Why America's obsession with STEM education is dangerous
The Washington Post
March 26, 2015
If Americans are united in any conviction these days, it is that we urgently need to shift the country’s education toward the teaching of specific, technical skills. Every month, it seems, we hear about our children’s bad test scores in math and science — and about new initiatives from companies, universities or foundations to expand STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math) and deemphasize the humanities. 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.
This dismissal of broad-based learning, however, comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts — and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future. The United States has led the world in economic dynamism, innovation and entrepreneurship thanks to exactly the kind of teaching we are now told to defenestrate. A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity. Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross fertilization. Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education, but so are English and philosophy. When unveiling a new edition of the iPad, Steve Jobs explained that “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.”
Innovation is not simply a technical matter but rather one of understanding how people and societies work, what they need and want. America will not dominate the 21st century by making cheaper computer chips but instead by constantly reimagining how computers and other new technologies interact with human beings.
I teach science to college students who are not very interested in science. This can be challenging - more so than I would like at times. Most of the time, students land in my biology or earth science class so they can meet the general education requirements of our liberal arts Christian university and never have to learn anything about living things or the earth again. While these are not ideal circumstances for teaching science, I do the best I can. Because of His goodness and His love for the world and its creatures, God blesses my efforts. He also rewards me with occasional moments of outrageous laughter.
Toward the end of the last semester, when our visit to the Ocean Institute fell through at the last minute, I assigned students to do some internet sleuthing and find three lengthy videos about various aspects of the ocean. They were to watch each of them and evaluate them according to content and educational value. One student turned in the following paragraph as part of her assignment. I rewrite it here verbatim.
The second critter of the sea is a creature called the “Manta Shrimp”, these shrimp are bright in color and are extremely powerful for their small size. At one point in the video you see a crap run for cover under a glass, for most creatures this would make the crap safe, however not for the Manta Shrimp. This creature has arms or extensions that come out from the base of his body and have the power to hit something at the same strength as a 22 round bullet. That poor crap didn’t have a chance, not only did the Manta Shrimp break the glass it was able to break the crab’s shell with one swing.
In case you were wondering, I do have the student’s permission to use this. I happened to see her after the semester ended and I pointed out this particular paragraph to her. We both had a good laugh over it; she is a good sport. A better sport than writer, perhaps, but it is undeniable that she learned something about ocean life from this assignment. She also improved her understanding of the complexity and wonder of nature, and genuinely speaks differently now than she did at the start of the semester about the natural world. If this is the result of my teaching efforts, I guess I can take a little crap along the way.
There will be more than 50 contributed papers, dynamic fellowship, rousing volleyball games, and much more.
Here is a prayer that CWIS members might pray for the upcoming
Almighty and eternal God, whose will it is that all should come to
you through your Son Jesus Christ: Inspire our witness as people of science,
that we might make known the power of his forgiveness and the hope of his
We beseech you to be with us as we gather and as we depart. Keep us
safe from all harm.
While we are together grant us grace to serve one another, to
listen to one another, and to encourage one another. May we drink from the
fountain of wisdom, which is your Word and Christ our Lord.
For the women who attend, we ask a special blessing. Grant
opportunities for all to make some good connections and to form new
friendships, and that we will grow together and share a united sense of our
Gracious Lord, you have filled the world with beauty. Open our eyes
to behold your gracious hand in all your works; that we may learn to serve you
and all humanity with gladness; for the sake of him through whom all things
were created and are sustained, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I recently visited my daughter to meet my new grandson, Sebastian (shown below). My daughter lives near Princeton, New Jersey, and is a member of an unusual group.
The Geek Mommies of Princeton has about 40 members and the only criteria for membership is that you be a mother and curious about the world. The young mothers get together monthly to inquire, question, explore, and share their thoughts about child care and how to encourage their children in STEM.
