Rocket Scientist Syndrome
I enjoyed Alfred Hall’s commentary (April/May 2015 The Science Teacher). He’s done a nice job of showing the importance of educating STEM students—both the ‘best and brightest’ and everyone else.
My reasons for agreeing are more social than strictly educational. I actually became a 17-year science teacher because of what I saw during a 19-year career as an engineering manager and executive. I was dismayed at how ‘uncool’ it had become for American students to embrace science and engineering. I hired many young engineers, and increasingly they’d been educated abroad and had come to America to fill our gaping need for technical professionals. Where were our own professionals?
Taking college campus tours with our son, I would hear our campus tour guides pointing out the dorms, library, or campus performing arts center with pride. Then we’d pass the engineering school (at a distance) and the guide would say, in effect, “There’s the engineering school. We see the freshmen disappear there and show up at graduation…we have no idea what happens to them in between.” The not-subtle message steers young people away from STEM—almost horrifying them.
As a science teacher then, I had a combined mission. Rather than try to turn everyone into scientists, I instead wanted them to appreciate the possible ‘cool-ness’ of the sciences. I got everyone in our class doing science, asking and answering their own questions, learning the way scientists learn. But my message was straightforward.
Science (STEM) is not for everyone. We want those who have the natural STEM talent and disposition to understand that a technical career can be very cool, enjoyable and rewarding. We want another tier of mechanically-gifted people to enjoy becoming technicians, mechanics, experimenters and to know their talents are valued and rewarded by society. And we want everyone else—the artists, actors, poets, historians, accountants—to be comfortable knowing and working with ‘nerds’ because we are not nearly so nerdy as we seem, and we’re actually doing cool things that all students can and should experience in middle and high school.
Lately, I’ve been concerned with the backlash that STEM is starting to get, as STEM programs succeed in attracting funding and student interest. Schools want to add Arts to STEM, making it STEAM. And add reading skills (STREAM) and maybe music (STREAMM?) because educators worry there’s a big pendulum in education that can only swing one way or the other. False! We’re not trying to grab humanities students and force them into STEM pathways. That would be crazy. We just need to create awareness among all our students on how to either pursue STEM careers (with the natural disposition of those few students and with society’s approval of them) or pursue totally different fields (with a clear fondness for their STEM sisters and brothers).
This is a paragraph I sent home to parents each year as a science teacher:
We need to be a society with members capable to figure things out and make things work—to produce. Our courses in science and math help prepare some specialists for their further technical training, and help the rest of society understand the part played by scientists, engineers, and technicians. Similarly, our science majors need to know that building a physical framework is only a part of society’s output. Cars, spaceships, computers, and particle accelerators are all tools and devices that serve us while we also advance arts, culture, philosophy, religion, or even entertainment and recreation. Students in my courses will hear my views of where their classes fit into their portfolio of understanding.