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The federal STEM push: $3.1 billion in the wrong direction

Redefine STEM from a career push toward engineering to a cognitive engagement with problem-solving.
Redefine STEM from a career push toward engineering to a cognitive engagement with problem-solving.
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The U.S. Department of Education has been advocating for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education in schools for several years now for the primary reason of filling the pipeline of qualified candidates to later enter the growing engineering fields.

In the 2013-2014 school year, the federal government allocated $3.1 billion in STEM programs and incentives, mostly at the secondary and post-secondary levels. Despite these enormous investments, according to current market growth trends, only 16% of college graduates are expected to obtain STEM degrees in 2020.

So what's wrong with the STEM push, and why isn't the U.S. getting its bang for its buck?

While there is a market need to fill engineering positions to encourage national competitiveness in a global economy that's increasingly driven by breakthroughs in technology and engineering, pushing heavy technical engineering curricula on students may not be optimal for increasing future job considerations in the field.

First, let's clarify what "STEM" actually means.

Science and math (the "S" and "M" in STEM) emphasis over the other content areas has perhaps been beaten to death by now. PISA scores ranking the U.S. unimpressively around the 50th percentile (among all OECD nations) is old news, and there are already saturated markets for math and science curricula, intervention programs, and support materials. Science and math instruction are not new to schools.

What "STEM" signifies, then, is that science and math are tools to apply to the field of engineering, which ultimately produces new technology.

"STEM" isn't a term--it's a formula.

I propose an alternative, clearer policy push.

What if, instead of advocating for either hazy STEM or overly technical engineering curricula down students' throats, schools integrated a time where students regularly practiced the art of problem-solving for real-life scenarios using the natural concepts, which happen to be the maths and sciences?

What if, instead of forcing students and teachers to memorize engineering-specific concepts and terms, we naturally encourage people to enter the field by inspiring interests in building, problem-solving, collaborating in teams, and engaging in the iterative design process?

What I propose is using engineering as a basic mechanism to deliver 21st century-relevant skills such as designing, iterating, and working in teams to devise creative solutions to real-world problems. Math and science will naturally support the invention of student technology, as long as teachers require specificity in projects. This way, engineering would be a project-driven space that allows students to express curiosity and satisfy their natural desires to create. I'd expect this would be a much more successful alternative to inspiring later career interests in engineering, rather than forcing overly-technical, advanced engineering concepts onto students', and untrained teachers', laps.

What are your thoughts on STEM?

For questions, comments, or story ideas, email contactjanicechong@gmail.com.