STEM vs. STEAM? Preparing Students in the Tech Revolution.

One of the ongoing messages of this blog is the importance of Higher Education in forming the underlying cultural principles of our society. As we explore elements of change and challenge, we see the importance of considered analysis and discussion, a community based problem solving exercise and methods of compromise. In a recent post I discussed the role of Liberal Arts and the Humanities in our educational system and the many broad based skills and learning it contributes to society. In that post I mentioned my daughter, an Urban Designer in Tampa as an example of the importance of liberal arts skills along side technical ones. She recently attended a community event that dealt with the very same issues, and she has agreed to share her thoughts. She is a skillful blogger herself, so I agreed to post an article on her blog. If you are interested, take the opportunity to visit it here!

I was introduced to the STEM vs. STEAM debate this week through an exciting community forum that takes place bi-monthly in Tampa. This month’s “Not Your Average Speakers Series,” hosted by 83 Degrees Media, an online magazine that promotes the economic development of the Tampa metro area, included five local panelests involved in education, technology and the arts locally. With an engaged audience of teachers, business people, and others passionate about education, the discussion (and debate at times) was a thrilling introduction to the challenge of preparing students for the demands of the workplace today.

STEM stands for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics ” If you google STEM, you will see many groups at the national, state, and local level that are dedicated to closing the skills gap in the job market. Over the past decade, STEM jobs have tripled over the number of non STEM jobs. This movement was established and responded quickly with grants, technical assistance, and lobbying legislation to put an emphasis on transforming traditional education.

The America COMPETES Act recognizes the likelihood of the United States’ future inability to compete with foreign countries in STEM. It authorizes funding for NASA, NOAA, National Institute for Standards and Technology, National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, as well as education grants, fellowships, and training. US companies lobby Congress to allow more foreigners with advanced STEM degrees to have permanent resident status. Even departments like Homeland Security hold their own degree programs in STEM that allow people to remain the country for extended periods because their skills are so in demand.

One of the panelists, Terry Boehm, president of the Pinellas Education Foundation, is a strong proponent of STEM education and believes that tradition education is failing to engage students anymore, especially males. Additionally, he recognized that only 50% of students graduating from college work in a job where their degree in relevant. He believes we are missing our mark in how we teach our children and how we prepare them for the workforce.

There is no debate that America is not preparing their students enough for the types of expertise that are required as we move through our technology revolution – the debate lies in HOW we prepare our students and WHY.

Enter STEAM. STEAM stands for “science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics.” The objectives of the movement, championed by the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) is to exemplify how art and design education teaches the “flexible thinking, risk-taking and creative problem solving needed to solve today’s most complex and pressing challenges – from healthcare to urban revitalization to global warming.” Transforming research policy to place art and design at the center of STEM, encouraging integration of art and design in K–20 education, and influencing employers to hire artists and designers to drive innovation are immediate objectives of the movement. Included by many STEAM groups is philosophy, history, reading, writing and humanities and they can be incorporated with the arts to increase innovation through education.

Another panelist, Larry Thompson, the president of the Ringling College of Art and Design, is a strong proponent of STEAM stating that “in order to reclaim America’s creativity differentiator, we must be able to provide businesses with a workforce of imaginative employees who will pave the way to a new future in American business.” He believes, as do many, that studying arts teaches critical thinking, creativity, and a deeper understanding of the unquantifiable, all of which are a necessity in the global marketplace. While most would think that a college of art and design would focus on painting, sculpture, and drawing, they would see from the articles in Ringling’s most recent magazine that the school is engaged in preparing their students for the  market place. Fuel for Our Economic Future: Art, Design, and Creativity, Ringling College: Powering the Creative Economy, Smart Business: Think Like and Artist and Give Them What They Are Missing, Fostering Creativity and Innovation with Corporate Structures are all titles of articles written by Ringing faculty and alumni.This is clearly not your traditional arts institution.

Additionally, Wit Ostrenko, the president of the Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI) in Tampa emphasizes that creativity is at the heart of the sciences. Walk into the MOSI, and it appears to be like any science center for children, in fact it’s the 8th largest in the country. But the most popular part of the whole complex is the “Idea Zone: Dream It, Make It, Do It,” which will make up half the museum after future expansion. While the lab is based on STEM concepts, Mr. Ostrenko stresses that without creativity, there would be no big ideas.

