It seems fair to guess that innovation is tied to education, although the exact correlation is harder to track, given changes in our education system since 1790. Certainly the belief that innovation (and its related economic energy) relies on adequate education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) underlies our anxiety over declining STEM preparation.
This anxiety has an odd counterpart in the current hand-wringing over the cost/benefit ratio of higher education. Demand for STEM professionals keeps rising, yet parents and students worry whether a college degree will lead to a productive career. ACT has even released a report on students who have demonstrable interested in STEM, yet don’t plan to pursue further STEM education or careers.
Could these storm clouds collide and produce an upside for colleges and universities, especially those strong in the liberal arts, who might have the teachers and campus culture to move even under-prepared students toward STEM fields? One writer has gathered anecdotal evidence that students’ stereotypes about scientists often block their interests in STEM. Colleges with vibrant, creative campuses could persuade students that a career in STEM doesn’t mean they have to give up an interest in art, music, or, well, a life.
Other misconceptions may have to do with learning itself. This past January while visiting Morehead State University in Kentucky, I heard the actress and neuroscientist Mayim Bialik speak to a packed auditorium about her experiences in education, research, and Hollywood. She talked about how, in high school, she didn’t think she was good at math because it didn’t come easily to her. She pushed through that misconception and gained fluency in mathematics, the language that describes the universe, on her way to earning a PhD.
I think there’s more to hope for in STEM education and I think we’ll meet the challenge. Coming up later this month is the largest STEM education event in the U.S., which expects to see 350,000 visitors over four days, which is about the same attendance rate as the Iowa State Fair.