When I first heard about STEM, I thought, “Oh—it’s the new and improved Science, Technology and Society (STS)!” But no, Society did not seem to play a part in the new equation. I looked for benchmarks for quality STEM. And, no again. Then I asked people about what it really was, and they spelled out the acronym for me: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. I knew what the acronym stood for, I wanted to know what it meant i.e., what goal it was in the service of, and what problem it was designed to address. I discovered it was generally understood that our students were not performing well in science and math compared to many other countries with whom we were competing in the global market place. STEM seemed like a robust way to address that…problem? symptom?
Then I heard that a significant investment of funds was to be made by government and private institutions to support STEM initiatives that increased students interest in, and preparedness for Job Readiness in the 21st Century. OK—That I could understand. That seemed like a good idea. If we want education to contribute to a sustainable future for us all, we will need to design and re-design infrastructure, buildings, food and transportation systems, and we will have to be cognoscente of the Earth’s carrying capacity. If we had all been able to “do the math” since the turn of the century, one could argue that we would not have exceeded Earth’s carrying capacity in the 1980s. Doing the math helps us identify and tap the power of limits. So I began to think I understood what STEM was for. As I continued to look for quality criteria for STEM programs, I came across the idea of STEAM. Since the arts have been so marginalized in our schools systems, I thought it was a creative idea to make sure arts and creativity was added to STEM to make STEAM. Of course once you add the arts, then all you have to do is add the Humanities and you have school—all over again.
So, why not make the same significant investment in transforming our schools into learning organizations that can prepare our students to thrive in the 21st Century? When that happens, students experience truly interdisciplinary design challenges that weave together the science, technology, engineering and math with creativity, ethics, systems thinking and anticipatory thinking, for example. When that happens, students seamlessly move from class to class weaving together the experiences they are having into an integrated and whole understanding of what they are studying. When that happens, it is obvious that what they are learning in school is relevant and meaningful, applicable and transferable to life outside of school and over time. And when that happens, our students will be more likely to contribute to a healthy and sustainable future for us all.
- Jaimie Cloud for The Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education