Why we won’t become more innovative by teaching more science, technology, math and engineering (STEM)

Ask any politician or influential business person about their vision for the economy and chances are they will tout the value of entrepreneurship and innovation. It’s a bland and safe answer that will resonate with a lot of people. It’s also true to some extent. Creative thinking coupled with the ability to act and implement can lead to successful businesses. Problem is, very few understand where this innovative power comes from and far too many believe STEM subject teaching is the only important factor.

An argument that’s being heard more and more states that innovation of the kind that creates wealth and adds to the GDP comes in the form of technology. Because of that, they argue we shouldn’t waste resources on teaching kids about topics like arts, literature, history or human behavior. We should teach as much science (natural), technology, engineering and math as we possibly can. These are the only skills that the industry and the economy benefits from, the argument goes.

This line of thinking isn’t just misinformed, it’s also plain stupid because it ignores reality for technophile dogma.

Apple is often referred to as a highly innovative technology company. Since Apple produces technical gadgets, they’re entirely driven by technological thinking. Or so many people seem to think.

That description has little to do with reality. As referred to in the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson, Jobs took a lot of inspiration from the so called “useless” liberal arts. His appreciation for calligraphy, learned at college, made him insist on the Mac shipping with proper typefaces. A move that opened up the field of DTP (desktop publishing) and made the Mac the workhorse of advertising agencies everywhere. This would not have happened if only the opinions of Apple’s engineers had counted.

When unveiling the iPad, Jobs famously said:

“it’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.” (Source)

It’s this blend of seeming opposites that gave Apple its innovative power. Many of the greatest minds in history weren’t entrenched in either engineering or arts, but had an interest in both. Apple, under Jobs, was simply following the same tradition.

Today, that idea seems to have been lost.

In order to nurture this exchange, we need to make sure the people who graduate from high schools and universities have received a well-rounded education. That is, an education consisting of a love for science, regardless of its type, whether that science concerns the role of enzymes or how human language evolved.

In Sweden (where I grew up), the two major high school programs available at the national level that put students on a path to academic studies come in two flavors: social and natural sciences. You can pick one or the other. This means that we as early as age 16 start thinking of two kinds of sciences. It’s common that students on these programs view the other with suspicion or downright disdain. Many school plays center on joking about “the nerds”, who supposedly don’t get laid or the “culture workers” who only drink and look forward to a life of unemployment.

Students at high school who study social sciences often consider math to be too hard for them to grasp and students who study natural sciences find social science to be too “fluffy” or hard to apply to be taken seriously. As a result, these worlds of ideas seldom mix in schools. However, in reality, successful products and projects are the result of both.

We need to break down these barriers. We shouldn’t allow specializations early on and we should never allow kids to limit their potential by not considering themselves smart enough to get math or natural science. Problem is, many do, and teachers aren’t exactly supporting. Here in Sweden, I’ve heard math and natural science teachers calling kids specializing in humans sciences to be less smart than their natural science counterparts.

These prejudices are completely baseless. In my own studies which have covered computer science as well as anthropology and linguistics, I’ve found the “fluffy” sciences to be the most rigorous and serious in terms of method application. A course in a technical subject will be much more applied and focus less on understanding the role of the researcher and the validity of the data. Engineering thinking has a lot in common with how a mechanic or construction worker approaches a problem. It’s what you build that matters. The thinking that led to it, or knowledge it created, is secondary.

Based on my own experience, I’ve come to believe that students of engineering, since dealing with “harder” data and not having been taught to actively consider bias, are often less capable of identifying their own influences and identifying the thoughts that inform their own thinking. Engineers designing systems are used to being able to measure and design for given constraints, and are often unfamiliar with the approach needed to obtain more subjective data, which is necessary when designing for humans. Some of them sadly dismiss such data outright as useless.

This gap doesn’t need to exist.

There’s a wonderful book titled “A Mind for Numbers” written by Barbara Oakley. The author, who started with a bachelor’s degree in Russian, convinced that she’d never wrap her head around math, turned her academic career around to become a professor of engineering. The book is a learning handbook for students who consider math to be too hard for them to grasp. It explains how different modes of thinking are needed for different skills and why the thinking that gives you a good grasp of language may not necessarily work for understanding a proof in math.

The ideas in Oakley’s book need to be more widely spread. Education needs to rid itself of this polar view of science and inspire kids to be curious about the world. Regardless of what field of inquiry it falls into.

Calling for increased spending on specific fields, like the STEM proponents do, won’t create a more competitive industry. And it won’t make companies more innovative or able to see opportunities. As a matter of fact, many innovative ideas come from understanding what people need and want. The skills needed to elicit such information aren’t taught in Physics 101. It’s the behavioral scientists with their supposed drinking habits and poor career expectancy who know how to talk to people.

It’s not coincidence that UX has gained such massive interest. Companies are connecting the dots between competitiveness, customer loyalty and user experience. Some companies take it one step further and employ service designers to improve customer experience as a whole. Service designers aren’t engineers but people trained in methods from ethnography and anthropology. They create tremendous value despite being trained in specialties that are supposedly not of much use according to some:

“From President Obama on down, public officials have cautioned against pursuing degrees like art history, which are seen as expensive luxuries in today’s world. Republicans want to go several steps further and defund these kinds of majors. “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?”asked Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott. “I don’t think so.” America’s last bipartisan cause is this: A liberal education is irrelevant, and technical training is the new path forward. It is the only way, we are told, to ensure that Americans survive in an age defined by technology and shaped by global competition. The stakes could not be higher. “ (Source)

That’s a dangerous idea. We need more curious minds. People who love knowledge and aren’t bound to the prejudices instilled by the current education system. Engineers who can talk to people and who are honestly interested in the roles played by language and culture. Behavioral scientists who don’t view computers as magical devices but who understand electrical engineering and can program a computer.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015 - 15:39

Comments

"Many of the greatest minds in history weren’t entrenched in either engineering or arts, but had an interest in both"

I think the point is that people should learn science and math, as well as learn art, music, etc. For example, children should be encouraged to draw. I can't find the source but someone said that all kids draw until someone tells them they're not good.

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