Looking beyond STEM: It’s Time to Humanize Our Education System

Team of helpers cleaning up the forest.

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) has been the lifeline of American classrooms and careers since the launch of Sputnik in 1955, and with President Obama’s announcement of a $3 billion budget for STEM in 2014, it is still going strong. STEM majors have received unprecedented advocacy, funding, and emphasis, but at the expense of other non-STEM programs, particularly social sciences and humanities. STEM education has grown in popularity as a solution to America’s math and science crisis, and the valuable knowledge and technical skills it imparts are undeniable. However, it is concerning when schools like Elon Musk’s Ad Astra and Synthesis, with their heavy focus on STEM, little emphasis on the humanities, and none on foreign languages or physical education, are being hailed as the future of education. The STEM-focused curriculum, while addressing the intellectual and technical needs of children, has hampered their social, emotional, and well-rounded development.

A new era has begun, bringing with it new challenges and the need for new skills to deal with them. The COVID pandemic has brought to the forefront the challenges that have been afflicting our education system — lack of equitable and inclusive access to education, lack of cultural, economic, and racial diversity, and a lack of 21st-century soft-skills — much as Sputnik did for the STEM crisis. It is becoming increasingly clear that STEM education alone is insufficient to meet the challenges posed by current and future generations.

Looking beyond STEM and utilizing the teachings of non-STEM programs is one of the most powerful ways to address the challenges and begin the reform of our current education system. A well-balanced education can provide students with the skills they need to build a sustainable, equitable, inclusive, and innovative future in a fast-evolving globalized world.

Gaps in the STEM System

 

The four crucial components that a predominantly STEM-focused education fails to teach in order to meet the problems of the present and future are:

  1. Sustainable 21st-Century Skills
  2. Civic Education
  3. Global Citizenship Education
  4. Person-Centered Choice

1. Sustainable 21st-Century Skills

 

When Google launched Project Oxygen1 in 2013 to identify the most important skills for employee success, STEM skills were the least important of the top eight qualities. Non-STEM and soft skills, such as communication, collaboration, and empathy, among others, have emerged as important qualities for a successful and sustainable career, proving that STEM education alone is insufficient to operate in a dynamic and interactive environment. Because collaboration and teamwork are the future of work, and breaking down barriers to allow people and technologies to interact is the way forward in a fast-changing economy, there is a higher demand for interpersonal and transferable skills like active listening, effective communication, openness, tolerance, and adaptability. However, employers and business leaders agree that while there are many prospective STEM candidates with academic and technical expertise, there is a shortage of soft skills in this group.

Broader, balanced integrated learning must replace narrow, STEM-focused learning to unleash the power of soft skills and bridge the non-technical skill gap. Unfortunately, STEM and non-STEM courses are frequently pitted against each other in our current educational system, when both may coexist and complement each other. Furthermore, incorporating a less STEM-heavy and more well-rounded curriculum, blended with non-STEM courses, as early as elementary and middle school, has distinct benefits. Students can learn meaningfully, apply knowledge in real-world situations, and appreciate the larger context in such a blended learning environment.

The integration of art and humanities with sciences is being highly promoted in US institutions of higher education (Branches From the Same Tree, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018)2 to equip students with sustainable 21st-century skills for an unpredictable and rapidly changing future. The report reveals mounting evidence towards combining the arts, humanities, and STEM(M) fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine) for “positive learning outcomes that may help students enter the workforce, live enriched lives, and become active and informed members of a modern democracy.”

 

2. Civic Education

 

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated how politics and policies can influence the ways in which science and scientific findings can be interpreted and applied to the general public. The recent miscommunications between scientists and legislators, followed by confusion and uncertainty in implementing pandemic legislation, were exacerbated, in part, by a lack of strong civic knowledge in STEM learning programs. The common misconception is that civic education is exclusive to the humanities or social sciences. Civic education, in its broadest sense, encompasses the theoretical, political, and practical components of citizenship and how citizen’s rights, duties, and responsibilities, not just in politics and society, but also in the classroom, local community clubs, and organizations.

In addition to parents, educators, and students, strong support from policymakers is required to mainstream civic education effectively. The Brown Center Report on American Education3 (2018) demonstrates how educational regulations can heavily favor STEM programs while preventing a well-balanced integration of non-STEM programs in our educational system. According to the report, math and reading scores among 4th and 8th graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) improved significantly over time when compared to civic scores. One of the primary reasons for the significant disparity, as per the report, is policymakers’ strong incentives (and penalties) for math and reading performance. The paper goes on to say that policymakers’ unilateral emphasis and attention have led educators and school teachers to focus resources on math and reading while neglecting subjects like civic education and social studies. As a result, meeting even the most basic requirement of having taken at least one civic course in 42 states and the District of Columbia remains a huge challenge.

Male teacher with a diverse group of young students.
Image: Adobe Stock. Male teacher with a diverse group of young students.

Civic learning and engagement are just as vital as STEM skills for 21st-century preparation. Expanding achievement inequalities, barriers to equity, inclusion, diversity and a lack of socio-emotional infrastructure are affecting STEM and non-STEM fields alike, especially in the current pandemic-ridden environment. A strong background in civic duties and responsibilities, in addition to academic and technical competence, will assist students, particularly in a STEM-focused curriculum, to learn and use skills meaningfully within the framework of human behavior and society. Students will gain 21st-century skills such as communication, collaboration, leadership, empathy, confidence, and more by learning and practicing civic duties and responsibilities. They will learn to grasp the scope and impact of politics and policy decisions, participate by voicing and representing their thoughts and values, and contribute to democratic processes in schools and beyond.

