In the Opinion section of the Dec. 8 New York Times there are two pleas for more emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) in education. The first one, by their editorial board, is here. The second, a column by Thomas Friedman is here. You have probably run across similar pleas recently, because they are very much in the media. Such pleas have occurred before—for instance after the successful Soviet launch of Sputnik—and probably are now occurring because of a combination of the importance of these topics in the economy and the availability of good jobs in such areas.
Most suggestions on how to remedy this situation focus on teachers and schools. It isn’t that easy. Granted that curricula and material should be updated and teachers be given more opportunity to stay current in these fields, but teachers are also carrying a huge load of socializing students, dealing with parents, and carrying out various administrative tasks—all for relatively low pay and lack of recognition.
Parents who do not work in these areas must try to contribute more by staying at least current enough to discuss them with their kids and help them with their homework. These topics are relatively difficult to master, and often a good bit of encouragement is needed. After the launch of Sputnik, an updated approach to handling math in the schools (New Math) was tried, but failed, and I was convinced at the time that part of the reason was that parents were not comfortable with the concepts.
People working in these fields, and the companies and laboratories they work for must become more involved in education. This is difficult, because not everyone is a good teacher, and people who are good in their fields are busy at their jobs. But if the U.S. is going to have more STEM people, industry and laboratories will have to play a part for motivational reasons as well educational. Classes in school do not, and probably never will, give a good insight into the life of people in these activities.
Unfortunately, STEM areas have changed very rapidly in recent history, due to things like digital electronics and computers, discoveries in areas such as genetics, space science and nanotechnology, and the rise of competence in them in many countries (China, Japan, South Korea, India, Etc.) I was an undergraduate at Caltech, earned a Ph.D. from Stanford, have been involved in engineering in both industry and academia my entire career, and I can barely keep up. As science and technology change, they become more complex, more esoteric, and less consistent with our intuition. I studied the theory of relativity as an undergraduate, but wasn’t sure I believed it. A few years later we were putting corrections into orbits for planetary spacecraft to account for it. Now we have string theory. As another example, think how much the discovery of the structure of DNA/RNA and the development of medical scanning have affected us in relatively few years.
As another problem, and one which has been around for all of my life, we need to do something about the negative attitudes that many people have about these areas. When I entered Caltech we were given a series of lectures about how to minimize our “Geek” reputation, which came with being a student at an engineering/science school. This included advice such as “never talk math or science at a party”, and “drink and play a lot of sports”. I later spent some time in art school at U.C.L.A. and didn’t seem to need suggestions on how to be cool. Despite all of the money Bill Gates has made, the breakthroughs Microsoft has brought us, and the incredible good he is doing with his foundation, many people still are sure he is a nerd.
And we have to drop the “two culture” habit —dividing the population into what Stanford students used to call the “techies” and the “fuzzies”. I’ve spent many years attacking it, and it is very deep in the U.S. I suspect it is a legacy from the British. It was the topic of C.P. Snow’s now famous 1959 Rede lecture, which is here. After all, accredited engineering programs in U.S. universities require at least one full year of courses in the humanities and social sciences. Why aren’t majors in these fields required to take at least one full year of engineering and natural sciences? And why can’t I talk about math, science, and engineering at parties?