects that expand their minds. If you’re not studying subjects you are passionate about but join a job for the money where you won’t travel the world, experience new cultures and be stuck in a boring office working 9 to 5, you will be miserable. STEM should be encouraged. We should become more math savvy. We should be bilingual. And we should not ignore the Humanities.”

Erica understands that education system in America focuses on creativity but finds the obsession with STEM subjects alarming. She wants STEMS balanced with liberal arts and philosophy. “I attended a performing arts school all through elementary and high school. We had art, drama, ceramics, dance and many other art divisions. I was in the GATE program in elementary which stands for Gifted and Talented Education. I was good at math, science and history but I entered the program due to my metaphorical and critical thinking skills. I was really good at writing. I started losing interest in math because of my grumpy, uninspiring math instructor who would force us to go to the board and make fun of us when we didn't answer questions correctly. Our education system needs to focus on ways to help expand our creativity in mathematics. Perhaps taking ideas from other countries could help establish the right formula for our education system. Now that I am in college, I've grown to know myself and don't let anyone intimidate me. I've learned to value math and how much we deal with it on a consistent basis, something I never knew before but am grateful I do now.”

Jocelyn recognizes the importance of STEM but finds the overreliance on technology troubling. “STEM is important, but in order to improve our society, we need to be also focused on social skills and creativity. Ever since Facebook and Apple have become insanely popular, people are obsessed with social media and gadgets. What people should be interested in is how they can improve society as a whole. I love science and I am pursuing it as a career; however, I also believe a society needs to thrive in different categories to be successful. For example, while mathematicians and scientists expand our knowledge, it is often the artists who change our society. We should emphasize both STEM and the Humanities.”

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