The origins for this post came from my annoyance with the STEAM argument. I can understand the concern of those who are interested in art and music and that these areas are underfunded and even dropped from the curriculum. However, it sometimes seems that we focus more on what makes a legal acronym than what skills are most useful in the long run. How do arguments for the importance of courses that emphasize the understanding of human behavior (psychology, sociology, economics, history) enter the conversation when the letters representing these areas do not seem to extend STEM – e.g., SSSTEM or STEAMSS do not seem to work.
I, like anyone, examine issues through the lens of personal experience. I was originally educated as a “STEM type” and make (now made) my living as an academic psychologist. It is informative to consider how most assume the two areas ended up connected. When I discuss my background most jump to the conclusion that my work must have emphasized brain function. It seems assumed that the science, if there is any, in psychology must involve the study of the brain. This was not the connection. I became a psychologist because I was interested in science education. The undergraduate degree in biology would have taught me little about the brain and as I now understand the curriculum of both programs there is a greater consideration of brain function in psychology. Anyway, this was not my interest. I was interested in the relationship between learning activities and learning and the analysis of this connection was what I was found in the study of human cognition.
It is interesting to consider the likely relationship between vocational activities and academic preparation. The notion that STEM skills are necessary in the 21st century certainly makes some sense, but I think shows flaws when pressed. For examples, consider the value placed on the vague concepts of problem solving and critical thinking. Where in the STEM areas are such skills acquired? I would argue that Calculus offers far less value than would a course in Statistics. I would also argue that the research methodologies emphasized (in combination with statistics) in psychology and sociology offer far more for understanding real world problems that the research methods of biology or chemistry. The methods of science applied in the chemistry laboratory assumes simple relationships. One of the core problems in understanding human issues is the reliance on anecdotal examples of behavior without consideration of sampling bias and other methodological flaws not considered in “STEM” research.
We seem to be drifting toward a technical school model of education, but seem to understand that skills change quickly a traditional vocational education will not have long term value. What we resort to is a focus on math and science because these areas seem the basis for productivity advantages. What seems missing is an analysis of the diversity of skills that go into keeping the entire enterprise going. Few will make contributions based in math and science. Other areas end up being more universally important.