STEM Competency: A Survival Skill for the 21st Century

by: Stephen E. Schwartz

The Republican and Democratic National Conventions recently signaled the official start of the 2016 campaign season.  Yet, with all of the talk of making America safe/great, of reducing income inequality, of putting Americans back to work, of raising the minimum wage, there seems to be little to no mention of perhaps the fundamental factor in enabling the United States to find new (or former?) levels of success – the American education system!  Founding father Thomas Jefferson called for an “educated citizenry,” and that education – though very different in the 21stcentury – is even more important today than it was in the 18th century.    As was forecast by Adam Toffler in his 1970 novel Future Shock, our society is facing huge changes – changes which will probably accelerate in the next few decades as we move beyond the industrial era into an ever  more technologically-dependent situation.  To thrive in, or even to cope with, that technological era, citizens will need far more science understandings, far more math expertise than ever before.  Using the current buzz word, 21st century students need vastly enhanced STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills and understanding.

When I was in school in the 1960s, I was strongly moved by Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring.  In that book, she clearly illustrated the impact of synthetic pesticides which were poisoning the environment.  Despite strong pressure from the chemical industry and even agriculture – along with government lethargy – that book was successful in eventually getting DDT banned, but only when the general public became informed.  Most of our modern inventions have both positive and negative attributes, and it is essential that citizens have the wherewithal – both individually and collectively – to consciously conduct cost benefit analyses.

For example, we all are bombarded with television pharmaceutical advertisements which promise relief, cures, etc. while fast-forwarding through a plethora of risks and potential side-effects.  A 21st century citizen of the United States needs to be equipped with enough science background and enough statistics background to make good personal judgments.  With the successful mapping of the genome, we are learning that all of us have some mutant cells and some predispositions; equipped with that information – and the necessary educational background to understand it all – our children should be able to make informed decisions about their own health and that of their aging loved ones.  With the reality of genetically-modified crops, don’t we want all citizens to be able to make informed decisions about the relative safety of their food?

Water is fundamental to life, yet it is a finite resource.  A recent study in the “Scientific American” noted that “only half of drugs are removed by sewage treatment plants.”  In fact, it is estimated that the drinking water in New Orleans, at the mouth of the Mississippi, has been through seven people by the time it comes out of the faucets in homes.  I recently heard a nurse urging someone “to flush” unused opiates to keep them out of the hands of youth; shouldn’t everyone understand the consequences of such actions on the general population, on fish, on wildlife, on the water.  While we are blessed in Delaware with relatively abundant water supplies, we also have thousands of failing septic systems which threaten that supply, and our students are not being taught what should and should not go through those systems.  The biology and chemistry which we were taught years ago must be upgraded!

Like it or not, everyone is dependent upon computer technology.  Bank books and stock certificates are a thing of the past.  Even several years ago, Steve Jobs said, “computer science is a liberal art” that “everyone should have a mastery of to some extent.”  There are literally millions of coding jobs which are being sent “off shore” because not enough Americans have the skills.  Coding is taught in only 10% of the high schools in the USA.  While we fine-tune [Common Core!] basic standards in English and math, we are largely ignoring computer science; Delaware does not have rigorous computer science standards and fully 20% of students’ homes lack access to the Internet.

Scientists are creating new synthetic materials and composites to improve our lives.  Look at what our automobiles are made of.  Look at the potential of the technology of 3-D printers.  Yet, like almost any new invention, there are potential pitfalls and by-products.  Educated citizens must demand appropriate protections and testings, while ensuring that competing traditional methods do not un-duly hinder legitimate progress.

Our politicians will proudly point to the American’s historical “pioneer spirit” and “Yankee ingenuity;” yet we see that dozens of countries across the globe are working harder and smarter to dominate the 21st century.  While we can yearn for the great factory jobs of the 20thcentury, robotics has largely replaced those jobs, and the ones that still remain can be accomplished much cheaper in developing countries.  For our youth to compete on a global scale, they need first class STEM skills; look at the job market today – STEM jobs are paying high wages while those without technical skills are falling out of or to the bottom of the middle class.  This situation is a reality of the 21st century!  Yet, even aside from employment issues, each individual needs a firm grounding in science and technology to function effectively as a citizen in the USA.  Do you know how well your local schools are doing in providing students with a sound STEM foundation?  Engage those politicians who seek your vote and force them beyond the platitudes of “improving education” into significant and specific plans and ideas for establishing STEM competency in all of our students.

Dr. Schwartz is a retired English teacher and public school administrator living in Seaford; he is a past president of the Delaware Foundation for Math & Science Education.