Forget STEM, the future needs THEM

Students at unnamed university responding to a professor's question, “How many of you are HTML programmers?”, colorized, 2019. Just kidding, its actually by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

hen I started writing this piece, I began with a long and artful intro trying to compare the future of coding to being a coal miner; A fledgling, flailing, and failing endeavor that pays horribly and probably kills you. I eventually scrapped the idea, though I still like it, because it honestly didn’t cut to the point fast enough. So here it is:

Not everyone needs to learn how to code. But everyone does need to learn how to be a thoughtful and responsible technology user. We do not need a deluge of poorly trained developers unleashed into the world under the guise of STEM. Rather, we need:

  1. Digital Citizens who understand the application of science and technology and its intersection with humanity (explored through the humanities).
  2. Upskilled Technologists who can build new and better ways to solve problems through the application of science & technology (which includes, but is not limited to, the application of code).
  3. Technical Ethicists who are educated to consider the ethical and moral implications of technology, regardless of their technical expertise.

I propose we stop abusing the STEM concept for cheap money grabs and daycare coding boot-camps in favor of a humanities-inclusive technology curriculum centered around THEM — Technology, Humanities, Ethics, & Morality.

Hard sciences, engineering, and mathematics should receive the attention they deserve without the baggage and abuses levied by STEM-enthusiast coding programs. Someone else can give them the fun acronym they deserve.

The Problem STEM’s From..

“Everyone in this country should learn how to program because it teaches you how to think.” — Steve Jobs.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) has become the new money grab. Everyone needs to be STEMing and STEM needs to be for everyone. On one hand this is great, for the most part, as we always need to keep diversity flowing into traditionally non-diverse fields. But my biggest complaint about the current STEM movement is that it seems hyper-focused on teaching kids to code, rather than teaching kids to appreciate technology in its entirety.

Not a lot of effort is going towards hackathons to empower future civil engineers. There are no Capture-the-Flag competitions held at water treatment plants, or Red Bull-fueled 48 hour development challenges for aspiring mathematicians. STEM has become a red herring for re-imagining the school to prison pipeline for Java enthusiasts.

A small number of STEM programs are spearheaded by non-profits or educational institutions, and they’re fine for the most part. But, there are too many others that are run by for-profit companies that have zero interest in bettering society and every bit of interest in converting kids to cash crops.

Running Out of STEAM..

I am not novel in my lack of appreciation for the STEM concept. Other people were frustrated with STEM’s lack of awareness for art and culture, and so we arrived at STEAM. This is just a version of STEM that’s trying not to hurt anyone's feelings. The “Arts” in STEAM has been widely interpreted to mean classical arts (e.g. painting), scientific art (e.g. growing crystals), the arts and humanities as a whole (e.g. psychology majors), or creative marketing endeavors (e.g. I don’t know, ask a creative marketer).

Art was cleverly shoehorned into STEM by claims that it addressed art and design in technology, by touting the benefits and necessity of communications skills among STEM enthusiasts, and by encouraging creative planning and problem solving among engineering, math, and science students. I also had someone once tell me it was just a ploy to help UI/UX designers get more scholarships.

Like everything else, this isn’t inherently bad so much as it is inherently disingenuous. It falsely leads to the notion that these types of programs are designed and implemented with traditional art students in mind, or, worse yet, that these programs consider being an artist as equal to being an engineer. They don’t.

In reality, many of these programs are designed almost entirely around the concept of addressing the supposed employment gap for developers and IT professionals, which is in itself just a side effect of the poorly managed recruitment culture that seems to permeate IT more so than any other field.

A STREAM Of Consciousness..

In what I can only assume was a shear fit of rage, someone actually invented STREAM. The R in STREAM represents Reading, or maybe wRiting, or maybe cuRRiculum because that’s basically where we’ve landed; someone’s bright idea that we should start teaching the core logical concepts we already teach, but maybe extra science-y.

Created by C. Raymond Cruz using imgflip.com. April 2020.

For what it’s worth, this monstrosity was likely born to drive STEM concepts in very small children who are also still learning how to read. Though if they can read COBOL, we can probably skip Dr. Seuss.

This paints a couple obvious flaws in the entire process. The first is utilizing STEM as the entire foundation upon which modern education will be built. I hate this, because I do not believe the inherent purpose of education today is to produce engineering experts. Core education is meant to build ways of thinking, not job candidates

The second flaw is that the disingenuous nature of most STEM programs means anything built upon the concept will ultimately lead back to the first flaw; producing job applicants over thoughtful people. Sadly many of the great and influential minds in STEM aren’t teaching much, they’re working within the private sector and charging large sums for guest appearances. The leaders that do teach reside at prestigious universities reserved for the top 1% of students. Those lucky enough to learn from them directly aren’t often paying it forward, and the rest of us have to scrounge up what knowledge is left from their book deals and YouTube recordings. If you’re already passionate about STEM, this is fine, but it’s not doing young aspiring STEM students any favors.

