Max Stahl, staff writer
The Beverly Hills Unified School District (BHUSD) is working to integrate a new STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) program for middle school students. This is one of countless endeavors among public educators to improve learning in these fields, cited by politicians, school board presidents and journalists alike as America’s current greatest educational necessity. Indeed, the modern, globalized economy of the 21st century will continue to require more and more experts in these fields, and the United States is currently not producing enough of them. But STEM education does more than produce more capable participants in the economy. It also produces better thinkers.
STEM stresses thinking and creativity. An important distinction: the separate science and math classes you take in school are not STEM classes; STEM classes combine the four subjects contained within its name and teach lessons that pertain to more than one of those fields at a time. These interdisciplinary courses, focusing on real-world applications, encourage students to arrive at solutions, rather than simply giving students the answers. Outside of STEM courses, American schools too frequently focus on teaching students to know, but not to think. Understanding the who, what, where and when is nice, but determining the how and the why is far more worthwhile. It is this process of thinking, analysis, discovery, that yields the most educational value.
Think of it this way: when you’re 30 years old, you likely won’t know that the volume of a pyramid is one-third of the area of its base times its height, or that Richard Henry Lee was the colonial legislator who formally proposed independence, or that a d subshell can hold ten electrons. And you probably won’t need to. What you’ll need are your critical thinking skills, your ability to arrive at solutions, rather than memorizing them. STEM education, therefore, should serve as a model for other classes and should be more widely spread among American schools.
Increasing the scope and influence of STEM education would also increase the importance of thinking and creativity in school, a change which would benefit students twofold.
First, it would produce students more qualified to tackle problems introduced not only in their classes’ curricula, but also in constantly emerging real-life scenarios. Professionals must have knowledge, of course, but they will never be able to innovate, to make themselves useful beyond a basic level, if they cannot solve problems that require extrapolation. Critical thinking, in any intellectual discipline or practice, is always the most important skill one must possess.
Second, it would actually make classes more interesting. Discovery and creation are fascinating. Those sublime moments of understanding we all experience from time to time, when our faces light up and we exclaim “I get it!”, do not come from memorization; they come when we apply our thinking skills and stitch pieces of our knowledge together to form a coherent idea. These moments are satisfying because discovery is inherently satisfying. We humans are curious creatures, and we thirst for these sorts of connections that make sense of ourselves and of the world. Stressing this sort of thinking and creativity would do much to engender not only the change politicians are looking for in professionals entering the STEM fields, but in those entering the other academic fields, as well.
STEM education is merely the first, most economically important step. By revamping the structure of all courses both academic and elective, with greater emphasis on reasoning and imagination, schools can propel the U.S. to that deeper, more meaningful sort of prosperity the American populace has been clamoring for.