As a former engineer and current high-school teacher, STEM is a frequent buzzword in my lexicon. But, like many others, I have found myself thinking that the STEM acronym is somehow incomplete. What about art? What about English? Many other disciplines play a vital role in developing our next generation of innovators. Outside of the education world, STEM does not exist in a vacuum.
Like a true engineer, I couldn’t shake the riddle. So I approached it as an engineering problem, taking a systems approach: looking at all the inputs and outputs. At that point I realized the source of confusion. Your definition of STEM depends on whether you are talking about the input or the output of the system. When looking at STEM as the output, to ensure economic development and global competitiveness, everything makes complete sense, and science, technology, engineering and math are the key disciplines of concern.
However, when looking at STEM from the input perspective, things get messy; the acronym breaks down and actually creates undue tension. And this is where I begin to worry.
The Northshore School District has worked hard to create a variety of courses, from composites engineering to biomedicine, that are at the nexus of theory and application. The design and engineering courses I teach are cross-credited and count as math and science credits for high school graduation. They also earn the students college credit. My students work alongside industry partners on real-world sustainability-focused projects ranging from off-the-grid vaccine storage for developing countries to supporting the design of a new high school for the district. People visit and like the STEM they see.
This is all exciting and important, but I’ve found it critical to keep in mind that the core STEM skills utilized in my classroom are developed and honed in all the other classrooms around the school. The students develop creativity and critiquing skills in art class. They learn research skills in English class. They learn teamwork and leadership in PE, clubs and sports.
We won’t solve the puzzle of equipping our national education system for the 21st century just by hiring engineers to teach, or buying high-tech equipment, or reinventing shop class. These are all part of the solution, but even when combined, they do not represent a complete solution that addresses STEM from a systems perspective. The key is to not mistake outputs for inputs. STEM may be the output, but it’s not the only input.
When I get together with fellow Allen Distinguished Educators (educators who have been recognized by The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation for their innovative approach in teaching engineering and entrepreneurship), we talk about the fact that all disciplines play a role in innovation and developing the next generation of STEM leaders. The STEM careers of tomorrow are not just about the application of math and science.
These jobs will demand young adults have not only the skills and knowledge routinely associated with engineering, but also more fundamental skills like team-building, communication, creativity and coping with failure. These skills critical to STEM are being honed in all disciplines and should be recognized accordingly through both funding allocation and curriculum development.
We make a grave error if we assume a focus on improving STEM education is just a call for science, technology, engineering and math. Rather, it is a call for innovation that requires all disciplines, from art and English to history and music, to be involved and properly supported in the mission of educating and equipping the great innovators of tomorrow.
Mike Wierusz teaches high school in the Northshore School District, where he has launched a sustainable engineering design program. Earlier this year, he was named an Allen Distinguished Educator by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.