STEM for All: Why is STEM Good for Everyone?

I’ve always been curious about how things work. When I was a child, I used to take apart my toys to satisfy a burning desire to understand how the parts integrated, much to the chagrin of my parents, who had spent their hard-earned money on my broken toys scattered about the apartment and house. As I got older, and as I studied education in graduate school, I discovered that my early curiosity (coupled with my engineering education) actually helped to train my mind.

In his book, “A Whole New Mind,” Daniel Pink says that the 21st century global economy will be driven by creative thinkers, those who follow their curiosity to answer questions and solve new problems.

Sound familiar? It should. What Pink describes as “a whole new mind” is the mind of an engineer — and scientist, artist, inventor, entrepreneur and others who make up this “creative class.”

The intellectually curious change the world (think Mark Zuckerberg, Madam C.J. Walker or Jeff Bezos)! And a high-quality education in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), from grade school through graduate training, cultivates curiosity and prepares all students for today’s world — and the future — even if the student chooses not to become an engineer or scientist.

In short, STEM introduces a new way of thinking, teaching and learning.

A New Way of Thinking

In their book “Academically Adrift,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that engineering students in the first two years of college showed marked improvements in their critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving and writing skills: universal skills that the 21st century economy requires. And yet, in the same study, 45 percent of the students, many of whom were non-STEM majors, saw no change in these same intellectual skills during the first two years of college. It’s hard to believe that after spending close to $100,000 in tuition and fees, nearly half of all college students showed no improvement in the skills that prepare them for the new world. Still, engineering students are clearly on the glide-path to lead in this brave new world.

A New Way of Teaching

Former civil rights leader Bob Moses, a math teacher par excellence, saw that despite his best traditional teaching efforts, his algebra students were not learning the Cartesian Coordinate System, a topic that is at the foundation of many branches of mathematics. He had an epiphany: to take them on a train ride into Boston, so they could experience inbound and outbound routes, which he translated into positive (plus) and negative (minus) directions. He then linked their experience to the mathematical concepts he was attempting to teach. The Algebra Project was born. Moses used an experiential learning model that David Kolb introduced years before and that many inspired STEM teachers have employed. Rather than the mind-numbing, traditional Theory–>Application–>Demonstration teaching model, Moses and Kolb show that the Demonstration–>Reflection–>Theory–>Application cycle is the most effective approach to learning. Other disciplines have also caught on to this approach. STEM has spawned new and more effective way of teaching, and learning as well.

New Ways of Learning

The most creative teachers allow students time to reflect on what they’ve learned and to demonstrate their learning in novel and creative ways. In NSBE’s SEEK (Summer Engineering Experience for Kids) camps, students work in teams to come up with creative ways to demonstrate what they’ve learned each week. Some give poster presentations. Others put on hilarious skits and mock talk shows, all of which reinforce their learning. I can assure you that you’ve never seen Newton’s Three Laws of Motion like this!

In their book “Cultivating Inquiry-Driven Learners,” Clifton Conrad and Laura Dunek suggest that inspired learners know how to analyze current knowledge critically and use that new knowledge to frame and solve real-world problems. At the end of the day, the world needs our minds to solve new problems.

And the world needs more engineers, don’t you think?