The Right Way to Do “STEM”

The first thing is not to skip the “S”. The second is to remember what the “S” really means.

We’ve written about STEM before, and how an unhealthy obsession with it can lead to other things —  significant things — being ignored in education. Communication skills, interpersonal skills, writing, humanities, knowledge of citizenship, philosophy…all of these things develop skills and bases of knowledge that help in even the most high-tech occupations. Plus, as we’ve stated: children are more than their eventual job. They have other “social duties” which go beyond employment and work. So a myopic STEM program can mean letting some of the finer points of actually educating children fall by the wayside.

ed_stem_3_kidsMuch to our amusement, STEM has to continually be broadened, in order to accommodate realities and fads. STEM-H was the first iteration, because someone noticed that health was more than science, and health field is where a lot of the “modern STEM jobs” are.

Then we got “STEAM” which loops in “Art.” This is a two-fold phenomenon, in that many talented engineers have creative skills in the arts; but also, in truth those who spend an inordinate amount of time pushing for more STEM don’t want to appear like they do not care about the Arts.

The latest trend from the world of STEM is “STREAM” whereas the R stands of “Reading.” Someone came to the startling conclusion that those people who will be the most capable of advancing science, would have to have developed the reading skills required to consume and retain scientific information. We should fully expect the next iteration to be “SHTREEALM” so that an appreciation for History, Ethics, and Literature is not ignored, which would mean that all “focus” has been lost completely (which may or may not be a good thing).

What is striking, though, is how much STEM education is specifically geared to focus on Technology and Engineering, while doing an amazing job of skipping over the science. This is not universal, of course. Many (probably a plurality) STEM programs do a lot of really good science, but the technology and engineering (and Mathematics, quickly translated to Computer Science) very often tend to dominate STEM conversations, for obvious reasons: 1) high tech jobs of the future that STEM is designed to…stimulate… are mostly applied sciences, engineering, health care, computer technology, etc. That’s where the bulk of the lucrative jobs are. Science, after all, in the modern age is almost always focused on understanding the world so as to better advance it with better material solutions: with better medicines and treatments, faster and smarter computers, better ways to grow food and live longer, and any number of things. 2) Technology is something that kids WANT to do. If you have kids…you know.

All of this is fine and good, but it is a very singular, and very limited, view of science, as we know it, and when “technology” is considered synonymous with science, we have identified a major problem with how both are treated (and then we should wonder why not just call it TEM or TEAM…or TREAM, etc).

natural-philosophyThe progenitors of modern scientists were not technologists. They did not always pursue science in order to improve quality of life for their fellow man with better gadgets and tools. It would actually be more accurate to say that better tools were developed in order to better serve the study itself (With “Optics” literally being added in the Middle Ages to the traditional “quadrivium” of Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, and Astronomy; much the way the Internet was created for academia, telescopes and microscopes were created for study for the sake of study). They sought to understand the Natural World and this was a good and virtuous purpose, full stop.

Newton, when he wrote that he was “standing on the shoulders of giants” was not the first to use the phrase. It is a noble, and humble phrase, to be sure, and it is quintessential “science,” in that it encapsulates the importance of building on previous scientific work to make breakthroughs. The first use of the expression was likely Bernard of Chartres when he referred to dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants, but he did not speak of scientific progress specifically, but on the understanding of God and all His Creation. Less than a century after Bernard, Robert Bacon, the inventor of what we now call the “scientific method” was certainly not a “scientist”, as he lived a solid 600 years before the term “scientist” appeared in English.

Which means even Newton was not called a “scientist” by his peers. First, scholars are beginning to finally come to terms with the reality that Newton contributed as much to philosophy as he did astronomy and mathematics (much the way Adam Smith did much more than simply economics), and possibly even as significantly as the “great sextet” (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume) of the period. What Newton himself saw, when he sought to understand the Laws of Nature, was a vast and unending (eternal) universe, where both creationist and skeptic could be simultaneously confused, and at home. But secondly, the word “scientist” didn’t show up in English until the 19th Century. Before this, these thinkers were simply “natural philosophers” not unlike other philosophers. Though experimentation in religion could have been considered problematic, economics, ethics, history, and philosophy was not without lessons to be learned, and empirical minds were required. All of philosophy, the natural and even matters of faith, needed shoulders of giants, and deliberation and reason.

A fairly precise definition of “scientist” developed,  where it basically means someone who is studying the natural world, using experimentation and empiricism. In some cases, the term is defined as basically anyone using the scientific method. This is how sociologists, economists, and many others in the “humanities” often are said to be in the “social sciences.”

This is unfortunate, as the tendency is to limit scientific reasoning (under the premise of expanding it) to that which can be felt, touched, seen, heard, or recorded. If it isn’t tangible enough (the behavior of humans is nothing if it is not…elusive and intangible), then at least the data is tangible, thus we can, since we are using empirical principles to study it, call it science. This makes everything human that can be measured and studied, “science” and by implication planted firmly in the “real.” Everything that is not “real” should be — in this line of thinking — relegated to the philosophical, for pointy heads to ponder, not worth our time unless you seek to make your head pointy. Put another way: science is supposed to get you ANSWERS, philosophy just brings up more questions.

It would be more accurate, however, to call everything that humans study, both the natural and metaphysical world, as philosophy, and subject to both theoretical and empirical thought, and the answers just as elusive in the natural world as in the metaphysical. For it is not only about the data, and how accurate it is, or whether it conclusively answers a question so that it need not be studied further. It is a way of thinking and seeing the world as it is, so that one can develop the next theory, through more questions, more study, more analysis, more experimentation.

If the recent discoveries just in the last few years, surrounding the Higgs Boson and other elemental particles, gravity waves and other cosmological discoveries, are any indication, then it is likely that we will never, ever, ever reach the end where we know exactly how the world works, thus we better keep our theoretical (and metaphysical) tools well sharpened.

We would encourage all who care about the “S” in STEM to approach it how the “giants” approached it: as a quest for what is true in the natural world, in exactly the same manner that they approached what is good and beautiful (true) in the metaphysical. We encourage both budding scientists (and their parents) to approach the natural world as philosophers, and to pursue it as a natural philosopher would, with reverence, and awe, and wonder, and with clear purpose, with a strong dose of humility, as the giants before us did.

For that reason, whatever “STEM” program you support, or choose, make sure it is one that does not ignore the “S” (plenty of room for technology and engineering — we promise), and make sure it is one that understands that science is a pursuit, a process, and a noble and sacred adventure.

Think like a Natural Philosopher. Think like a Scientist.

IndED’s “Thinking Like a Scientist” programs start October 6, with a 1pm to 3pm class for homeschoolers, and our After School Program from 4:00 to 5:30, both on Thursdays.  The After School Program is part of our Hub Membership in the Arts, Science, and Citizenship, while the Homeschool class is starting with a 10-week course, ending December 15. Check them out, and reach out to us if you want to schedule a time to hear more.


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