At an event in Chicago this month, a rich and diverse group of experts was convened by Bill Cllinton to explore and develop concrete plans to improve STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education. During this event, President Clinton signed autographs in which he wrote “Explore and Discover!” – a wonderful expression that applies to science, but not to engineering. I’d be more convinced that engineering matters to him had he written “Invent and Build.”
Yes, there were representatives there from the Maker community, as well as some genuine engineers, but as far as most schools are concerned, STEM still means science and mathematics. And this problem is not restricted to the US; I find it in other countries as well. Perhaps it is because engineering graduates have chosen to not become school teachers, and the job falls to folks in other fields. But the confusion around the difference between science and engineering continues. Many teachers have no idea how to build anything from scratch. I had a teacher come into my office a few weeks ago. He saw a soldering iron on my desk and thought it was a microphone. And, unless you are convulsed with laughter at the previous sentence, you may want to ask when was the last time you designed and built something from scratch yourself.
Here are some ways to see how much you like to think like engineers. Do you have instructables.com bookmarked on your browser? Do you subscribe the Make Magazine? Do you know how to fix a leaky faucet? And more fundamentally, do you even care how to do things like this?
The practical side of education has historically been the role of the career and technical education schools. The academic schools have focused on headwork, as though this was enough. I argue that it is not nearly enough.
Personally, I’m working on some student projects in robotics because it introduced programming and building real things – two skills often left out of the academic school curriculum.
Now I have absolutely nothing against science and mathematics – I have degrees or minors in all four STEM fields, and respect them all. But I also do not get them confused. This confusion will hurt us!
We will continue to hear more about STEM until we are sick of it. It seems to me we should get serious about all four of these fields before that happens.