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Gale: STEM education is good, but not good enough

Published May 9, 2014 3:39 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Education goes astray when it places too much emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). STEM education may be a good thing. But it is far from being good enough in today's world.

STEM will not correct the ignorance of young Cliven Bundy wannabes. STEM will not elect lawmakers more interested in solving problems than in creating them. STEM will not produce leaders who care about the disadvantaged. STEM will not save the education system from misguided meddling. STEM will not prevent our universities from elitism. STEM will not teach young adults to be better parents. STEM will not rescue Ukraine. STEM will not make prejudice disappear.

I like science and math. I was a few credit hours away from a degree in science when the Army took me out of my comfort zone. I was comfortable with the subject matter because science and math seek single "right" answers to most questions. That's the primary goal of scientific research — to find the answer.

Unfortunately, life is more ambiguous. Most of life's questions have a dozen answers or more, depending on who asks the question and who is involved in the outcome. Every human being is different — different genetics, different experiential backgrounds, different living environments, different beliefs. Not necessarily better or worse, just different. In order to function with our differences, we need education in the arts, in history, in communication, in human interaction and in other growth disciplines. (At the same time, I'm aware that artists, lawyers and leaders need to know more about science, technology and math.)

But too much emphasis on STEM education may mislead students (and adults) into believing there is a single scientific answer for every question.

A plant has a stem, but the stem alone does not transform sunshine into chlorophyll or cells into flowers. Without chlorophyll, the stem will not survive. And without flowers, the plant will not reproduce. It's the same with the human organism. We need science, technology, engineering and math, but we also need the chlorophyll of human understanding and the flower of the arts.

The problem with STEM education is that it focuses on the simple things of nature and minimizes the complexities of humanity. We need understanding in both realms if we are to be good citizens and worthy occupants of our planet.

STEM subjects also have the advantage that they can be learned at almost any age. Even old folks such as me can learn about science. Yes, it's easier if one begins in the early years, but not impossible.

On the other hand, much of non-STEM learning is connected to early development. No one is born with prejudice; we learn it early in life. The longer it persists, the more difficult it becomes to correct it. If one does not acquire tolerance, understanding and social skills early on, one is unlikely to acquire them at all.

We should teach science, technology, engineering and math to all students, even those who struggle with the subjects. But we must help young citizens see the beauty of life, appreciate the strength of diversity and cherish the value of learning. Only then will the inevitable progress of science have maximum value for our species.

Don Gale is a longtime writer and observer of Utah events.