Not STEM — STEAMED

Everyone talks about how we need to really emphasize STEM in the classroom and school environment — Science, Technology, Engineering , Mathematics.  The notion is that we can educate our way into a new kind of economy, if only we emphasize the right things.

But STEM misses the larger conversation.

The power combo is really STEAMED.  If you really want to heat up American Education as an institution, then let’s take a look at how to get it operating under its own STEAM. Then our students will really be STEAMED.

By STEAMED, of course, I mean an educational curriculum that emphasizes

  • Science
  • Technology
  • Engineering
  • Arts
  • Mathematics
  • Entertainment
  • Design
By science, here, I mean a rigorous experimental curriculum: grounding in the scientific method, a lot of laboratory work, chemical experimentation, and an awareness on how to replicate results from others’ original work, and how to perform both open-ended and applied research.  We’ll need curated ‘journals’ — websites, really, of student lab books and research reports.  We’ll need a massive range of investment from and collaboration with science programs at colleges and universities, to equip high school and junior high labs with the base equipment of a modern science curriculum — so that kids can perform work of replication and testing.
Technology is a different matter.  As Doug Coupland and others have written, kids have a choice to program or be programmed.  We should find ways for students to learn how to program computers, not just be end-users.
Engineering requires a similar investment.  From what I saw in California and elsewhere, you can’t run a strong engineering program without materials.  Even if it’s just popsicle sticks, you need to be able to provide students with knives, saws, glue guns, string, and popsicle sticks to build and construct their ideas, and test them.  My friend Daniel said, “people who think you can imagine your way into being an engineer are deluded.  You have to get in the garage and build stuff to see whether your idea works or not.”
Likewise, it’s time to stop giving short shrift to the Arts. Most musician kids I know are hugely involved in other kinds of projects, like debate teams and sports.  Most adult engineers and scientists I know are at least competent musicians or singers.  The exception, my friend Gene, is a competent draftsman and sketch-artist.  Visual thinkers become scientific thinkers and parts-thinkers — designers of experiments and engineers. Musicians are process-thinkers: how do we maneuver from here to the end of the song while remaining true to the desires of the original structure and the composer’s plan.  Jazz musicians are excellent improvisers within the structure of an established key.
Mathematics ties into these other disciplines. Construction of engineering gizmos and gadgets requires measurement. Science requires statistics and data analysis.  The Pythagoreans and the Renaissance artists alike new that both music and the visual arts were mathematical.
And why are schools so anti-Entertainment? Games in the 1970s like Dungeons and Dragons, Vampire, Werewolf, Traveler, and Shadowrun presaged the modern video game movement, and the rise of many of the modern ‘great writers’ like J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer.  They made possible whole categories of movies and television shows.  Likewise, these games tie back into Mathematics, Engineering, and Science, through game theory and statistical analysis and even the construction of the game materials — and do I even have to emphasize how these games tie to technology?
Finally, the integration is through Design.  Design and its underlying thought processes are the foundation and crown of the modern world.  Look around you right now — your computer, the table it’s on, the chair you’re sitting in, the bag for your laptop or tablet, the phone that’s pinging you with an urgent text message, the curtains in the window, the window itself.  They’re all the product of human design and the thought processes that went into it, which themselves involve science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
So the next time you hear about how there’s going to be a new emphasis on STEM in your school, don’t get upset.
Just get STEAMED up, and recognize how everything fits together.  Teach that.
Then you’ll be cooking with gas.

3 comments

  1. I was hopeful for a second, but it seems you left out the Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. How can students take all of this mathematical, scientific, engineering, artistic and design approach if they have a depleted sense of humanity, it’s history, language and makeup. A good student is well-rounded, but given an opportunity to pursue their specific passions.

    • Dear Keishla,

      Well, I could put them in, but then the acronym would be the unfortunately-named STEAMED LASS, which has different connotations entirely. 🙂

      Shifting for a moment from foolery to more serious issues, I think you point out a serious challenge with STEM in general. With such a narrow focus, the results are necessarily limited to specific ranges.

      The whole point of the Liberal Arts in the middle ages was to make a well-rounded person, who could argue across disciplines and communicate with emperors and peasants, bishops and travelers, about the essential unity of the cosmos. A true master of the Liberal Arts saw the unities between mathematics and music, astronomy and rhetoric, and could jump between them as easily as a child playing hopscotch alone.

      What I’m trying to do here is ask the STEM folks to see the issue in larger terms than just plugging away at the same four. Computers shouldn’t come at the expense of music. Math time shouldn’t come at the expense of play.

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