Is obsession with STEM making kids unimaginative robots?

Is obsession with STEM making kids unimaginative robots?

Over on Quartz, Darlena Cunha writes about concerns that a solitary focus on STEM is denying students the kinds of open-ended, experiences that a balance with the humanities could offer, going so far as to say that it turns students into robots.

Our intense focus on science, engineering, technology and math may have forced these subjects into a vacuum rather than tying them together with the humanities, according to Jamie Gillooly, a biology professor at the University of Florida. That comes at a cost to students’ creativity and critical thinking—qualities that are just as important in the laboratory as they are in an art studio.

“This idea that STEM is the only way is backwards,” he tells Quartz. “We produce a bunch of droids that way. Students get very little chance to write or express themselves. Everything we do is now knowledge-based.”

 “Students get very little chance to write or express themselves.” Gillooly is one of hundreds of educators trying to reintroduce arts and humanities to students pursuing STEM-based fields at US colleges and universities. In addition to his research and biology courses, Gillooly also teaches a humanities-based course that focuses on cultures across the globe and connects disciplines like art, dance, literature and social studies to technology and science …

“They’re so used to order and structure, and life isn’t like that. We’ve taken this notion of objectivity to the extreme.” “They’re so used to order and structure, and life isn’t like that,” Gillooly tells Quartz. “We’ve taken this notion of objectivity to the extreme.”

First, a quick reality check: given that graduation requirements have hardly changed, has the nation really focused on STEM to the exclusion of humanities of other subjects?

Would K-12 educators agree that the time spent on subjects has changed, or it it something else? The neverending drumbeat that test scores must increase, even for students already high-achieving?

In fact, a 2011 study by a researcher at the College of William & Mary found that creativity scores—as measured by a 90-minute series of creativity tasks known as the Torrance test—are falling in the US, even as IQs continue to rise. Dr. Kyung Hee Kim, an associate professor of innovation and creativity at William & Mary, analyzed 300,000 creativity scores of children and adults, collected between 1968 and 2008. She found that creativity scores had been rising along with IQ scores until 1990. But they have been dropping steadily through 2008, particularly in the elementary-school years of education.

There is no conclusive evidence pointing to a particular cause for the decline. But some speculate that schools’ failure to develop children’s creativity could be to blame. Another potential culprit: hours of screen time, during which kids have adventures mapped out for them rather than come up with activities on their own …

The biggest decline has been seen in students’ knack for “creative elaboration,” according to Kim’s research. This measure assesses people’s ability to take an idea and find novel ways to expand upon and interpret it—a skill that’s badly needed for success in STEM.

Cunha’s article reminds us of several important goals for our work with makers of all ages:

  1. Informal education can be free of the metrics and goals of formal education, including the relentless focus on test scores as a measure of success.
  2. While learning the big ideas of STEM fields is important if informal education is to have a permanent role in students’ learning, so are other, less obvious goals, like learning to shift, build upon, and adapt original designs.
  3. STEM is important, but so are other skills.

What do you think?


Image: “Tinker Toys” by Steve Webel on Flickr. CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0. 

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