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Debating a Singular STEM Focus


American’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous. That’s what Fareed Zakaria says in his latest opinion piece. This should be required reading for all educators. Zakaria states,

"Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education, but so are English and philosophy. When unveiling a new edition of the iPad, Steve Jobs explained that “it’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough – that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

Innovation is not simply a technical matter but rather one of understanding how people and societies work, what they need and want. America will not dominate the 21st century by making cheaper computer chips but instead by constantly reimagining how computers and other new technologies interact with human beings."

Fresh on the heels of Zakaria's article comes another take. In An Open Letter To Fareed Zakaria in Defense of STEM Education, California State Polytechnic University Professor of Mechanical Engineering Dr. Mariappan Jawaharlal addresses many issues he has with Zakaria's assertions.

There is not a single shred of evidence in your assertion. By making these sweeping claims, you undermined one of the critical challenges America faces. Below are some of the issues that you raised in your column that concern STEM professionals and educators:

  1. You have created a divide that never existed between STEM and liberal arts education.

  2. You made a broad sweeping statement that Americans are trying to mimic the Asian educational system. This is an insult to all educators in the country.

  3. You completely missed the point that America is not producing enough qualified people work in the technical fields.

  4. You have assumed STEM as a narrow education.

At AWSP, we’re big supporters of STEM education, but we know that the arts, reading, and humanities are crucial parts of educating the whole child. It's part of bringing reading and arts into STEM, or making STEM into STREAM. We know a lot of schools in our state are taking an integrated approach and doing STEM the right way, but a singular focus on STEM isn't the only problem of focusing too narrowly. For example, consider all the of weight soon given to SBAC results, which only measure two subjects across the range of a school. While important, do they define the entire success or failings of a school?

We've been known to use a Seahawks analogy or two, and we'll do the same here. As many of you know, the Seahawks were first in the league in penalties this year. Imagine if Pete Carroll decided to make reducing the number of penalties the number one point of emphasis for the team; what are the unintended consequences of shifting all your attention to fix a perceived deficit? Perhaps by trying to eliminate penalties, the defensive players would be less aggressive, resulting in more missed tackles and fewer big plays made by the defense, maybe they'd spend too much time thinking and be slow to react, or it's even possible that some penalties save even bigger plays and were actually smart on their own merit. The point is, while trying to improve on our weaknesses, we can't devalue the attributes that give us our strength.

Despite not leading the world in test scores, America is still distinguished as the home of the world’s innovators. For some examples of some incredible feats of innovation accomplished by byproducts of the American public education system, check out my article from the Winter 2014 issue of Washington Principal, American Ingenuity: Stories of Smithsonian Winners Inspire Wonderings about Student Achievement. Be sure to read the whole Zakaria article and the rebuttal as well.  One thing I hope everyone can agree on, this issue is a great reminder not to lose sight of the things that make you strong.

Have an opinion on STEM education and how it's being implemented or stories from your building? We'd love to hear your thoughts on anything above in the comments section below.