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  • How the focus on STEM Education hurts US Global Effectiveness

    SEU Noyce Scholars work with local Austin high schoolers on STEM project at the Texas Coast

    I was walking down the hall of my institution the other day and ran into a colleague who rolled his eyes at me when I shared my good fortune at bringing in another STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Technology) education grant. As a literacy instructor, he had not seen grant money come across his desk in years, and my numerous successfully- funded projects that focused on STEM teacher education were not helping his mood. 

    As a Science Teacher Educator, I have had good fortune in funding opportunities for my preservice education students to move into the classroom with strong support and mentoring. Despite recent tightening of the belt by some Federal programs in STEM Education, the current climate is still STEM-friendly, helped by the Presidents promise of training 100,000 well-qualified science and math teachers by 2020, as well as producing 1 million additional STEM graduates.  

    This push is in part due to alarming reports of STEM teacher shortages, and a workforce ill-prepared for the rigors of the 21st century workplace. The US status as a global player is at risk and preparing STEM graduates and teachers is key for our global competitiveness, according to the President and others like ex-chair of the US House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee Bart Gordon.

    Don't get me wrong. I love the current attention to my field. I agree that we need a strong STEM workforce, and I am aware of the continuing teacher shortages,especially in my state of Texas. After all, I am able to investigate some great ideas, get some funding for the preservice teachers, and promote the beauty of science as a way of knowing.  But I do take issue with the bandwagon approach to viewing STEM education as the cure-all for global competitiveness.

    The term 'Global Competitiveness' is problematic in itself. What does it mean to be globally competitive? The Economic World Forum defines it as a measure of productivity in economic growth and ranks countries on a scale. The global competitiveness report for 2015-2016 shows the US in an alarming 3rd place out of 140 countries (insert sarcastic emoji). China is 28th.

    Figure 1. 2015-2016 rankings for Global Competitiveness

    Only Switzerland and Singapore out-performed the US on a global scale. We are clearly not in the weeds as deeply as some would suggest in terms of our economic standing. But keeping the public a little unbalanced and anxious about our relative global merit is a political strategy that seems to continue to work today.

    What alarms me about the current trend of touting STEM education as the main pathway towards global economic competitiveness is that we are de-funding other equally valuable areas of education that also heavily contribute to a well-rounded and globally competitive workforce. And when I say that, I refer to a workforce that has habits of mind that are willing to consider many perspectives, evaluate and critically synthesize new knowledge, actively problem-solve using creativity, a deep understanding of history, and and an appreciation for how a well-rounded education builds kind, caring, and aware neighbors.

    Other disciplines are feeling the pain of the STEM funding bonanza, and some are hitching a ride on the STEM gravy train. Consider the current rise in popularity of a new acronym called STEAM - the "A" stands for Arts. Arts educators are well aware of the value of creativity when problem-solving, and this has led to a surge in related-ventures like the Maker Movement, Engineering practices as a cornerstone of the latest Science Education Standards, and other related arts-based STEM activities.

    English teachers are also frustrated by this trend. The funnyordie video below gets at the root of the issue (warning-not suitable for work /  lots of adult language).

    In the current educational funding climate, the recently-passed successor to NCLB bill called Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) places more control over the focus and standards for policy in individual State hands. This offers opportunities for State educational boards to re-define what a globally competitive workforce really looks like. My challenge to these groups is to consider the implications of their decision-making for shaping our future.