MIT professor Richard Larson recently wrote an excellent opinion column - STEM is for Everyone. In the column, he succinctly made the case for widespread STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) literacy, and explained why it is as important to our 21st century information economy as basic reading-writing literacy has been to the industrial economy of the past two centuries. According to Larson, STEM literacy is a way of thinking and doing:
“A person has STEM literacy if she can understand the world around her in a logical way guided by the principals of scientific thought. A STEM-literate person can think for herself. She asks critical questions. She can form hypotheses and seek data to confirm or deny them. She sees the beauty and complexity in nature and seeks to understand. She sees the modern world that mankind has created and hopes to use her STEM-related skills and knowledge to improve it.”
Larson is Professor of Engineering Systems and Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT. He is a pioneer in applying STEM capabilities to a wide variety of problems in services industries, from urban systems to online learning. He is the founder and director of LINC - Learning International Network Consortium, a collaboration involving educators from around the world who share best practices on how to best organize higher education distance learning projects in developing countries. Among LINC’s key projects is Blossoms - Blended Learning Open Source Science or Math Studies, which is developing a large free repository of video modules created by gifted volunteers from around the world to assist school teachers with math and science courses.
Why the mismatch? Why don’t more young people select STEM careers, or at least STEM courses that would better prepare them for the job market? In his column, Larson discusses a few misperceptions that shed light on these questions.
“Engineering is all about hardware, gadgets and circuits,” is one of them. He mentions bioengineering and systems engineering as examples of STEM disciplines that are far removed from hardware, circuits and algorithms. Bioengineering is a growing discipline that deals with the application of engineering to problems in medicine and biology, including the design and development of new diagnostic and therapeutic devices, synthetic biomaterial, artificial tissues and organs and drug delivery systems. Systems engineering is an interdisciplinary field that applies engineering processes to the design and management of complex systems in a variety of areas including healthcare, education, energy and finance.
Larsen writes: “The ‘engineering mentality’ and approach are needed in virtually all aspects of society. This is good news for both men and women whose career goals are more towards societal improvement than techno-gadget creation.”
“I do not plan to be an engineer or scientist, so STEM is not for me,” is perhaps an even bigger misperception since it applies to just about everyone in the job market, not just those pursuing STEM careers.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, only a small percentage of the world’s population was literate.
Literacy rates increased throughout the 19th century, as people started
moving from the countryside to towns and cities for the job
opportunities opening up in the newly industrialized societies. Many of
these new jobs, especially the higher paying ones, required the ability
to read and write. With the rise of universal education in almost all
countries around the world, literacy rates have steadily gone up over the past hundred years.
But, almost everyone would agree that there is a big difference between being proficient at reading and writing and being a playwright, literary critic, book editor or journalist. The skills requirement are radically different. But, when it comes to STEM, students don’t often appreciate the difference between achieving a modicum of STEM proficiency and pursuing a STEM profession. Many students avoid taking STEM courses because they have no intention of becoming engineers, scientists, programmers or technicians of any sort. While everyone agrees that basic literacy is critical for just about any job, there is little appreciation that being STEM literate is increasingly important to qualify for a wide variety of jobs.
Unfortunately, many STEM professionals and educators contribute to this misperception. They don’t do a particularly good job explaining to young people, their parents and the world at large what we mean by STEM literacy. The have not adequately made the case why quantitative reasoning, familiarity with sophisticated machines, and dealing with complex systems, problems and decisions are important job skills in our fast changing, complex world.
Our daily lives are now full of numbers and statistics. Quantitative reasoning skills are important for many jobs, so we can understand what is going on and be able to adequately explain it to colleagues and customers. They are also very important in our daily lives. For example, understanding the interest rates we pay for our credit cards, car loan or mortgage requires a fair degree of quantitative reasoning. If we don’t do such reasoning by ourselves, we are at the mercy of others doing it for us who may not always have our best interests in mind.
We are surrounded by smart machines, - cars, music players, TVs, video recorders, smartphones, PCs, the Internet, e-mail, the Web, e-commerce sites, and on and on and on. They have become indispensable tools at work and at home. The ability to deal with the sophisticated machines all around and use them effectively to help us address complex problems is another very important STEM skill. When things go well, they make us much more productive. But when they don’t, - as complex, smart machines are wont to do, - they are truly frustrating, especially if we are lost and don’t know what to do.
Dealing with complexity is another very important STEM skill. Working with complex systems, especially those involving a large numbers of steps or components, require us to have a good overall understanding of the system, so we can adequately plan how to get the work done. In such a complex world, unanticipated situations often arise that we have not encountered before and thus require good cognitive, problem solving skills. Similar skills are necessary to help us evaluate the various options involved in making complex decisions. In general, people who are comfortable dealing with complexity are better able to handle more demanding, higher paying jobs.
“Becoming knowledgeable about STEM is not about the 0.01% who might become Ph.D. researchers or the 1% who might become engineers,” writes Larson. “In this data-informed, technology intensive 21st Century the entire populace needs to become STEM literate. We all need STEM thinking skills. Many apparently non-STEM jobs have become STEM jobs, especially in the trades. . . .”
“But perhaps the most important reason for everyone to become STEM literate is to build a more informed citizenry. In that way we individually and collectively become better decision makers about all the options that our world and we face. STEM is not only for Ph.D. researchers. It’s for all of us!”