STEM for Life
When people talk about wanting to strengthen students’ Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math skills, they often point to the need for technically-savvy workers in a global economy that is increasingly dependent on technology-centered jobs. And while there’s undeniably a need for young people to pursue STEM careers, the skills students can acquire in a robust STEM education program can be applicable in all kinds of jobs that involve no STEM fields and require no STEM degrees. A good STEM education is a good education.
What makes a good STEM education anyway? One of the major advances in the new Next Generation Science Standards that are being adopted by an increasing number of states is their emphasis on performance of the kinds of tasks that scientists and engineers constantly engage in, known in the NGSS as Science and Engineering Practices:
1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
2. Developing and using models
3. Planning and carrying out investigations
4. Analyzing and interpreting data
5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
7. Engaging in argument from evidence
8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information
Mastery of these tasks would doubtless help any students who were planning future careers in science or engineering, but most all of them are useful as tools of critical thinking and problem-solving in any career. It’s hard to imagine a career where obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information would not be a vital skill, for example. These skills are only a fraction of what a STEM education offers, though.
Our world is shaped more and more by the advances of science and the technology built by engineering. A basic understanding of how these disciplines operate is vital for anyone living in these times. Many people who lack basic science literacy can easily be swayed by pseudoscientific and dishonest claims in advertisements, political rhetoric, or fraudulent scams. Why else would so many people be convinced by the claims of dietary supplements, anti-vaccine campaigns, or emails from Nigerian princes?
Sifting through the mass of information available in the Internet Age is a necessity. Being able to analyze the data you gather, compare it to things you already know, and draw conclusions about its veracity is just as necessary. And no STEM education would be complete without a thorough grounding in these and other scientific practices.
In a way, every citizen should be a little bit of a scientist. When you see a statistic or other piece of data on the internet, you may need to engage in a little investigation to see if the information is reliable. If it’s an oil company talking about how small their environmental impact is, you should probably take it with a grain of salt. But that should also apply when it’s an alternative health site singing the praises of organic and GMO-free food. Bias isn’t a phenomenon confined to one side of the political spectrum, and misinformation can be found everywhere. But you need to have the skills necessary to discern it.
Between the critical thinking and general scientific knowledge that make up the backbone of a robust STEM education, the skills of a STEM-literate student are skills that are necessary for any student, regardless of their chosen field.