STEM Education: Why It’s Important

Stephen DeAngelis

March 14, 2014

There continues to be debate about whether too much emphasis is being placed on STEM education. Critics believe that proponents are trying to diminish the value of other liberal arts subjects and force most students into the hard sciences. Proponents, like Elaine J. Hom, beg to differ. She explains, “STEM is a curriculum based on the idea of educating students in four specific disciplines — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — in an interdisciplinary and applied approach. Rather than teach the four disciplines as separate and discrete subjects, STEM integrates them into a cohesive learning paradigm based on real-world applications.” [“What is STEM Education?LiveScience, 11 February 2014] It would be foolish to think that all of our children can be programmed to desire a career in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. After all, one of things that makes us “human” is our ability to appreciate art, music, and literature. Life would be truly dull without these endeavors in our lives. In addition, everything that is made requires a designer (i.e., an industrial artist) to make them both useful and attractive. So, why all the emphasis on STEM subjects?

There are several reasons. First of all, every loving parent wants his or her children to be successful and self-reliant — whether they desire to be artist or a engineer, a dancer or a physicist, a writer or computer programmer. A STEM approach to education can help students achieve their goals because, as Hom notes, it is based “on real-world applications” and, hopefully, involves project-based learning. The STEM approach is all about problem solving and critical thinking. It really doesn’t matter what field of endeavor a child wants to pursue, he or she will be better equipped to meet the challenges they face if they are armed with those skills. The second reason that STEM education is being stressed is because U.S. students are falling behind their international counterparts. William H. Swanson reports, “The best schools in America are a full two years behind their Chinese counterparts in math, according to a major new international educational assessment.” [“Meeting the STEM Challenge,” U.S. News & World Report, 21 February 2014] He continues:

“The Programme for International Student Assessment is one of the most thorough school surveys in the world. It measures major subject matter achievement for 15-year-olds in 65 countries, which combined represent 80 percent of the global economy. Sadly, America’s PISA results in math are dismal. In the latest results released recently, our students put up below-average scores, coming in 26th internationally. Students in a host of nations, including much smaller countries like Hungary, Lithuania and the Slovak Republic, outperform our own. And we are far behind No. 1-ranked Shanghai.”

Another reason we need STEM education is because most new jobs that will provide a livable wage are going to require the kinds of knowledge and skills taught in those subjects. Joseph P. Williams reports, “A study by job-matching service TheLadders revealed that the fastest-growing jobs are in the tech sector, replacing those in middle management as the positions employers are trying to fill most.” [“STEM Roundup: Fastest-Growing Jobs Are in STEM,” U.S. News & World Report, 19 November 2013] He explains:

“Of the fastest growing job titles over the last five years, seven of the top 10 are technology positions that necessitate specific technical skills for developing software and mining data. Further, four of the seven fastest-growing technology jobs — DevOps engineer, iOS developer, data scientist and Android developer — did not even exist on TheLadders five years ago. According to the study, those jobs require deep educational qualifications and specific skills in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics rather than managerial skills.”

Swanson adds:

“While American educational achievement stagnates on this front, our economy continues to produce jobs that depend on math, along with science, technology and engineering – the STEM fields, as they are collectively known. STEM employment growth is outpacing the general economy by about 300 percent. And, over the next five years, the United States is expected to add as many as 1.3 million new STEM jobs. And these positions aren’t just plentiful – they also pay well. In the United States, the average professional with a STEM degree earns about $78,000 annually – compared to the annual average wage for Americans of approximately $43,000.”

Another reason we need to stress STEM education is that America’s future depends on it remaining a nation of entrepreneurs and inventors. As you know, in life if you are not moving ahead you’re falling behind. There are so many challenges facing the world right now that we cannot afford America, or any other country for that matter, to start falling behind. Education should not be seen as a competition between nations, but a way for all nations to address poverty and offer the brightest possible future for the children of the world. Wendy Kopp correctly points out that education is not a zero-sum game. “We collaborate with other countries on issues like public health and climate change because we understand these issues affect our collective welfare,” she writes. “It’s impossible to imagine political leaders urging us to ‘out-vaccinate’ Korea or ‘out-feed’ India.” [“Let’s Call Off the Education Arms Race,” Wall Street Journal, 3 December 2013]

One final reason that we need to stress STEM education (and stress it early) is because too many students (and their parents) believe that STEM subjects are hard. Taught correctly STEM subjects open up students’ eyes to possibilities they never imagined. They learn how these subjects can help them cope with everyday challenges. For as long as children have been attending schools, they have asked this question about certain subjects, “What good is this going to do me in real life?” A good STEM curriculum has an answer for that question. In a previous post, I cited an op-ed piece written by Sol Garfunkel, executive director of the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications, and David Mumford, an emeritus professor of mathematics at Brown. They obviously love mathematics; but, they understand that not every child wants to grow up to be a mathematician. They wrote, “It is through real-life applications that mathematics emerged in the past, has flourished for centuries and connects to our culture now.” [“How to Fix Our Math Education,” New York Times, 25 August 2011] In their article, they note:

“The truth is that different sets of math skills are useful for different careers, and our math education should be changed to reflect this fact. Today, American high schools offer a sequence of algebra, geometry, more algebra, pre-calculus and calculus (or a ‘reform’ version in which these topics are interwoven). This has been codified by the Common Core State Standards, recently adopted by more than 40 states. This highly abstract curriculum is simply not the best way to prepare a vast majority of high school students for life. … Most citizens would be better served by studying how mortgages are priced, how computers are programmed and how the statistical results of a medical trial are to be understood. A math curriculum that focused on real-life problems would still expose students to the abstract tools of mathematics, especially the manipulation of unknown quantities. But there is a world of difference between teaching ‘pure’ math, with no context, and teaching relevant problems that will lead students to appreciate how a mathematical formula models and clarifies real-world situations.”

That kind of matter-of-fact, problem solving, project-based approach to education is exactly what I think is needed in most of our schools today. It’s why I established the non-profit organization called called The Project for STEM Competitiveness (follow ). Swanson concludes:

“Improving STEM education must be a national priority. That means ensuring that American students from all backgrounds receive robust instruction in math and science in elementary and middle school, in-depth exposure to disciplines like physics and chemistry in high school, and profession-oriented specialization at the college and graduate levels. In the classroom, educators should be striving to instill a passion for math and science early. What’s driven many of the amazing advancements of the past is a simple, intoxicating curiosity – an eagerness to know how something works, figure it out, and then translate the findings into innovative new products and services. Connecting the dots between the formulas on the chalkboard and today’s students’ phones, video games or skateboards can spark and sustain the kind of curiosity that fuels a career.”

I couldn’t agree more. I know that a lot of people who favor the liberal arts are trying to change the acronym STEM to STEAM by adding an “A” for arts. As I noted at the beginning of this article, I’m a fan of “the arts,” but even artists need to be equipped to face the challenges life throws at them. Everyone needs to know how to think critically and solve problems. Only a good foundation in STEM can provide those skills.