In the world of education there is an increasing call for more STEM initiatives. It is often accompanied by the recitation of shortages of qualified candidates for STEM fields. But are we really identifying the true need and the best way to get there? Or are we just putting a name on traditional thinking and further isolating it?
Countless interviews with corporate executives and technology visionaries support the fact that what we really need are technically competent, CREATIVE thinkers. Furthermore, not everyone can pursue a traditional STEM career – there are just not enough jobs. But what every citizen of the 21st century will need is a level of technical literacy. Now, more than ever, we are living in a highly engineered world. It is a world full of huge problems and enormous potential, all of which will require thoughtfully designed approaches to solutions and meaningful realization. Ignoring the designed world in order to follow an educational model rooted in the 19th century is failure to educate. And focusing solely on an acronym, STEM, can lead to failure to acknowledge the inherent transdisciplinary nature of real world issues and the potential of synergistic solutions to problems.
Acronyms can be useful. They can identify a program or initiative with a handful of easily remembered letters. But, they can also be restrictive and isolating. They give us a box for identities. They can create a tyranny of programs and initiatives that serve the acronym and not the student. So many science and math teachers say to me “We need to be doing STEM” as if they were not already part of the solution! It has become its own academic entity. But what is the true goal? Putting all of the science and math teachers together, or putting all of the science and math students together in a STEM Academy, ignores the rest of the world and all of the nuances needed for viable solutions to problems. We forget that engineered solutions are designed to meet the needs of humans in social and cultural settings. People skills, empathy, and creativity are just as critical to good design. STEM academies and STEM curriculum tracks in schools run the risk of perpetuating the image of the isolated techno-geek and often stress technical skills while sacrificing softer social skills. Basically, no acronym is large enough to incorporate everything students need to be prepared for the future. To highlight a few areas in an acronym creates a focus that is unrealistic and, at times, alienating.
Even the attempt to insert an “A” for art into the acronym (STEAM) is met by a wide range of opinions about how “appropriate” it is to combine all those left and right brain thinkers into one word. Step back and think about how many times today you associated only with analytical thinkers or how many times you said to yourself “Well, now I will use my left (or right) brain”. Unless you are highly unusual, that is not how you operate. That is not the stuff of everyday life and problem-solving. It is clearly not how we are wired but it can be how we teach if focus solely on STEM. If we ever hope to attract creative thinkers to technical fields we need to blur those lines, lose the separate letters in the acronyms, and move to transdisciplinary and connected thinking. We need to go beyond the walls we have set up to silo different disciplines if what we teach is to have meaning beyond the walls of our classrooms and in the lives of our students.
Innovation happens at the edges, not in the well-entrenched middle of a discipline. Edges need to blur and blend to foster the creative thinking that supports new ideas. In a world where students move from science to social studies to French class and then to math, pulling out a different notebook and assuming their seat in yet another row of desks, there is little time at the edges and those edges are rarely blurred. Schedules, classrooms, notebooks, have very clear lines and very little room for connections. Learning scientific and mathematical knowledge in an isolated context is of little value to a society facing complex technical challenges. Inspiring innovative thinkers who can create meaningful change requires that we support and develop the skills necessary for empathetic design. Those skills transcend all acronyms and demand a vision that blurs our classroom walls and relies on transdisciplinary connections. Acronyms can be very useful, but they can also create packages that simply contain many little boxes. Global vision, systems thinking, and empathetic design can help to unwrap it all and remove the wall between the classroom and the real world. And there is no acronym for all of that!