Sunday, October 7, 2012


I've been hearing a lot about students needing to meet STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) requirements lately in the AO Forum. I also received an email this morning with offers for a new Homeschool Robotics Class highlighting teaching methods and materials that help your children learn STEM subjects.What do you think about all this push for STEM education?

What parent doesn't want their child to be able to survive in the job market of tomorrow? Consider some of these statements:
The future well-being of our nation and people depends not just on how well we educate our children generally, but on how well we educate them in mathematics and science specifically.… Our children are falling behind; they are simply not “world-class learners” when it comes to mathematics and science. (The National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century 2000)
If trends in U.S. research and education continue, our nation will squander its economic leadership, and the result will be a lower standard of living for the American people…. By 2015 [the country needs to] double the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded annually to U.S. students in science, math, and engineering. (National Summit on Competitiveness 2005)
The United States faces an unprecedented challenge to its long-term global economic leadership. And a fall from leadership would threaten the security of the nation and the prosperity of its citizens.… High school students in the U.S. perform well below those in other industrialized nations in the fields of mathematics and science … [and thus we need to make] STEM education a national priority. (Council on Competitiveness 2004)
The committee is deeply concerned that the scientific and technological building blocks critical to our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many other nations are gathering strength … we fear the abruptness with which a lead in science and technology can be lost…. (National Academies of Science 2006)

It's enough to make a CM educator pause and consider.

I did a quick Google search and found this conflicting information in an article titled: Into the Eye of the Storm by B. Lindsay Lowell of Rutgers and Harold Salzman of Georgetown. Here is what they had to say: 
SAT math scores have risen most years since 1982. The students also take more math and science courses. In 1982, high school graduates had taken on average 2.6 math courses and 2.2 science courses. In 1998 the figures were 3.5 and 3.2. College Board data show increases in the percentage of students taking precalculus, calculus, chemistry and physics.
There are more than enough students who score well in math and science to fill the few S&E (Science and Engineering) jobs that open up each year. If there is a problem, it is not one of too few S&E qualified college graduates, but, rather, the inability of S&E firms to attract qualified graduates.
The U.S. graduates about 3 students with degrees in S&E for every new job (this figuredoesn’t include the job openings that occur because of retirements). Research finds that most dropouts from S&E programs occur because of dissatisfaction with the quality of instruction or other program shortcomings.
One to two years after obtaining a bachelor’s degree in S&E, 20 percent of the graduates are in school, but not in S&E programs while 45% are working, but not in S&E jobs.
It’s not an education story, it’s a labor market story.
National Science Board has estimated more than half of 93,000 postdocs in the U.S. are now foreigners on short-term visas.
Less than one-third of science and engineering graduates are working in a STEM field closely related to their degree, while 65 percent of science and engineering graduates are either employed in or training for another career field within two years.
Nearly every faculty member with a research grant now uses postdocs to do the benchwork for the project. Paid out of the grant, these highly skilled employees might earn $40,000 a year for 60 or more hours a week in the lab.

What are we to think? What would CM say?

Thanks to Jeanne (A Peaceful Day) who dug up some of what CM had to say about Science and Mathematics, we can have some idea. 
I have so far urged that knowledge is necessary to men and that, in the initial stages, it must be conveyed through a literary medium, whether it be knowledge of physics or of Letters, because there would seem to be some inherent quality in mind which prepares it to respond to this form of appeal and no other. I say in the initial stages, because possibly, when the mind becomes conversant with knowledge of a given type, it unconsciously translates the driest formulae into living speech; perhaps it is for some such reason that mathematics seem to fall outside this rule of literary presentation; mathematics, like music, is a speech in itself, a speech irrefragibly logical, of exquisite clarity, meeting the requirements of mind. ~Vol. 6, pp. 333,334
In a word our point is that Mathematics are to be studied for their own sake and not as they make for general intelligence and grasp of mind. But then how profoundly worthy are these subjects of study for their own sake, to say nothing of other great branches of knowledge to which they are ancillary! Lack of proportion should be our bĂȘte noire in drawing up a curriculum, remembering that the mathematician who knows little of the history of his own country or that of any other, is sparsely educated at the best.

At the same time Genius has her own rights. The born mathematician must be allowed full scope even to the omission of much else that he should know. He soon asserts himself, sees into the intricacies of a problem with half an eye, and should have scope. He would prefer not to have much teaching.
 But why should the tortoise keep pace with the hare and why should a boy's success in life depend upon drudgery in Mathematics? That is the tendency at the present moment to close the Universities and consequently the Professions to boys and girls who, because they have little natural aptitude for mathematics, must acquire a mechanical knowledge by such heavy all-engrossing labour as must needs shut out such knowledge of the 'humanities' say, as is implied in the phrase 'a liberal education.
Mathematics depend upon the teacher rather than upon the text-book and few subjects are worse taught; chiefly because teachers have seldom time to give the inspiring ideas, what Coleridge calls, the 'Captain' ideas, which should quicken imagination.
How living would Geometry become in the light of the discoveries of Euclid as he made them!

