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Looking beyond STEM

Looking beyond STEM

As the year and decade ends, I see more and more emphasis from K-12 education and private/public funding agencies on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) activities. STEM initiatives seem to be the focal point now for addressing the innovation crisis in the U.S. While I agree this emphasis is essential, I believe the focus is too narrow and exclusionary. Let me explain.

We are in competition with the entire world, and the innovation crisis we find ourselves in has been fueled by a crisis in education, not only in grades K-12, but also in university education. Most students focus on facts, tests and grades, and fail to understand concepts and processes. The inability of graduating students to integrate all they have learned in the solution of a real-world problem, at any level, is a failure. The main goal of education at all levels must be to create critical-thinking problem-solvers and teach them that society's problems are complex and multidisciplinary.

Jon Jensen, associate dean at Marquette University and a K-12 outreach director, makes the point that we are a nation of assessors and somewhat obsessed with comparisons, particularly with other nations. Our youth seem to lag behind other countries, most notably the STEM areas. He says we actually do better as a country than most think and, while we do have a great educational system, we still have a long way to go.

If I am a student with no interest or particular talent in the STEM area, I feel irrelevant to solving the innovation crisis. If I am a teacher in a non-STEM area, I also feel irrelevant. As early as fourth grade, students are segregated into a college-bound STEM track or the "other" track, the irrelevant one. Parents feel frustrated that their children are not valued for their individual abilities and passions when they do not conform to the perceived valued path as indicated by the proliferation of STEM charter schools and programs.

The STEM disciplines will never solve the innovation crisis alone. As we engineers know, they are only part of the solution. Innovation, the process of inventing something new, desirable, useful and sustainable, happens at the intersection of technology (is it feasible?), business (is it viable and sustainable?), human factors (is it desirable?) and complexity (is it usable?). In addition, basic science, mathematics and engineering skills have become commodities worldwide and are available elsewhere at a fraction of the cost here. Yes, critical-thinking problem-solvers from all disciplines working together are the key to innovation. Innovation is local - you don't import it and you don't export it. You create it. It is a culture. It is a way of thinking, communicating and doing.

STEM students and teachers, together with students and teachers from the humanities, arts, social sciences and business, must all realize they are equal partners in solving the innovation crisis. They each play a vital role, and together must be able to identify the needs of people and society, critically think and solve problems, generate human-centered ideas and rapidly prototype concepts, integrate human values and business into concepts, manage complexity, work in multidisciplinary teams, and effectively communicate results.

The message to our students must be that they are each vital to solving the innovation crisis, and this message must be delivered early and often, and in the context of real-world problems. They need to set high expectations for themselves, as we set high expectations for each of them. They need to discover their passion and their talents, and take ownership for developing those talents knowing that in doing so they will play a vital role in transforming the world we live in. Engineers can make a vital contribution by setting a professional example and giving a real-world context to what young students study. Are you up to the challenge? We all know amazing things happen when together we attempt the seemingly impossible!

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