Cutting through the BS: More STEM does not equal more scientists

Education is about more than curriculum and testing. But it seems in this austerity-economics-driven-world that schools are more and more being treated as big businesses that need to show bang for their buck. What “evidence” driven approaches to education do not consider is that education is about humans and humans are far more complex than the pieces of paper that are taken as evidence to define their education experience.

Education is a vast ecosystem. Reducing attention to one part of education, whether it be STEM, a curriculum topic, standardised testing, funding debates, or teacher training risks continuing a misconception that helps no one. It’s throwing attention around. Creating binaries where people jump on the bandwagons that speak to their lives the most. Distracting attention from the devastation these debates can cause to the fragile ecosystem of education.

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The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) drive is a well known example of this. In a rapidly digitalising world, we need more and more people capable of working in STEM. This is not a blog about disagreeing with the STEM approach. It’s inevitable. That boat has sailed and there is no denying it.

But there is still wriggle room for redefining STEM.

Let me say that I’m actually quite skeptical about STEAM so I won’t buy into this acronym just yet. STEAM, to me, still suggests a hierarchy of disciplines. Why should the Arts “help” STEM steamroll (ha ha) the usefulness of other disciplines? Why should it be simply a tack on? In my book, it should be The Arts (including the Social Sciences) and STEM working together as equals to find authentic, real world solutions (or better questions).

Noel Gough writes quite passionately about the fallacious logic of applying one system of analysis to another system. He says that there are problems with applying one set of rules to another within the Sciences; so can you imagine the false conclusions that can be drawn when Arts analysis is applied to STEM?

Gough also criticises the reductive nature of most curricula. He writes about how Biology curriculum may require the teaching of the life cycle of the malaria parasite but ignore the mass human devastation the parasite causes.

Where the curriculum “cuts” itself out of the world is an ethical consideration. My life as a Humanities and Social Science (HASS) curriculum leader was spent in tension with Science. Policy demanded more attention be given to STEM and the time to pay that attention was stripped from HASS, the Arts and PE. I always argued that more STEM  cannot make more scientists. It’s a logical fallacy.

Let’s take the malaria parasite as an analogy. A Science class that concentrates on the life-cycle of the parasite for 210 minutes per week is rarely going to motivate more students to study microbiology. But a science class that works with a Geography class to learn about the global impact of malaria may inspire students that microbiologists are a need. That’s an extra 210 minutes per week on STEM being used to solve a major crisis and probably leading to a far greater likelihood of students studying the sciences because of an understanding of the difference that can be made.

But am I going to “cut” the analysis of STEM recruitment at Year 12? Working in STEM is far more complex than simply knowing the stuff. Science labs are traditionally very difficult for women who tend to culturally be the people who come in and out of the lab to engage in family care at the beginning and end of lives. There is a perception that women do not thrive in technology driven jobs. Engineering finds it difficult to keep women because of reported misogyny. Maths has a major cultural misunderstanding in that it is often only seen to be relevant in relation to the sciences; a necessary evil for getting into a science, tech or engineering course.

STEM has social issues that Social Scientists and other Arts practitioners can help solve.

Being mindful about what we cut away and holding ourselves ethically accountable for those cuts may be a way forward.

 

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4 thoughts on “Cutting through the BS: More STEM does not equal more scientists

  1. Hi Naomi, thanks for thinking about these things, and sharing your thoughts!
    This is a very complex issue that requires the resolution of many questions, including whether more is necessarily better, and whether there will be work for future scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and technologists! For me the big question is whether the Science, Technologies, and Mathematics curriculums (I have not yet read a satisfying justification for lumping these subjects together as “STEM”) aim to help students as everyday outsiders to these fields, or develop them as insiders to these fields. I think there’s a threshold at which the aim of education should shift from the first to the second, and I wonder where that threshold is, but I would argue quite strongly that we need to begin with understanding students as outsiders to the fields, because this requires us to think about what is most useful and interesting for those students to learn. I’d further argue that while this is a suggested aim of the Australian Curriculum: Science (F-10), the curriculum content will not achieve this aim. Learning more of the content outlined in the science curriculum will not help students as outsiders to science, and I think this is a bigger problem.

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    • Oh, that is VERY interesting. The insider outsider thing. Thanks for commenting from a Science point of view. I can only ever look at the issue as an inside-outsider (well daughter [in blood and law] of scientists). I would like to argue that there should ultimately be no outsider or insider, just a bunch of experts collaborating on understanding complex issues. But changing how people think at the moment is a generational process. Dealing with the now, that’s important. And the now is that there is an insider/outsider world view.

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      • I guess the insider/outsider thing touches on identity, which I haven’t studied much, but I doubt you’d have trouble finding people who aren’t actively participating in the processes of science and thus are outsiders ;). I think you’ve endorsed this continuum yourself by suggesting that there are experts (and by extension, non-experts). I myself would identify as an outsider to science, but an insider to social science, and particularly focused on the psychology and philosophy of science!

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      • Yes I have endorsed the continuum of insider and outsider of a certain expertise. What I am interested in is the questions that the experts are asking. Many are the same questions but from different angles. By concentrating focus on the discipline or label rather than the problem there will always be people on the “outside”. But more than experts are the insiders on certain phenomena and my argument is that we need to be mindful of who (and what) can bring a new way of looking at a question. Or what expertise can be gathered to move forward and in different directions. Decisions about who is on the inside of knowledge and the outside IMO throws up social and psychological barriers that work to prevent the question being answered. In a nutshell, I should clarify, that my problem with the insider/outsider thing is with the question.

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