Monthly activities include potlucks, children's book exchanges, afternoon tea at the Buck's County Children's Museum, and science experiments. The children have learned about propulsion, making a volcano, and painting with spices and teas.
There is also a weekly play date with about 5 regular participants.
Mothers also read and discuss science fiction, fantasy, biographies and articles on sustainable living.
This group can serve as a model for other similar groups in which children are nurtured in an environment of inquisitive exploration and play.
Rosalind Franklin was a brilliant X-ray crystallographer whose photograph of a fiber of DNA was critical to James Watson and Francis Crick's discovery of the double helix.
Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born in London, England. Her family was well-to-do and both sides were very involved in social and public works. Franklin's father wanted to be a scientist, but World War I cut short his education and he became a college teacher instead. Rosalind Franklin was extremely intelligent and she knew by the age of 15 that she wanted to be a scientist. Her father actively discouraged her interest since it was very difficult for women to have such a career. However, with her excellent education from St. Paul's Girls' School? one of the few institutions at the time that taught physics and chemistry to girls ? Franklin entered Cambridge University in 1938 to study chemistry.
When she graduated, Franklin was awarded a research scholarship to do graduate work. She spent a year in R.G.W. Norrish's lab without great success. Norrish recognized Franklin's potential but he was not very encouraging or supportive toward his female student. When offered the position as an assistant research officer at the British Coal Utilization Research Association (CURA), Franklin gave up her fellowship and took the job.
What follows is one of a series of letters to the NYT Editor pertaining to engineering careers for women. Read the other letters here.
"How to Attract Female Engineers,” by Lina Nilsson (Op-Ed, April 27), seems appealing at first glance. But by proposing that women focus on work that is "societally meaningful” and that supports "humanitarian” goals, Ms. Nilsson indulges in two fallacies.
One is the premise that women are attracted to work consistent with the cultural notion that these are appropriate roles for women (traditionally, nursing and teaching).
In some sense, she is advocating "pink science” while ignoring the large number of female mathematicians, physical scientists and engineers who find the subject matter itself attractive.
It is analogous to telling women in medical school that they should become pediatricians and ob-gyns rather than neurosurgeons.
The other fallacy is that women are so shortsighted as to see only projects directly aimed at improving "the lives of people living in poverty” as having a meaningful societal effect. Surely, we all have a vested interest in enterprises like designing bridges and airplanes that are structurally sound.
We need to move forward with more female scientists in all fields rather than relegate them to certain subspecialties and pretend that such work is more valuable to our society.
Hubble has put several billion miles on its odometer, and, as with any high-mileage vehicle, things go wrong. An onboard computer froze in October of last year, briefly shutting down the whole telescope. But today, it's running smoothly. And that's good news, says Jennifer Wiseman, Hubble's senior scientist.
"We're doing everything from looking at objects in the Solar System — trying to understand, for example, Jupiter — to looking at things far beyond our solar system," Wiseman says. "We're even studying some of the most distant galaxies ever detected."
The telescope is in more popular than ever, Wiseman says. This year, astronomers have written more than a thousand proposals for how to use Hubble. That demand is partly because of upgrades done by astronauts like Massimino. But the main appeal is its location.
Could a Biblical understanding of our relationship with nature be the key to effective and purposeful conservation? As part of this current series of guest posts, Steph Bryant, coordinator of the God and the Big Bang project, writes about the relationship between human beings and the planet. She considers the damage we have done, and whether there is any place for hope as we explore ways to remedy the situation and better care for the world around us.
For as long as I can remember I’ve been enthralled by animals. This fascination has steadily grown into a love for scientific knowledge, which helps me to understand the natural world. It was of very little surprise to anyone who knew me that I found myself studying Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, specialising in zoology and focussing my final year studies on ecology and conservation science. For me, an appreciation of the natural world leads naturally to concern over its destruction and how we might remedy the situation. But how does that fit with being a person of faith? As a Christian, where do I see purpose in conservation science or ecology? Where do I see hope in a discipline often tinged with despair?