 

3. Global Citizenship Education

 

Even for those who were unaware of the extent of globalization, COVID-19’s enormous impact has demonstrated how interconnected and interdependent our world is. Current and future generations can now shape, challenge, and even disrupt the future of politics, the economy, the environment, education, and other areas on a global scale. And, with great power, comes great responsibility. As a result, students, even those in STEM-focused programs, should be taught to think, evaluate, and make informed decisions as global citizens rather than as individuals.

A global citizen, according to Oxfam4 (1997), is someone who is:

  • Is aware of the wider world and has a sense of their role as a world citizen.
  • Respects and values diversity.
  • Has an understanding of how the world works.
  • Is outraged by social injustice.
  • Participates in the community at a range of levels, from the local to the global.
  • Is willing to act to make the world a more equitable and sustainable place.
  • Takes responsibility for their actions.
A group of youngsters is sorting out trash and glass in the forest.
Image: Adobe Stock. Team of helpers. Nice pleasant boy looking at his friends while holding a box for plastic

The mainstreaming of global citizenship education is gaining traction. Through its Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4)5, UNESCO is on a mission to promote global citizenship within and beyond classrooms. The organization strongly credits skills such as “curiosity, initiative, persistence/grit, adaptability, leadership, and social and cultural awareness” in addition to core technical skills for a successful and sustainable future in the unpredictable, fast-evolving, globalized world.

Through global citizenship education, children can be taught from a young age to explore and understand the diversity of identities and cultures, to ask questions, to listen to others and express their opinions and values, to interpret learning in a global context, and to meaningfully contribute to and solve problems. A path to global citizenship, for example, can begin with participating in the school’s chapters to reduce school violence or bullying, lobbying for sustainable, locally-grown businesses, or raising digital literacy awareness to combat misinformation and disinformation.

 

4. Person-Centered Choice

 

In the debate over the merits of STEM versus non-STEM education, important variables such as a student’s interests, values, and, most importantly, abilities are lost in translation. To engage, thrive, and succeed in their learning journey, the journey itself must be meaningful and relevant to their interests. In the absence of this, though, students can become frustrated, disengaged, and, eventually, drop out of the learning process.

Despite the immense opportunities and unprecedented support for STEM education, low student enrollment and high attrition rates continue to plague STEM programs, particularly in higher education. According to the American Educational Research Association (AERA)6, when states imposed more math and science requirements — six math and science courses compared to 8.6 percent when no requirement was imposed — high school dropout rates increased to 11.41 percent. Furthermore, students of color, race, and ethnicity were disproportionately affected by these tougher standards.

However, when students were given a person-centered choice in addition to exposure to a diverse range of disciplines, they remained engaged and enjoyed the learning process. According to an empirical study by Vaziri and colleagues (2019)7, students’ interest-based fits and individual preferences better predict students’ future success and well-being than economic incentives of STEM or broader metrics of humanities. They concluded that the younger generation should not be forced to choose an academic path (STEM or another) purely based on limited viewpoints such as economic prosperity, but should be encouraged to take a broader, long-term view of well-being to grow and flourish.

Asian teenage girl is examining the tree trunk through a magnifying glass.
Image: Adobe Stock. Asian little girl examining the tree stem through with magnifying glass.

Conclusion

 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. eloquently emphasized the importance of looking beyond STEM in his Nobel lecture delivered in the auditorium of the University of Oslo8: “Yet, in spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing. There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance.” Humanizing our educational system — teaching children about civic duties and responsibilities, the interconnectedness of the human network, collaborative, humanistic skills, and meaningful learning — can alleviate “poverty of the spirit.”

This can be achieved by blurring the barriers between STEM and non-STEM education, embracing both fields, and providing an integrative, well-balanced, and humanized education that develops “intelligence and character” in children and prepares them to be conscientious, global citizens.

 

References

  1. D.A. Garvin, A.B, Wagonfeld, A.B, and L. Kind, “Google’s Project Oxygen: Do Managers Matter?,” Harvard Business School,” Case 313-110, 24, (2013):  https://doi.org/Apr 2013
  2. D. Skorton, “Branches from the same tree: The case for integration in higher education,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116, (2019): https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1807201115
  3. M. Hansen, E. Levesque, J. Valant, D. Quintero. The 2018 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well are American Students Learning? June 2018. Accessed June 17, 2021
  4. Oxfam. (1997). A curriculum for global citizenship. Oxford: Oxfam. https://www.oxfam.org.uk/education/
  5. Sustainable Development Goals. United Nations. Accessed June 15, 2021 https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/education/
  6. American Educational Research Association (AERA). “Unintended consequences of raising state math, science graduation requirements.” ScienceDaily. July 15, 2014.  www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/07/140715141911.htm
  7. H. Vaziri, L. Tay, S. Parrigon, N.M. Bradburn and J.O. Pawelski, “STEM or Humanities? Toward a Balance of Interest Fit,” Frontiers in Education. 4, (2019): doi: 10.3389/feduc.2019.00143
  8. “Martin Luther King Jr. Nobel Lecture” The Nobel Prize. Accessed June 18, 2021. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1964/king/lecture/

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