Why STEM Isn’t Working

A dangerous disconnect between think and feel

Want more scientists? Make kids listen to their hearts.

A headline recently popped up on my Twitter feed: “Teens skip science and go for the money.” Clicking through, I learned that research completed by King’s College London found that more than seventy percent of British teens are interested in science, but only 14.5 percent are interested in science-related careers.

The article went on to identify reasons more kids aren’t taking up “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and math—or “maths,” as the Brits say):

  • Girls aren’t interested in science and engineering because those professions are not perceived as “feminine.”
  • Students aren’t getting good advice about how high-paying and recession-proof STEM jobs are. Evidently their parents and guidance counselors don’t know about STEM careers, either.

Stateside, we face similar challenges.

A 2009 report by Wisconsin’s Public Policy Forum estimates that through 2016, seven of the ten fastest-growing occupational clusters have high concentrations of STEM-related jobs. They are: information technology; health science; finance; science, tech, engineering and math; architecture and construction; ag, food and natural resources; and education and training.

And STEM pays! Nationally, STEM jobs offer wages twelve to thirty percent higher than non-STEM jobs. Recession bonus: STEM workers are less likely to be laid off.

Who wouldn’t want a job in STEM?

In Wisconsin, STEM is serious business, and dozens of organizations—school districts, think tanks, trade groups, employers, universities, philanthropists and more—are tackling the issue. Through 2009, the Kern Family Foundation alone invested a whopping $11 million to implement pre-engineering programs in Wisconsin schools.

So why aren’t we getting more traction? Why aren’t we overflowing with STEM students?

It’s because we’re over-intellectualizing it.

A Native American saying goes something like this: “The problem with the White Man is that he’s missing his neck.” In other words, we’ve worked so hard developing our minds that we’ve lost our connection to our hearts. By overfocusing on rational thinking, our emotional and intuitive muscles wither.

And when we do that, we deny our humanity. And our genius.

This is the problem with STEM. Over time, our STEM education divorces students’ heads from their hearts. It doesn’t start that way. In the early grades, STEM education is very hands-on and experimental. Math games. Classroom gardens.

But as students escalate up grade levels, the connection between STEM and the arts, or STEM and play, between head and heart, disappears. By high school, STEM becomes “serious,” with advanced-placement math classes, physics equations and memorization of the table of elements.

Our STEM efforts are failing because we have separated STEM’s head from its heart.

In their book Sparks of Genius, Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein examined the biographies of the world’s greatest scientists and inventors. They found that in addition to being freakishly gifted in their main professions, nearly all of them were musicians, writers or poets. Einstein’s theory of relativity, for example, came to him when he was participating in what he called “musical thinking.”

The Bernsteins conclude that developing our genius requires thirteen thinking tools, and many of them—like play, working through a problem physically—are the ones that connect head and heart. But in STEM education, many of these tools are put out to pasture by the time a kid reaches sixth grade.

By separating science from art, by compartmentalizing students’ intellectual capacity and their emotional natures, it’s no wonder that STEM careers aren’t attracting more of our young minds. We are denying our own genius.

Rebecca Ryan is founder of Next Generation Consulting. Her new book, ReGENERATION, hits the bookshelves this year.
Find more NEXT columns here
Contact Rebecca Ryan at rr@nextgenerationconsulting.com.

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