Tea Time With Jesse

Six of One, Half Dozen the Other

Stemming STEM – My Iconoclastic Paradigm Shift

Posted by middlerage on July 30, 2012

The latest Scientific American has an interesting feature about making better science teachers for our public schools. Lately there’s been a host of thoughts about our national crisis in “STEM” (the catchall acronym for Science Technology Engineering and Math). Think Tank’s say, “We’re behind”; that we “lag other countries,” especially Finland, Taiwan, Singapore and Germany;  middle school science aptitude is a joke; I’ve come across university institutes devoted to training teachers in STEM, I’ve personally applied for a job with a “science olympiad” designed to promote STEM interest in students; pundits, and presidents decry that our country, especially our economy, “will be left behind in the new global state of affairs.” But I’m not so sure.

Oh, I agree, the U.S. is woefully behind a lot of countries in churning out STEM careerists, and we’re in danger of being “left behind,” but I’m not sure I care. The thing is, whom does a scientifically more capable country benefit?

In this blog, I don’t disguise the fact that I am a liberal. I also don’t disguise I am wildly patriotic. I love this country, and thus you’d think I would like to see it do well on the global stage – continuing to lead in science and technology, continuing to be the marvelous innovator it is.

But that last three years have caused a personal paradigm shift. We have seen the bald-faced evidence of a two-class society. If we churn out more, and talented, engineers do they create a holistically high-wage, first class economy for all? I’m thinking no.

I think more STEMists will become mere minions in this divided country: providing wealth and innovation to a tiny minority of super wealthy, or their speculator henchmen on Wall Street. (I define “speculators” as people who create nothing useful on their own; they just turn money into more money at the expense of the rest of us. Speculators are the “anti-particle” to STEMers. The antithesis.)

It’s a radical, 21st century updating of Workers Unite! but wtf happens to a new surge of STEM career folks? I seriously don’t think they each make $200k+ in addition to becoming capital-sharing partners in rah-rah-USA Technicon. Sure, Mark Zuckerberg or the Google dudes are technologists who made it big. But those stories are few and far between.

The thing is, if we look to a surge of STEMists to make a new and improved USA, shouldn’t those STEMists share in the ‘new and improved’? And here I define ‘sharing’ as being more than just a decent middle class wage, benefits and a 401k. I mean real, honest-to-goodness sharing in the prosperity and wealth of our (possible) economic leadership. Heck, shouldn’t we all share in the new prosperity? Sadly, I don’t believe it is possible, anymore.

News article after news article has lamented how the wealth disparity between the “two Americas” has skyrocketed in the last four decades. My own attempt to find a job in the STEM-hand-wringing-industry, not withstanding, I see no reason to encourage a youngster to pursue a career in STEM. (Maybe a potential interviewer will stumble on this post, put two and two together, and ix-nay an ob-offer-jay. Wouldn’t that be ironic?), but I see no reason to supply worker bees for a few queens.

———————

Another interesting bit from the SciAm article is a graphic comparing the source of STEM careerists (alas, the article is paywalled ATTM, but you can read the intro, here). The graph compares the life trajectories of current scientists, showing how many came from “teacher inspiration,” or “club membership,” or “academic reward.” Fascinatingly – the biggest factor (by a wide margin) for what resulted in a career in sciences is personal passion. Conceivably, the How To Build A Better Teacher theme of the article would bring “teacher influence” to a parity with “personal passion.” But I’m not sure that is a good idea. If the U.S. educational system is so scientifically lame as to be a barrier to future scientists, then the personal passion gene may ironically be a very important filter – ensuring that only creative geniuses make it to the other side of High School wanting to pursue science or mathematical careers.

Of course, that observation gets murky when applied to the other two of the disciplines that make up “STEM.” Science and Math are one thing, but Technology and Engineering are more ripe for incentives besides passion. Money for one thing. And there’s nothing wrong with that, per se.

