There has been much discussion, in both social and scholastic circles, regarding the current state of American education, especially when it comes to STEM, a convenient acronym for the rather loaded subject “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.” I came across a recent interview on NPR that challenged the prevailing notion that the United States is falling behind other countries in the race to develop innovative solutions for the 21st century.
Anthony Carnevale, the guest in the above interview, speaks at length about how STEM education is approached in the United States. He mentions that whereas a general education allowed graduates to pursue a wide variety of careers a few decades ago, today this is only true of a technical education. In short, he argues that if you want to have a lot of alternatives down the road, you want to do something with STEM.
I want to take his argument one step further. Like him, I don’t discount the value a holistic education provides to our students. In fact, I think it’s crucial, and I’ll explain why in a bit. I point the finger instead to a disconnect that is pervasive in contemporary academia – the feeling that techies are bots without empathy, passion, or human feelings, and that to go down the techie path is to say goodbye to a healthy social life and meaningful interpersonal interactions. I completely disagree.
Building Social Technologists
I have many friends from college who became engineers and I saw first-hand that they lived through a tremendously rigorous academic experience. Even with all the pressure that surrounded them, however, they were given the chance to explore interests that were outside the core STEM curriculum. A chemical engineer I know decided to study Arabic for two semesters. He spent the summer after his senior year in Egypt, and left just in time before that country descended into chaos. Others decided to explore product management and app design for non-profits in Silicon Valley, where they learned to network with the best and brightest and dedicated themselves to furthering noble causes.
This is what makes a holistic education, one that encompasses the humanities, arts, theater, and social sciences, such an important complement to a technical education. Both are powerful tools in their own right, and an educational system that perpetuates the belief that the two are separate is perpetuating the belief that the two are unequal. The key to securing America’s supremacy in the global, highly interconnected arena of innovation is to build a generation of social technologists. We should seek quality, not quantity.
Quality > Quantity
This is where the United States has the edge and where I don’t see any of our competition catching up with us anytime soon. Recent statistics show that India and China are graduating a million engineers a year. So what? I would be willing to bet my undergraduate tuition that those students never got a chance to live on a vibrant college campus where they could choose to study Plato by day and perform improv comedy at night. China and India have an assembly-line approach to education and measure success by the number of products they deliver. If the metrics are shifted from quantity to quality, however, the American model is far more superior. Students trained in the United States emerge from four years of higher education with a broad worldview, at least a semester of co-op or on-the-job experience in the field, and are challenged to tackle contemporary problems using the knowledge that they gained. That isn’t to say, however, that the American model is perfect. Far from it.
Numbers don’t lie – we do need to popularize STEM. It’s too late for those of us like me who have already graduated from college, but there has never been a better time to do more to get young people, as early as the elementary school level, interested in science and math. There are millions of untapped minds in this country’s sprawling urban cities who have never been able to benefit from a world-class education. Who’s to say they don’t have the next great idea? All they need are the tools. For me, this translates to a top-notch, holistic education that creates model human beings with a purpose. Once they have that, they are a priceless resource for this country.
Bots for Tots
It’s never too early. Los Altos, a bustling suburb at the southern end of the San Francisco peninsula, has pioneered a program for kindergarteners to learn the basics of robot programming. The earlier these minds are engaged, the longer they have to develop their own unique approaches to solving tomorrow’s problems. And with that kind of passion, we will never have to worry about falling behind in the cutthroat world of competition.