Conservation science is, for me, an act of seeking to obey God’s commands. Genesis 1says that God created man to ‘rule over’ creation. If, as Psalm 24 states, ‘the Earth is the Lord’s’, why would we allow our ‘rule’ to be characterised by irresponsible, destructive and exploitative practices? Surely, instead we should try to reflect God’s great and awesome love for all of creation through work that is characterised by love and responsibility.
A responsible rule would be one which benefits the natural world. But it is also an effective way to care for other humans: to seek to ‘love your neighbour’ (Matthew 22:34-40). As much as we pride ourselves on our technological advancements and the distance we have put between ourselves and our ‘caveman’ roots, we still depend almost entirely upon healthy, functioning ecosystems for our survival. We need wetlands to buffer our cities from storms and floods; animals, namely insects, to act as pollinators or pest control for many of our food crops; forests to protect areas from erosion and catastrophic landslides; healthy oceans to provide us with much of the fish we eat… The list is endless. It is particularly important for us to acknowledge this if we are to love and help not only the world around us but also the most vulnerable, struggling and impoverished of nations: people who often directly rely on these so-called ‘ecosystem services’ for their livelihoods.
One of the biggest obstacles to conservation is outlined by Andrew Balmford, a Professor of conservation biology at the University of Cambridge, in his excellent book Wild Hope[i]. He asserts that the recent rapid urbanisation of human society (over half of us now spend our time living and working in towns and cities, indoors, online or travelling by car or train) is contributing to an ever increasing disconnect between humans and creation. Where does the water in my tap come from? What watershed area do I live in? What are the bird species I am most likely to see at this time of year? What phase is the moon in? Most of our answers to questions like these would indicate that we have, indeed, lost a great deal of our awareness of the natural world. This is a problem: how can we effectively help a world that we do not currently understand?
So a key purpose for conservation scientists is to study the natural world, ‘the works of the Lord’ and to help others understand them – to grow, and encourage others to grow, in knowledge and understanding and therefore in appreciation and love for creation. Last year I spent 9 months living in Canada. I was working with A Rocha, an international Christian organisation which – inspired by God’s love – engages in scientific research, environmental education and community based conservation projects. It is a pleasure to see the way that projects like this can cultivate understanding and kindle a desire to care for God’s world, inspiring us to use our power, creativity and intellect for the good of all who share this remarkable and awe-inspiring planet.
Posted By Alice C. Linsley,
Saturday, February 21, 2015
Updated: Saturday, February 21, 2015
E. Janet Warren
The words sin and science are seldom mentioned in the same sentence. However, I suspect that sin, both individual and societal, is a contributing factor to the fact that male scientists outnumber female ones. This suggestion is not intended to produce the guilt and shame that is already so common in women, but intended rather to illuminate an issue and perhaps guide strategies to change. The gender gap in science has been addressed primarily in feminist and sociological literature; there has been little discussion from a Christian perspective. In this presentation, I first review the literature on the gender gap in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), and then summarize the biblical/theological literature on gender equality. I next turn to the biblical/theological concept of sin (typically construed as pride and arrogance, which tend to be associated with men) and discuss how considering so-called "feminine” sin (neglecting responsible dominion and undervaluing oneself) can contribute to both our understanding of and our response to the gender gap in STEM.
Janet Warren in a Family Physician/Independent scholar in Hamilton, Ontario. She has been practising Family Medicine for 20 years, with a special interest in mental health care and counselling. She recently attained her PhD in Theology and published her thesis as Cleansing the Cosmos: A Biblical Model for Conceptualizing and Counteracting Evil. Her current research interests include the integration of psychology/neuroscience and theology. Janet has been involved with CSCA since 2011 and is excited to be part of the executive council.
