STEM studies for everyone?

March 25, 2014

It seems to me that the drive to educate all our youngsters as if they were going into STEM occupations is a bit overdone. Just in case you’re not familiar with the term, STEM is an acronym referring to the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. In the United States, STEM has developed into a kind of catchall term used in both education and immigration discussions about a perceived lack of folks qualified for high-tech jobs.

STEM has probably become of primary consideration in determining education policy and curriculum choices in schools from kindergarten through college. It has gained such influence that STEM promotes beginning engineering studies even in elementary school. This concept provides STEM education for all students with particular emphasis on what are termed “under-represented populations” - especially women and ethnic/racial minorities - as a means of “correcting” their percentage of participation in STEM occupations. Another bit of social engineering?

STEM education begins while students are very young. In elementary school the focus is on the introductory level STEM courses using a structured (core curriculum?) approach connecting all four STEM subject areas. In middle or junior high school the courses become more rigorous and challenging as students are exposed to the various STEM fields and occupations as well as the academic requirements of such fields.

During high school the program becomes even more challenging and rigorous in preparation for college education and employment. So what’s the problem with the emphasis on STEM education for all? Well, there are several. Probably first and foremost is that STEM type courses are not appropriate for everyone.

While some level of proficiency in math, for example, is necessary in our everyday lives regardless of our occupation, not every student can master the higher math demanded by a STEM curriculum. Furthermore, the type of thinking required by the STEM course of study is not suited to all students - their minds just don’t work that way. Having been a teacher of both math and engineering type courses as well as a practicing engineer, I can attest that not all our youngsters should be forced into a STEM course of study. It’s an exercise in futility for the teachers and frustration for the students.

As for the social engineering aspect, I can recall how, when I was in engineering school, there were on-campus demonstrations condemning the lack of women and minorities in engineering studies. What was kinda funny was that the student protesters could have enrolled in engineering courses themselves, but preferred not to - perhaps because they couldn’t master the difficult course work.

OK, so what are some alternatives? Well, there are a multitude of occupations that don’t require mastery of STEM courses - but do require a fundamental education, particularly in reading, writing, math, and using computers. I know a guy with a one man appliance repair business. He doesn’t come cheap, but he provides dependable, quick service and is a whiz at his job - which leads to a satisfied customer base. Sure, he has technical training and lots of experience, but not a STEM education. Another guy is a very successful heating, ventilation, and air conditioning technician.

A dropout from college for financial reasons, he told me he has “never looked back” and has a very satisfying and financially rewarding career. Yet another guy I know has developed a pest control business. He started out as a one man effort but now has a profitable company. I also know of a reliable two-man auto repair shop - with more business than they can handle. Is a STEM education required for these folks?

Sure, we need people educated in all kinds of high-tech fields - two of my brothers and I had successful careers in engineering and science, but my other brothers and sisters also enjoyed fulfilling careers - outside the STEM areas. What we all had in common was a sound foundation in reading, writing, and math - to which we added the training/education needed for our particular occupations.

Well, the powers-that-be in control of our K-12 education system curriculum have apparently decided a STEM-oriented education for all will “fix” the perceived lack of skilled high-tech people. The question remains, however, if it is appropriate for everyone - a question that shouldn’t be ignored. At least that’s how it seems to me.

Bill Taylor, a Greene County Daily columnist and area resident, may be contacted at solie1@juno.com.