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(The RAND Blog)

March 31, 2014

Instead of Promoting STEM Education Indiscriminately, Try This

by Rafiq Dossani

With all the evidence demonstrating the importance of STEM education for success in the 21st century, well-intentioned policymakers may be tempted to indiscriminately promote all STEM curricula, across all levels of education.

However, such an approach could unnecessarily pigeonhole students into specific career tracks, jeopardizing the flexibility they need to make informed decisions about their future.

Unpacking what STEM really means—beyond just an acronym for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics”—reveals that policymakers need to take a more nuanced approach.

But before we dive into those four little letters, we need to zoom out and consider how we define learning itself.

Bloom's taxonomy on cognitive learning (PDF) divides learning into six categories:

  • knowledge (e.g., knowing the rules for load-bearing in building construction)
  • comprehension (understanding why these rules work)
  • application (designing structures that meet load-bearing requirements)
  • analysis (comparing alternatives for achieving these requirements)
  • synthesis (assessing alternative technologies with different implications for cost and load-bearing)
  • evaluation (choosing the best option).

So how does this relate to STEM education?

The central characteristic of science and mathematics is a high level of abstraction: knowledge and comprehension, in Bloom's taxonomy. By contrast, engineering and technology involve a high level of actualization or representation, such as creating and implementing designs. These fall under Bloom's knowledge and application.

Of course, good engineers, scientists, and mathematicians all know how to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate, too. But their capacity to do so comes from their understanding of the higher-order disciplines of science and mathematics—not engineering.

Accordingly, science and mathematics education allows for a wider range of careers.

Math majors are a good example of this: Their top categories of employment (PDF) are teaching K-12 mathematics, insurance or financial analysis, computer systems design, and operations research analysis in manufacturing. Similarly, a physics major could work in the health care, manufacturing, and education fields, just to name a few possibilities.

By contrast, an engineering education tends to lead to highly specialized occupations and a narrower range of jobs overall. For example, an aerospace engineer can expect to find work developing, testing, and producing new aircraft—and probably doing little else.

None of this is to undersell the engineering field, which is full of high-paying, skilled positions that involve extremely important work. However, this dichotomy—engineering on one hand, science and mathematics on the other—has important implications for how STEM education should be emphasized and integrated.

Currently, many high schools consider it part of their STEM mission to teach engineering courses, such as computer programming. Some have even partnered with engineering companies to provide internships to students.

But high school curricula should stress science and mathematics—not engineering. This would provide aspiring engineers entering postsecondary education with a fundamental comprehension of the natural laws that influence the application of engineering principles.

Harvard University's advice to prospective students of the physical, life, and engineering sciences demonstrates this:

“…it is essential that you study chemistry and physics in secondary school. Your college work will build upon these courses. To be well-prepared for college, you should study secondary school science for four years if possible: a year of chemistry, physics, and biology, and a year of advanced work in one of these disciplines.”

So if high schools emphasized mathematics and science, graduates who transition to four-year colleges would face two broad choices: (1) major in science or mathematics to build on their skills in preparation for careers as analysts in business and manufacturing; or (2) major in engineering, business, health care, or other professional fields to learn about how to apply the science and mathematics concepts they already know and comprehend.

Students who choose the first option will benefit from less risk in the job market, since their skills apply to a wide range of industries. Those who choose the second option will have fewer choices but could benefit from high earnings in the short term, thanks to lucrative fields like computer science.

Students who wish to enter technical vocational fields, perhaps via community college, would also be better prepared to do so with a solid background in science and mathematics.

Vocational associate degrees at community colleges, which emphasize applications-intensive education, usually require only one course each in mathematics and sciences as part of their general education requirements. So if high schools don't adequately prepare this group in science and mathematics, they likely won't receive this knowledge elsewhere.

A more nuanced approach to promoting STEM that takes all of this into account would provide students with the base knowledge necessary to succeed in tomorrow's careers, as well as the flexibility to make decisions that best fit them.

Rafiq Dossani is a senior economist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. His research interests include: higher education, technology policy, and globalisation and innovation in services supply-chains. Previously, Dossani was director of the Stanford University Center for South Asia.