In the education world STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is the current hot topic. There’s no secret about why this is; technology is the biggest moneymaker in the world of business today. Not only are tech products and the concepts behind them driving the global economy, but technology promises the solution to end all sorts of problems within the world, ranging from health care, to global hunger, and more.
As a teacher, I have spent a lot of time researching whether teaching STEM concepts are really worthwhile for my students as a whole. I’m an English teacher by training, but I find myself in a unique spot where I am teaching a technology course for the first time this year. At first, I was a little reluctant because teaching something like how to code just because a lot of other schools are doing it makes very little sense. If 10 percent of my students go into a technology-related field, I would be extremely surprised. Realistically, this number is likely to be 5 percent or lower–and that’s still a bit higher than the national average.
If I was going to do this, I wanted to do it correctly. I didn’t want to just jump on yet another educational bandwagon, and sacrifice the learning of my students as a result.
What I found was that in the end, the vast majority of students do not need to know how to code or many of the other concepts that STEM promotes. Think about this at a personal level: how often do you use Calculus in your job? How often do you need to design a vehicle that can fulfill a very specific function? How often do you use HTML? These are fun to learn, but learning how to do things like this needs to feed into a larger purpose for our students. Teaching these activities for the sake of teaching them is not productive. Even if we capture the attention of a handful of students and they move into research professions, the impact that it will have on the rest of the students will be negligible at the best. There needs to be a purpose behind teaching these skills, and it needs to be present in each lesson presented. This is true of middle school STEM lessons, or college level classes.
At the middle and high school levels, that purpose will vary, but I prefer to focus on the problem solving side of things. This is a skill that most students do not have, at least according to anecdotal observation. When a complex problem arises, students often do not know where to begin. STEM skills enable students to take a complex problem and break it down into easily solved components. This is transferable to every other class and subject, and when this is the focus of STEM lessons at the lower levels of education, students are suddenly better able to tackle their work, regardless of what career path they may want to pursue.
So is STEM absolutely a must in our schools? No, not at all. What is necessary is the skills that STEM teaches. That doesn’t include the computer skills that are being so heavily touted, but rather the critical thinking component. If our students can think deeply about issues, they can find success in any field that they wish to pursue, STEM related and beyond.