The scientists busy colliding protons in the Large Hadron Collider were never going to add to Exxon’s bottom line, but TE’s (technologists and engineers) certainly can (will).  And these are the future minions I worry about. These are the folks who look to STEM as a “wise” career choice, a “stable and secure” job trajectory. And here we have this national shuffle step to try to produce more TE’s, ostensibly for the good moral reason to provide basic Americans with good lives, but in reality to provide wealth producing worker ants for that Other America.

————————

As a scientist myself, and as a scientist who laments the politicized battlefield of evolution and climate change, you’d think I’d be all for fostering the STEM disciplines in middle and high school. But there’s a difference between fostering scientific literacy and encouraging people to become minions. I guess. At any rate, I was surprised at my reaction to the SciAm article, and it obviously got me to thinkin’ (and to bloggin’). I didn’t deviously adopt this iconoclastic opinion, it just came when I zoomed the focus out. Narrowly, we are agitated over our poor student performance, and our need for technological leadership. However, looking more broadly at the forest, it just feels like “What’s it all for? Really?”

Are we trying to turn out wealth cows to be milked for “da big house”? What does it mean to be an American anymore? Who is contributing what to the fabric of our nation? Why do southern rural folks dominate the military, while the northern prep schools are barely represented? Why do we prosecute a woman who lied to get her child into a better school district, but (to date) only one fund manager has been criminally prosecuted in the wake of the Mortgage Bust? Who’s going to take the rap for the BP oil spill first – engineers or CEOs?

Everywhere I look, I see two Americas.

Advertisements

4 Responses to “Stemming STEM – My Iconoclastic Paradigm Shift”

  1. Jerry said

    Lots of food for thought here. I’m one of those TE’s, making a comfortable wage (but not enough to buy a house in my city) creating stuff that is making gobs and gobs of cash for the shareholders of my company. I also happen to be one of those shareholders, but on an entirely different scale than the big boys.

    And, honestly, I’m not driven by passion. I started programming computers at a time when there simply weren’t enough of us. The career simply… wouldn’t let go. I took a few years off to follow my real passion, and I have no regrets about that, but in this world only the tiny top percentage of fiction writers can support themselves at it. Back to programming I came, because it’s way easier than digging ditches yet for some reason pays a hell of a lot more.

    So, I’m a corporate cog, but I’m OK with that. I like my coworkers, and the things I make are reasonably fun to build if terribly abstract. My company’s big shots may be using me, but I’m using them, too, to provide a paycheck so I can go do the things I’m passionate about after I get home. It is a comfortable life of dronehood. I’ve also told my boss that if a big book offer came my way, I probably wouldn’t be coming in the next morning. She’s down with that.

    As for science education, I just wish we did a better job teaching kids around middle school just what science is. Think of all the fad diets and “alternate theories” that would die on the vine if people could look at something that claimed to be science and realize that it simply wasn’t. My curriculum would contain many counterexamples. “This is NOT science because…”

    Other than that, I’m not really wringing my hands, either. Scientists don’t come out of high schools, they come out of universities, and if you make a list of the top 100 universities in the world based on almost any measure, maybe as many as 90 of them will be in the US. Sure, they might be filled with foreign students, but all those kids are joining the same global economy, and they take a bit of America home with them.

    • middlerage said

      As for science education, I just wish we did a better job teaching kids around middle school just what science is. Think of all the fad diets and “alternate theories” that would die on the vine if people could look at something that claimed to be science and realize that it simply wasn’t. My curriculum would contain many counterexamples. “This is NOT science because…”

      Other than that, I’m not really wringing my hands, either. Scientists don’t come out of high schools, they come out of universities, and if you make a list of the top 100 universities in the world based on almost any measure, maybe as many as 90 of them will be in the US. Sure, they might be filled with foreign students, but all those kids are joining the same global economy, and they take a bit of America home with them.

      well said

    • middlerage said

      also, you may only be a cog, but that means you’ll be on the right side when the revolution comes /wink

  2. Mark Leisher said

    I know I have a reply, but don’t know if it’s positive, negative, or in between. It’s been simmering for several days, but nothing has surfaced yet. I know I had this argument with someone else about something else a long time ago. My subconscious is straining to dredge it back up. It hurts us!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: