Is STEM special?

What’s so special about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)? asks Alfie Kohn on Answer Sheet.

. . . President Obama announced an expensive new public-private initiative last November called “Educate to Innovate” that will focus on improving student performance exclusively in STEM subjects. Then, in early January, he was back with a new education project. Was its intent to spread the wealth to other kinds of learning that he had overlooked before? Nope. It was to commit another quarter-billion dollars to improve the teaching of STEM subjects. And a few weeks later, in his State of the Union address, the only academic disciplines he mentioned were, yet again, math and science.

Thought experiment: Try to imagine this, or any other, president giving a speech that calls for a major new commitment to the teaching of literature, backed by generous funding (even during a period of draconian budget cuts).

STEM has an edge because it involves numbers, Kohn argues. We respect the quantifiable and distrust the qualitative.

Productivity and profit are the priorities for STEM boosters, Kohn writes.

“The nation that out-educates us today,” said President Obama last month, “is going to out-compete us tomorrow.” . . .  it is not a sentence likely to be followed by a discussion of the humanities.

Education isn’t just a mechanism to produce tomorrow’s workers, Kohn believes, quoting linguist Robin Lakoff: “Education is invaluable not only in its ability to help people and societies get ahead, but equally in helping them develop the perspectives that make them fully human.”

Common Core Blog agrees with Kohn, though I see commenters who resent the idea that math and science are dehumanizing.

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  1. Math and Science aren’t dehumanizing, and a STEM career isn’t for everyone, but a solid grounding in the courses needed to succeed in such careers give students a wider variety of options.

    I’ve heard the statement ‘I don’t get math’, but in reality, it’s probably more like the person wasn’t taught mathematics properly so they would understand it.

  2. STEM majors are far more likely to find decent jobs after college than humanities majors. Look at any list of median salaries by major and the STEM majors dominate the top. here is a good example.

  3. STEM is also very sequential. A student who discovers a strong interest in history as a HS junior can gain traction in that field w/o too much trouble. In order to pursue a STEM career, the child has to be on-track at least since middle school, and succeeding rather than just getting by.

  4. Good point by Limetree. Without a solid background in STEM, a lot of doors close, especially in a country where the economy is increasingly orientated towards technology and finance.

    Performance in STEM subjects also has the advantage of being more objectively quantifiable across different cultures/languages than most other subjects. Aiming for excellence where you can have real benchmarks is natural.

    However, even a stronger case can be made for early literacy, the foundation of both STEM and non-STEM learning. The debate is very age dependent.


  5. It’s apparently too much to expect that ES teachers should be highly competent in math, teach it explicitly (no discovery! no groups!) and follow a strong, sequential curriculum that builds real knowledge and skill (Singapore Math). Without these things, far too many kids enter MS essentially doomed; it’s too late to compensate for 6 years of poor curriculum and instruction

    The extent of parent support/tutors/Kumon etc. among those who do have the essential knowledge and skills is rarely mentioned in the mainstream media, but I’m told that over 50% of kids in some successful schools start private tutoring (various types) in first grade. Kids whose parents don’t know what they should be learning, can’t help their kids and/or can’t afford to hire help just get left behind.

  6. Yes, K5 is also right; literacy is also foundational and the ESs aren’t doing any better with that than with math. Kids (especially those who get no help at home) need explicit instruction in real phonics (no “balanced literacy”, “look at the pictures”, “guess and check” etc), spelling and grammar, plus a curriculum that emphasizes content knowledge across the disciplines (like Core Knowledge or Wise and Bauer’s Classical). I recommend that anyone who thinks “reading” is a skill unrelated to subject knowledge obtain a copy of Murder Must Advertise (D Sayers) and see how well they understand her account of a cricket match.

  7. Mark Roulo says:

    “What’s so special about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)?”

    Pretty much what Limetree said. What is special about STEM is that for all practical purposes most kids are tracked out of it before they even reach college.

    When I was majoring in chemistry 20ish years back, the major had a four year long sequence of dependent courses (at least according to the course catalog). This was assuming that the student was ready to take calculus starting in the first quarter of freshman year.

    So … the kids who needed remedial math were pretty much out (no real surprise). But the kids who had done well in math during high school but had stopped before trig/pre-calc were also out unless they were willing to take five years to get the degree. You also couldn’t practically switch to chemistry from anything other than another STEM major in, say, junior year and still expect to graduate on time.

    In contrast, majors like sociology had *much* shallower course dependencies. I had a friend who switched from biology to sociology at the end of her junior year and still graduated “on time.” You don’t do that in the other direction.

    So what is special is that you can get excluded from STEM a lot earlier and easier than you can from majors like history, literature, economics. etc.

    In addition, I suspect that there is a fear (not new …) that lots of kids are avoiding STEM majors because they are “too hard.” The only humanities major that I can think of with the same reputation if Classics (whee! Latin *AND* ancient Greek). Since I don’t expect a call for more Latin or Greek any time soon, there probably isn’t perceived to be much need to call for more study of what kids are already taking (not that the traditional humanities are super popular … but I don’t think *anyone* wants to start question the more recent majors …)

  8. What I’m about to say is probably heresy to my fellow engineers but after 10+ years as an R&D engineer, I can offer my subjective theory that the classic liberal education is important for innovation. A degree in engineering is so full of technical coursework that courses such as those involving writing or critical thinking are almost disallowed or, at best, you are allowed to take a bare minimum.

    The end result of a technical-heavy curriculum for engineers is that you end up with people who have a hard time critically thinking or thinking differently about problems. But that is precisely where innovation comes from; it doesn’t come from solving the same problems the same ways they’ve been solves for many years. I don’t, personally, believe that simply creating more scientists and more engineers will accomplish a return to an innovative culture in this country for the reason I’ve given here and many more.

  9. ConservativeMutant says:

    I think Alfie’s right, but the reasons go beyond a fixation with numbers on the part of American society (although I don’t think I’d deny that, either). What he doesn’t mention is the ongoing breakdown of trust between Americans at large and the public educational system. It’s not just that STEM is quantifiable, but that it has convergent answers that can be checked against objective reality. You have to be pretty far gone to dodge the idea that g should come out to 9.8 m/s^2, less air resistance.

    History and literature? Wonderfully divergent, of course, which is their strength, but…because there’s no precise, objective way to determine whether students have developed “the perspectives that make them fully human,” we have to take it on faith from the educators that they’ve done so. Guess what? That faith no longer exists. (Maybe it’s a disservice to Alfie, but I’m not sure I trust him, for instance, to distinguish between “independently thinking students showing humane character” and “students parroting socialist cant”.) And until the breach between educators and the community at large is healed, don’t expect largesse for anything that can’t be evaluated on a more rigorous basis than “trust us, we’re building their character.”

  10. Mark Roulo says:


    Actually, I don’t think you’d get much argument from many/most of the non-drone engineers with 10+ years experience.

    What you might get is skepticism that most US colleges/universities today are going to do a good job *TEACHING* a “classic liberal education.” Or that they are even trying :-(

  11. If you wish to remind yourself of the nature of a classical education and/or turn yourself pea-green that public schools do not offer this, read Bauer and Wise’s The Well-Trained Mind.

  12. Having a STEM education myself, and having tried to discuss various issues with liberal arts grads, I have to say that STEM teaches a lot more of the virtues of knowing evidence and using reason than the “divergent” fields.  Without a process to remove the weeds from the field of thought, “divergence” might as well be a random phrase generator for all the useful things it can produce.

  13. “The end result of a technical-heavy curriculum for engineers is that you end up with people who have a hard time critically thinking or thinking differently about problems”

    Those are called bad engineers. Any good STEM education is more than giving someone a hammer and unleashing them to look for nails.

  14. I don’t, personally, believe that simply creating more scientists and more engineers will accomplish a return to an innovative culture in this country for the reason I’ve given here and many more.

    Honestly, broad-scale innovation is somewhat over-rated. It’s important, but the amount of innovation that a society can finance is reasonably limited. (Most real innovation usually requires a multi-million dollar budget and man-years of effort…) How much real innovation do any of us do?

    However, *problem-solving* is something that we need almost every day. It’s something that improves productivity in every job. And *that* is something that STEM prepares you you to do, by giving you a decent tool-set of techniques and training you to gather then information to solve a problem.