STEM Education Won’t Solve the World’s Problems

I love STEM. My SAT score for math was exactly the same as verbal. When I was in grad school, struggling with Sausserian semiotics and Beowulf in the original Old English, I taught myself C++, Turbo Pascal, and Java for fun. For some project I was coding I learned how to do 3D matrix transformations so that I could simulate light bouncing off of a solid surface. I had part-time jobs with the Virginia Engineering Foundation and the University of Toronto Engineering Writing Centre.

But STEM, by itself, won’t solve the world’s problems.

The world also needs to understand why different ethnic groups in various parts of the world have long-standing tensions, how geography relates to health and nutrition, how property taxes, education, and crime intersect, whether the politician who is running for re-election kept the campaign promises she made last time.

People who do STEM need to be able to make a case for why their findings are important. That means reaching the vast majority of people who don’t have advanced STEM knowledge, for whom the numbers don’t speak for themselves. People who can easily be manipulated by unethical uses of a chart with an abbreviated Y axis, by meaningless statistics, or by stock photos of models wearing lab coats and staring intently at flasks of colored liquids.

Adding more math instruction won’t solve these problems.

My high school physics teacher, Rear Admiral Edward Metcalfe Peebles, used to say, “Give me students who can read and write, and I can teach them math and physics. Give me sailors who can read and write, and I can teach them to command a nuclear submarine.”

With digital tools, it is easier than ever to create, edit, and publish your work to the world. But there’s a cost. It’s also easier than ever to spread misinformation. And fake news has become a real issue in recent times. We see this with students. According to a Stanford study, only 25% of high school students were able to identify an accurate news story when also given a fake one. Students also had a hard time distinguishing between real and fake photographs as well as authentic and staged videos. | Researchers used the words “bleak” and “dismaying” to describe it. But it’s not going away anytime soon and that’s a very real problem. —Why Journalism Might Actually Be the Class of the Future

And by the way, I teach a basic math unit in my intro to journalism class. My students need to understand why a newsworthy story needs both a ratio and a scale… “twice as risky” sounds dangerous, but if the risk goes from 1 in a million to 2 in a million, we see the scale of this risk is quantitatively small. They also need to get into the habit of fact-checking the statistics that politicians drop during campaign speeches and that protestors put on their signs, especially if the reporter is biased towards believing whatever viewpoint those statistics are trotted out to support. “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

One thought on “STEM Education Won’t Solve the World’s Problems

  1. I love your post, Dennis. As a STEM career lifer, my experience with other folks in my patch is that the distinction between mediocre and great is based not on one’s ability to design technology but rather on one’s ability to listen, to understand, and to articulate the problem which technology addresses in human terms. Einstein famously said “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” Thinking about problems requires STEM, but also much more than what we teach in STEM.

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