To sum up, Mathematics are a necessary part of every man's education; they must be taught by those who know; but they may not engross the time and attention of the scholar in such wise as to shut out any of the score of 'subjects,' a knowledge of which is his natural right. ~Vol. 6, pp.232/233
It's amazing how applicable her comments are to today.
There is a tendency in human nature to elect the obligations of natural law in preference to those of spiritual law; to take its code of ethics from science
Specialisation, the fetish of the end of the last century, is to be deprecated because it is at our peril that we remain too long in any one field of thought. We may not, for example, allow the affairs and interests of daily life to deprive the mind of its proper range of interests and occupations. It is even possible for a person to go into any one of the great fields of thought and to work therein with delight until he become incapable of finding his way into any other such field. We know how Darwin lost himself in science until he could not read poetry, find pleasure in pictures, think upon things divine; he was unable to turn his mind out of the course in which it had run for most of his life. In the great (and ungoverned) age of the Renaissance, the time when great things were done, great pictures painted, great buildings raised, great discoveries made, the same man was a painter, an architect, a goldsmith and a master of much knowledge besides; and all that he did he did well, all that he knew was part of his daily thought and enjoyment.~Vol. 6, pp.53,54

And these by Karen:
We trust perhaps a little blindly to the training which certain subjects give in certain mental habits. The classics, we consider, cultivate in one direction, the mathematics, in another, science, in a third. So they do, undoubtedly, so far as each of these subjects is concerned; but possibly not in forming the general habits of intellectual life which we expect to result. Remove the mathematician from his own field, and he not more exact or more on the spot than other men; indeed he is rather given to make a big hole for the cat and a little hole for the kitten!
The fault does not lie in any one of these or in any other of the disciplinary subjects, but in our indolent habit of using each of these as a sort of mechanical contrivance for turning up the soil and sowing the seed.

So what do you think? Should we turn the ship around and focus on STEM? Should we specialize?

Our parents lived in a time when a good education equaled a good job with a good company, a gold watch and a cushy retirement. It's the advice they handed to us. Not so today. Entire industries have been replaced or changed forever by technologies in the blink of an eye - think vinyl records, vhs, film, music, mail, brick and mortar retail, and the list goes on. Consider what will happen in the next decade within the food industry with everyone up in arms about GMOs.

Were those people who lost their jobs able to adapt?
In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists." ~Eric Hoffer
CM does not lose sight of educating the whole person.

If my children have special interest and aptitude in STEM fields, it will be self evident. Keep in mind my oldest is still in YR5, I'm in a very different place than some of you with middle and high schoolers. Maybe I'll think differently in a few years. Additionally, I think it is sensible to invest in developing commodities that will always be necessary in the marketplace: the ability to think, to learn, to care and to do what is right.
Now we must deal with a child of man, who has a natural desire to know the history of his race and of his nation, what men thought in the past and are thinking now; the best thoughts of the best minds taking form as literature, and at its highest as poetry, or, as poetry rendered in the plastic forms of art: as a child of God, whose supreme desire and glory it is to know about and to know his almighty Father: as a person of many parts and passions who must know how to use, care for, and discipline himself, body, mind and soul: as a person of many relationships,––to family, city, church, state, neighbouring states, the world at large: as the inhabitant of a world full of beauty and interest, the features of which he must recognise and know how to name, and a world too, and a universe, whose every function of every part is ordered by laws which he must begin to know.
It is a wide programme founded on the educational rights of man; wide, but we may not say it is impossible nor may we pick and choose and educate him in this direction but not in that. We may not even make choice between science and the 'humanities.' Our part it seems to me is to give a child a vital hold upon as many as possible of those wide relationships proper to im. Shelley offers us the key to education when he speaks of "understanding that grows bright gazing on many truths." ~Vol. 6, p.157
I should be inclined to say of education ... To educate children for any immediate end––towards commercial or manufacturing aptitude, for example––is to put a premium upon general ignorance with a view to such special aptitude. ... Excellent work of whatever kind is produced by a person of character and intelligence, and we who teach cannot do better for the nation than to prepare such persons for its uses. He who has intelligent relations with life will produce good work. ~Vol. 3, p. 241

In a discussion on the topic over at the AO Forum, Brandy at Afterthoughts pointed out that there is an audio of a lecture by Christian Kopff on the issue of STEM. (Scroll down towards the bottom, it's the second from last lecture on the list)

The audio gives us an on-campus view to much of what David Hicks talks about in his book Norms & Nobility. A detachment between science and the history of scientific thought. A separation between the humanities with an unbalanced focus on the social sciences of today without thought towards the wisdom and thought of the ages.

Some of his thoughts on the push for STEM are sobering. He said that plans at the University of Colorado in the next 30 years are to hire 600 scientists and 300 humanities and social scientists. Literally twice as many. There is no balance because what the future requires is scientists in the sense of 'STEM'

The University feels the problem they have is not enough money and not enough students in the pipeline for STEM fields. At the same time the H1B visa is bringing in thousands of foreign engineers because there aren't enough in the USA to fill the jobs.

But if we consider the findings of the study by Lowell and Salzman,  Into the Eye of the Storm, that isn't the case. Their claim is that there are plenty of people in the STEM pipeline and that there are twice as many jobs. That in fact those that were in those fields are getting out. As I quoted above, it's apparently a market issue. Too many foreign workers willing to work for much less pay ($40,000/yr for 60+ hours of lab work) is not enticing enough to keep Americans with degrees in STEM fields interested. I would imagine their debt load from all their college loans would be a significant part of their decision to change fields.  

Further into the talk, Knopff says what we are seeing is a STEM bubble being created by government spending similar to the mortgage sub prime bubble. The consequences are imaginable as we witness the state of the job market today.

As a mom, it's hard to truly know what is going on or what will happen in the future, which is why I find myself even more convicted that it is less of a risk to educate the whole child as a person rather than to push them into a direction based on a perceived utilitarian end.


  1. I have been thinking abou this lately also and came to similar conclusions (I did a post on it here: http://lettersfromnebby.wordpress.com/2012/10/02/obama-and-romney-on-education).
    I think we value STEM because we want innovation but we hamper innovation by limiting what kids study to a few fields only. A well rounded education will produce more creative people.

  2. love this. you did an excellent job of putting it all together :) it will be a great post to refer back to.