Janet holds multiple degrees:
BSC (McMaster University) MD (University of Toronto) MTS (Tyndale Seminary) PHD (University of Birmingham
Janet Warren has written:
Strangely, Christian feminism, actually feminism in general, has never been a strong interest of mine. I would rather not argue the issue but simply and quietly get on with using my God-given gifts as best I can. Yet somehow the topic tends to jump in my path frequently, forcing me to address it. Strange.
Now psychology and theology are interests of mine and I had been researching the complex topic of sin shortly prior to ASA 2014. This was in relation to my counseling practice as well as a course I taught on the integration of psychology and theology. I was intrigued by the concept of "masculine” and "feminine” sin and wondered how this could relate to the newly formed Christian Women in Science group. As a physician I had fortunately not encountered many limitations as a result of my gender. Although, strangely, years ago I wrote an article for Focus, the journal of the Canadian Christian Medical Dental Society, titled "I Ain't Gonna See No Woman Doctor” in which I pointed out some societal prejudices and unfair expectations of female physicians.
My research revealed that there is still a large gender gap in STEM fields, and I wondered if one contributing factor is the tendency in women to undervalue ourselves. Sadly, this tendency is sometimes reinforced in Christian teaching, under the guise of humility. And, also sadly, I have experienced more limitations of my gifts in churches than in my medical profession. But I plan to continue to use my gifts to serve God as best I can. In fact I recently presented a paper at a conference on evangelical feminism. Strangely, feminism is not a strong interest of mine...
What is it like to be a person of faith and a scientist? In a video interview the theologian and former biophysicist Alister McGrath commented that we need Christian scientists who are “prepared to enter into the public arena in debate, in comment, and in the writing of books showing how faith enriches their science.”
This blog has been one such attempt to show the positive effect of science on faith, and judging by the comments over the years, it has encouraged a number of people in that direction. On the 15th of this month, Monarch will publish my book God in the Lab: How Science Enhances Faith, which draws together these themes into a more coherent whole.
God in the Lab comes out of my enjoyment of science, my interest in hearing other scientists’ stories, and my desire to share the experience of working in a lab. It shows how creativity and imagination are vital to the practice of both science and Christianity. It looks at the ways in which beauty, wonder and awe can raise deeper questions about the world, and it gives six working scientists a voice in the science-faith arena.
When I interviewed Harvey McMahon, Ruth Hogg, Jennifer Siggers, Jeff Hardin, Rhoda Hawkins and Bob Sluka, I asked them about their work and beliefs, how the two fit together, and how science enhances their faith. Alongside these conversations, I explored the literature on each topic, in both science and theology. Thankfully, when I married the two sets of material together and showed it to the scientists, they were happy with my portrayal of their life and the way in which I had woven together their comments with my gleanings from the library.
My aim in this project – the blog and book, my talks and other activities over the last three and a half years – was to start some new discussions. I wanted to bring to the fore some areas of human experience that we can all identify with, whatever our religious or educational background. I wanted to show that Christianity is not just complementary to science, but it can also be enhanced by our exploration of the world.
When I started working for Christians in Science back in 2004, I was encouraged by something that Oliver Barclay, former General Secretary of the University and Colleges Christian Fellowship, wrote to one of our committee members after a request for help in dealing with certain science-faith issues. He suggested that one of the things we focus on is the wonder of the world that science reveals.
Regardless of our views on Genesis, or even the existence of a God, we can all identify with the sense of awe that hits us when we see something vast, beautiful or complex. The night sky, an ancient forest, microscopic organisms, or an equation – these all affect different people in different ways, but most of us will find something in nature or our exploration of it that is arresting and inspiring.
I deliberately finished God in the Lab with a chapter on awe because it leads most directly to questions of God for some, and worship for others. This is the part of the discussion on science and faith that often affects people most deeply. Some find a bleak world that we must find our way in, enjoying awe and wonder when we can. Others experience spirituality, and many encounter a personal God. My hope is that this book will start discussions that help us to hear each other, find points of common interest, and learn to appreciate the life of a scientist-believer.