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How We Learned to Love the Pedagogical Vapor of STEM

by | Dec 17, 2019 | News

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep balance, you must keep moving.

— Albert Einstein

How We Learned to Love the Pedagogical Vapor of STEM

Science and mathematics somehow got yoked to the vocational field of engineering and, worst of all, to "technology," which can mean almost anything—and nothing.

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Illustration: TOM STRAW

When American public schools macramé'd together the words language, arts, and English, starting in the 1970s, they created a tangle: ELA.

The neo-discipline must have bewildered teachers. There's a long tradition of teaching individual languages and their literatures, a long tradition of teaching fine arts, and a less long but still solid tradition of teaching linguistics. But how do you teach ELA? The phrase English language arts itself comes to kick off what should be a kid's lifelong awe at the boundlessly beautiful English language with jargon that is neither English, nor language, nor art.

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But STEM: come on. Way worse. The acronym, coined in the early 1990s, is pedagogical vapor. It Pasteur-pipettes into a flask all kinds of clashing and differently scaled fields of study, with no shared methodology or pedagogical tradition. Then STEM Bunsen-burns this brew to ashes and calls the precipitate “progress,” “rigor,” a “competitive edge,” and “gross domestic product.” And now, as parents of school-age kids have been told at least since 2001, STEM requires our reverence and our investment.

Well, OK, show me where to donate to the rambunctiously merry STEM events—STEMStars, STEMlympics. But first just tell me what STEM is. Above all, I want to know how science, a byword for all knowledge, and mathematics, the great harmonies of the universe—two august disciplines that have defined education since antiquity—yoked themselves to the vocational field of engineering and, worst of all, to “technology,” which could mean almost anything from space mirrors to VSCO girls. Technology is conceptually chaotic, even if the chaos can be glorious. See: WIRED magazine.

Think of what STEM might reasonably be expected to cover: fluid mechanics, C++, the periodic table, PEMDAS, Python, botany, the Krebs cycle, Instagram curation, polymer chemistry, robotics, making an investor deck, formal logic, electrodynamics, the quadratic formula, GIFs, quantum mechanics, JavaScript, civil engineering, machine learning, virology, drones, particle physics, acoustics, the supply chain, astronomy, YouTube memes, natural selection, anatomy, multiplication tables, remote surgery using 5G, and …

Everything else. And yet why do I suspect that almost none of this is core to most STEM programs? The contemporary STEM curricula in lower schools seem, in fact, to have very little as a through line, unless you count the popular Scratch app, a production of the Siegel Family Endowment, which is heavily subsidized by Google and the Cartoon Network. The app lets kids learn loops and if-then blocks in a kind of baby programming language that no adult uses. It's fun.

Scratch is perhaps less useful for learning algebra or metallurgy, which, unlike Scratch, are less brandable, having spent millennia in the public domain.

In 2012, a 38-page congressional intro to STEM education called “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education: A Primer” offered some insight into the new field of study. The report styles STEM as the shot of anabolics our workforce needs to stay in fighting shape. I derived what STEM means, at least in part, from the report's assertion that a numerate citizenry—one that knows basic arithmetic—might be more adept at managing risk, taking proper doses of medications, and even avoiding mortgage scams. These would indeed seem to be adaptive skills. Maybe STEM is simply addition, subtraction, multiplication, division. If so, I'm in.

Early ill-defined STEM programs succeed to the degree that they get students into still more ill-defined STEM programs.

Alas, a box within the report called “What Is STEM?” muddied the waters again. Far from clarifying the concept, government agencies have proposed simply saddling it with more sprawling disciplines, including psychology and economics. The Department of Homeland Security, it noted, included information sciences in STEM but excluded social sciences. It seems the only thing about STEM that policymakers could agree on is what the report calls “the relationship between STEM education and national prosperity and power,” and the significance of STEM to national security and immigration policy.

Hmm. I can't imagine what noodling around with Scratch has to do with immigration policy, but the report reminds readers that “the Soviet Union's Sputnik satellite in the 1950s” is still cited as “a key turning point for STEM education policy.”

The Race to Space—1957. Is that when education finally abandoned the idea of addressing the well-being and decency of the citizenry in private and public life, and turned instead to a project of laying to waste our geopolitical enemies? To that end—winning a Cold War, a trade war, or a war war—American students must evidently be prepared with if-then blocks. The paper also argues that no less a vanquisher of geopolitical enemies than George Washington pledged that the new nation would teach its sons “science and literature” because “knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.”

There I paused again. Public … happiness. And that word “literature.” By my lights, Washington's convictions don't sync in the least with the panic about Sputnik or the present panic about Americans somehow “losing ground” to our rivals. Washington might not have even understood that education would ever exist to serve exclusively as the royal road to world domination. But how did Americans 230 years later come to sign on to the idea that their brains were not to be cultivated but, rather, to be conscripted in an army fighting an ever changing enemy—the Russians, Japanese, Chinese—with a weapon made of vapor, namely STEM?

A brainchild like STEM has many fathers, and one who has credibly claimed paternity is Charles E. Vela, a virtuoso entrepreneur who currently serves as president and chief architect at a Maryland outfit called Afilon, which describes itself as “a strategy, systems engineering, innovation, and program support company.” Before Afilon, Vela had a consulting company called Expertech Solutions, and before that he founded the Center for the Advancement of Hispanics in Science and Engineering Education. That's where, in 1992, he says he first implemented his idea of STEM. In Vela's telling, STEM was not just the magic word that would turn uncompetitive Americans into heavyweights, but the word that would help disenfranchised people get good jobs.

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With Joseph Barba, who is now a professor of electrical engineering at the City College of New York, Vela imagined a STEM Institute that would prepare Hispanics, and other groups underrepresented in STEM, for higher education in STEM. The two men seem to have parted ways, with Barba going on to be president of the STEM Institute at City College and Vela trying his hand at various complex enterprises. In 2004, the plan was for the STEM Institute to teach “analytical and abstract thinking skills in a cooperative learning environment.” Today, the STEM Institute holds weekend and after-school programs that teach everything from “critical thinking” to 3D printing to English.

But is there arithmetic? And will 3D printing let us make better real estate decisions—and count out two 10-ml doses of Advil? It seems possible that early ill-defined STEM programs succeed to the degree that they get students into still more ill-defined STEM programs in preparation for ever changing STEM jobs in unstable STEM industries which metamorphose so rapidly that formal education can't keep up. (IT and “social media” are currently the two best fields for STEM majors, according to career-information company Vault.com.)

The long-held anxiety that Americans are somehow “falling behind” the other great powers in math and science—or is it engineering and computer programming?—has let up a bit as data has emerged showing more students than ever are enrolled in higher-ed STEM programs. Thus they qualify for STEM jobs, presumably, and increase America's wealth and power in a STEM world. No one seems worried about the pedagogy here, and STEM is, more or less, a success story, so maybe I should drop it. But I can't.

A few years ago, Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer-winning novelist and essayist, who won a National Humanities Medal in 2012, the year the STEM study came out, gave an interview in which she quoted her teachers: “You have to live with your mind your whole life,” she'd been told. “You build your mind. So make it into something you want to live with.”

I have repeated this to my kids so many times they now actually run to their rooms when I rev the engine: You have to live with your mind your whole life. But as soon as I encountered these words of Robinson, five years ago, the purpose of education was never again unclear. If my kids can pursue education for its mental pleasures, I believe, it will naturally increase their well-being—and, in time, their capacities to be of service. Maybe they won't even need to spend their higher education learning banal tips to well-being (take naps, look at flowers, etc.) in courses called Positive Psychology (among Harvard's most popular courses) or Psychology and the Good Life (the most popular course ever at Yale). That time, when the brain is in high gear, can be used for advanced physics—or maybe Chinese literature. Here I go again: Sooner or later, you'll be alone with your mind. It ought to be a beautiful place to be.

When all this is possible for a beginning student, what a shame it is for them to be pressed into service in an obsolete and inchoate conflict that requires they spend their grade-school years tapping away at Scratch—all while Sputnik, of all things, still haunts lawmakers and motivates them to seek massive investments in a flimsy experiment in pedagogy that no one seems to understand. And for the kids? To submit to STEM, which is fundamentally an artifact of marketing, is to lose time, irreplaceable time, when you might be creating a mind, living in the harmonies of prime numbers and the elementary particles, and getting a chance at an unscientific notion that George Washington called happiness.

This article appears in the January issue. Subscribe now.

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