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We need to talk about STEAM instead of STEM

NSW Minister for Education Rob Stokes sparked debate about the value of and need for STEM – science, technology, engineering, and maths – education after the Sydney Morning Herald reported remarks he made giving the Balmoral Lecture at the all-girls Queenwood School earlier this week.

While he said science and maths are “crucially important”, Stokes posited that “STEM as a concept has become a buzzword”, the Herald reported.

Acknowledging the need for students to “be numerate, and to have a comprehensive understanding of the hard sciences”, Stokes however urged the audience not to buy into the idea that STEM is superior to the arts.

“From government ministers to journalists – from industry CEOs to senior public servants – people of influence are piling in to denounce the value of philosophy, the arts, and the social sciences – insisting that only by bowing before the altar of STEM will today’s students be adequately equipped to thrive in the 21st century,” he said.

“It has become an educational fad that places academic disciplines into silos – pitting the sciences against the arts in a self-defeating zero sum game of intellectual snobbery…”

“Whether it is a facetious ‘would you like fries with that’ joke about the value of an arts degree, or whether it is a person of influence claiming that you are doomed to a life of underemployment unless you study STEM, it appears that devotees of scientism have reduced education to an assessment of whether or not you can get a job in Silicon Valley.”

The comments come as the push for STEM education to prepare young Australians for the ‘jobs of the future’ grows; a 10 year National STEM School Education Strategy was endorsed by the Education Council, a network of education ministers, in 2015.

The need for this country to develop the STEM capabilities of students is clear, with the fact that there is a STEM skills shortage detailed in dozens of reports over the last few years.

In a report into its Inquiry into innovation and creativity: workforce for the new economy, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training last June stated there must be not only investment in STEM education, but an investment in quality STEM education if Australia is to turn back the “decay curve” of STEM-capable students and grow its “nascent but promising” innovation ecosystem.

The key problem, according Committee chair Andrew Laming, is that educators undertaking the teaching of STEM subjects are not themselves adequately qualified.

The report highlighted the fact that only 16 percent of year 4 students in 2011 were taught science by a teacher who specialised or majored in science, and only 20 percent had a teacher who specialised in mathematics. Furthermore, fewer than one in three primary teachers had completed any tertiary study in computing or IT.

Clearly, there is no doubt that there must be investment in quality STEM education – though Stokes didn’t say there shouldn’t be.

There is perhaps some truth to the idea that there has been a devaluing of the arts and humanities and social sciences; I felt this myself attending a selective school (not that long ago, before you ask – it’s not yet time for my 10 year reunion), where it seemed to me at the time that the focus from the administration was very much on science, maths, and commerce and learning most things by rote to pass exams and get a high ATAR.

I could never really get into these subjects. Admittedly, part of the fault was fully mine, because I wasn’t willing to work hard at them, but with the culture of the school focused on high achievers, part of me felt that there was not much point in trying either because the administration didn’t believe in me.

For example, our science and maths classes were ranked by performance (I was in classes 6 of 6 for both), while English, a subject in which I did well, only had one ranked class – the top – with the rest mixed. I’ll admit it sounds silly but there was a stigma around being in Maths 6 and Science 6, and it didn’t exactly make me excited to get to class.

In the meantime, though, I loved learning about a new culture and language in my French class, and being encouraged to think critically about the films of Leni Riefenstahl in modern history.

Of course, being immersed in the startup ecosystem for the last three years, I admit that I do look back and wish that I had tried harder at maths and science, that I hadn’t been just a few years too late to the start of coding classes and clubs making their way into schools, but I never think of it as wanting to go back and swap out my skills for those instead – rather, I would have wanted to develop both and make it about STEAM [science, technology, engineering, arts, and maths].

Why? While the notion that the core goal of education is to develop students into productive contributors to our nation’s economic output is disheartening, let’s go with it for a second and think of what companies, products, and services we want to be creating and what impact we want them to have in the world.

To point to a current, newsworthy example, think the predicament Facebook has found itself in right now: after months of debate around the rise of fake news, the company is now embroiled in a data breach scandal, with questions being asked about what the data it harvests is used for, the effect this is having on politics and society, and the implications of the platform having such power to influence decision-making.

As former Quora and Pinterest engineer and Project Include founder Tracy Chou wrote on Medium last year, engineers need to be thinking about these questions as they build.

Though she admitted the she herself had seen the purpose of humanities classes while studying, As Chou joined Quora and started work on building the block button, her first project at the company, Chou and the team had to think critically about the button’s purpose and potential effect and implications.

Our thinking around anti-harassment design also intersected a great deal with our thinking on free speech and moderation. We pondered the philosophical question — also very relevant to our product — of whether people were by default good or bad. If people were mostly good, then we would design the product around the idea that we could trust users, with controls for rolling back the actions of bad actors in the exceptional cases. If they were by default bad, it would be better to put all user contributions and edits through approvals queues for moderator review.

We debated the implications for open discourse: If we trusted users by default, and then we had an influx of “low quality” users (and how appropriate was it, even, to be labeling users in such a way?), what kind of deteriorative effect might that have on the community? But if we didn’t trust Quora members, and instead always gave preference to existing users that were known to be “high quality,” would we end up with an opinionated, ossified, old-guard, niche community that rejected newcomers and new thoughts?

Now, Chou wrote, she looks back “with some embarrassment” at her younger self’s “condescending attitude toward the humanities” and wishes that she had “strived for a proper liberal arts education”.

That I’d learned how to think critically about the world we live in and how to engage with it. That I’d absorbed lessons about how to identify and interrogate privilege, power structures, structural inequality, and injustice. That I’d had opportunities to debate my peers and develop informed opinions on philosophy and morality. And even more than all of that, I wish I’d even realized that these were worthwhile thoughts to fill my mind with — that all of my engineering work would be contextualized by such subjects.

It worries me that so many of the builders of technology today are people like me, people who haven’t spent anywhere near enough time thinking about these larger questions of what it is that we are building, and what the implications are for the world.

There is also a case to be made that we must invest in the arts and humanities for the simple fact that startups and tech companies need to be able to communicate – across everything from market research to user testing, validation, and marketing, businesses need to be able to talk to people, otherwise they won’t be able to sell anything.

The stats back it up: according to the 2017 Startup Muster report, marketing edged out software development as the key skill founders wish they had in their founding team, 32.8 percent to 32.4 percent.

Bringing arts into the equation can also simply help in getting those who are disengaged in pure STEM subjects find their way into the field.

Perhaps this is already happening. Commenting in the Herald today, Dean of Science at UNSW Emma Johnston and Kylie Walker, chief executive of Science and Technology Australia, both pointed out the problematic nature of Stokes calling STEM education a “fad” at an all-girls school given the lack of participation of girls and women in the space – a good point – and posited that the STEM sector has long recognised the need for “multidisciplinary collaboration” and employed such an approach.

I hope that this is translating to a STEAM approach at the primary and secondary school level, when students start thinking about what they like and what they’re good at; I would hate for another student to turn out like me, or even Chou, six or seven years out of school and realise they missed out.

 Image Source: Fortune.

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