This means the greatest parts of STEM, the parts that were meant to inspire more young people to be biologists and civil engineers and mathematicians, are utterly lost in the cyberspace race we’ve been cornered into.

It’s Us Versus THEM..

So where does that leave us? Well.. nowhere, really. One of the valuable lessons I’ve learned in my professional career is that simply pointing out the problem is not sufficient. We must both identify the problem and provide some sort of solution. Even if that solution is not perfect, it represents a starting point, a seed from which better solutions may grow.

Since everyone else got to make goofy acronyms without my input, it would only seem fair that I get the same opportunity. Hence we arrive at THEM:

Technology

Humanities

Ethics

Morality

Technology

The technology area of the curriculum is meant to do two things. First, infuse the concept of science and technology into all core education. With the growing ubiquity of technology in nearly every field, and honestly, nearly every aspect of our personal lives, it’s either sheer laziness or purposeful disgruntlement that keeps educators from better incorporating basic sci-tech concepts into learning. This is really what STEM was supposed to be doing, and it certainly tries. But C++ puzzles and object-oriented coloring books don’t cut it in the slightest. They sell the idea of STEM short by an insultingly large margin.

If you’re child is enrolled in STEM education that has skipped over age-appropriate introductions to the scientific method or fact-based reasoning in lieu of Kubernates, request a refund.

Phippy, Goldie, Captain Kube, and The Children’s Illustrated Guide to Kubernates are copyright The Linux Foundation, on behalf of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation. They are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY). See phippy.io.

Second, the goal of a technology curriculum should have very little to do with coding, and everything to do with creating good stewards of technology, or true technologists. Much like how being a landscaper wouldn’t inherently make you an environmentalist, I would argue that being a coder doesn’t inherently make you a technologist. Coding is one option, for sure, but is not the core nor the requirement. Privacy advocates, user experience designers, policy specialists, documentation writers; these all have a core part to play in technology use and adoption without necessitating the need for code. It also opens up a wider definition of “coding” to get away from the object-oriented approach and better embrace scripting, automation, and storytelling.

I would take 5 people who know SQL, Python, and Tableu over 50 C# developers most days of the week.

Humanities

STEM has given the humanities such a bad rap, that even Obama couldn’t help but kick it while it was down. In 2014, he made a slightly snide remark at the expense of Art History majors:

“But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree. Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree — I love art history. So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody.” — Former President Barack Obama.

This view permeates from many; that somehow art or science can only be successful if the other isn’t. Or that success is defined by the number on your paycheck. Or that Art History, really representing the humanities as a whole, is somehow not a useful endeavor, or at least not as useful as STEM. I hate this outlook.

Writing code is a creative endeavor. Just as Van Gogh swirled thick pastels captured in canvas to create Starry Night, so do coders forge loops and logic in vague mathematical arguments captured in text. If we taught code like we taught art, as a creative outlet for personal growth and development, I probably wouldn’t be writing this piece in the first place. Sadly I haven’t seen many who agree with that sentiment. Instead, we find ourselves stuck somewhere between..

“People don’t care about what you say, they care about what you build.” — Mark Zuckerberg

and..

“Talk is cheap. Show me the code.” — Linus Torvalds

Ethics & Morality

Ethics and Morality are not the same. I knew as much when I initially came up with the STEM vs THEM concept, but I honestly couldn’t articulate why. As it turns out, despite being intrinsically connected, they have notably different definitions. To over simplify things, ethics can be thought of as the rules or principles which dictate how an individual or group act within society. Morals, on the other hand, represent our own personal rules or principles that dictate our own notions of right and wrong.

I can’t imagine many concepts more important than these that should lie within the bedrock of education, whether children or graduate students. Our own measures of ethics and morals fluctuate throughout our lives. They are molded by our shared and individual experiences, and are driven by things beyond our own control or comprehension. Add the ubiquity of technology to that mix, with its ability to completely reshape the ways in which we interact with the world around us, and it seems all the more clear how badly we need to instill the fundamental skills of ethical and moral reasoning within technology.

What Goes Around..

I used a quote from Steve Jobs in the beginning of this piece. It was meant to highlight the aggressive approach many Silicon Valley greats have taken toward STEM today, as a vestige for coding rather than something greater, something for all of us. That quote in particular is often taken out of context, just as I had done. Immediately after that quoted statement, he goes on to say that “computer science is an art” and pines for a time when everyone is required to take a computer science class as part of their education.

This trailing thought is often left on the cutting room floor, but it’s easily much more powerful than the words that precede it. It’s brevity offers us only a small glimpse of this idea rattling around in his mind, but, another quote of his manages to spell it out much more clearly. I think this one cuts quicker to the heart of the issue, and it probably looks just as good on a fancy black background next to that gray-scale photo we all know.

It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing. — Steve Jobs.

Computers, Culture, Crime, and occasionally Cake.

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