During the conversation between panelists and audience members, we heard a wide variety of views on the issue through personal anecdotes, based on different belief systems. However, what surprised me most was a sentiment shared by the CEO of a website development company as well as Larry Langebrake, Director of SRI International’s regional marine biology laboratory in St. Petersburg. The CEO of the website development company said that they usually hire people with education in the arts instead of technology because computer science degree holders don’t know how to communicate their ideas or think critically about their work. Mr. Langebrake said that when he is interviewing someone he doesn’t even look at their technical experience or education, he focuses on the candidates ability to communicate their value – and therefore the potential value they will contribute to his company. Both of these high tech companies rely on people with a foundation in liberal arts education.

My journey through education has been discussed previously on this blog in a related post, but let me recap here. I am 29 years old, but it’s only in the last few years that I really hit my stride and found out how to fully incorporate my passions into my career. I am an urban designer and planner who works primarily for a transportation planning and engineering firm in Tampa. I am also a trained architect. All of these disciplines, urban design, urban planning, and especially architecture, require a deep understanding of math and technology. If it weren’t for an early exposure to the arts, however, I never would be in the career I am in today – retrofitting our cities, roads, and infrastructure to accomodate our transforming communities and industries. When given the choice between a technical professional BARCH degree in architecture, or a BA in Architecture, which would allow me to have a stronger foundation in the liberal arts, including minors in psychology and religious studies, I chose the latter. Now, I am a confident professional woman who has beat out the competition because I could write and express my value to my employeer, and felt comfortable doing so.

My sentiment, shared by Larry Thompson, Wit Ostrenko, and Larry Langebrake, was prevalent among members of the audience. However, three more came to the surface regarding the education system. First was testing. A decade long policy change in the federal education system means that a student in public school endures 27 days of testing in a 180 day school year, while a student in private school endures 3. In addition to those 27 days, there are many more that are geared towards preparing for the tests. Through school rankings and funding, current education policy devalues the profession of a teacher and their ability to truly teach.

Additionally, the issue of “siloing” our children at a young age was raised continuously throughout the evening. Public schools that emphasize science, technology, and math for children as young as elementary age are becoming more prevalent as the push for STEM education continues. The fear is that at the youngest age, students are being deprived of a strong liberal arts foundation that could not only narrow their exposure to exploring their natural skill set, but hinder their ability to learn basic communication skills.

Finally, the rising cost of education paired with the competitive job market as a deterrent for college students choosing their major was a topic of conversation. The room fell silent when a young woman explained that she had always wanted to be a film director and had  planned to go to film school. With people in her life telling her over and over again that she would never have a lucrative career and live as a starving artist, she instead enrolled in law school. The recession hit with lawyers suffering greatly. Now she is unemployed with $2o0,000 in debt that she can’t pay – and she instead is starving herself of what she considers her true passion in life.

Subsequently, the room grew tense when an audience member stated that there wasn’t one person in grad school who hadn’t chosen their masters program based on how much money they would make when they graduated. He believed that for parents to tell their children to “follow their dreams,” despite all else was wrong and unrealistic. Larry Thompson, strongly objected, as did I. I had the great fortune of having parents that told me that I could be the richest person in the world, but if when I went to work every day I didn’t feel as though I was doing what I loved or my work wasn’t an extension of myself that I would indeed have a life of unhappiness. I did follow my dreams, and while the job market has been challenging at times, I have always found a deep satisfaction in knowing that my talents were meeting the demands of the world – and that is something that is priceless.

In fact, the STEM vs. STEAM debate is not as simple as solving the equation of education responding to the job market. It’s a passionate and emotional debate about our children being given the opportunity to fully explore their own identity, talents, and ability to change the world, through learning in the classroom. By taking away that class in creative writing from the future Shakespeare for more time in the lab, or depriving the future Yo-Yo Ma from that cello lesson for math club, we could in fact be depriving our future economy of the talent that it needs to survive.

The STEM vs. STEAM debate will live on. There is no doubt that our education system is not doing the trick. It must be changed to let teachers teach and children to learn, but I would argue there is no reason to hastily dismember the broad and strong education foundation that has served us well until now without being sure of the impact that it will have on our future generation, economy, and ability to compete in the global market.

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver & Associates. She is also the author of At the Helm of the Public Realm, a blog about urban design, urban planning, and the built environment. 

Is Higher Ed really all about the jobs?

Every day I come across another article criticizing the Higher Ed community for the inequities in preparing fresh graduates for jobs. Every facet of the education community is facing the same challenge related to its graduates – how to make sure they achieve gainful employment. It seems this is the second shoe falling after the diploma is presented. And I believe it is dreadfully misguided, at least in its minimizing the promise of a liberal arts education and focusing on employment as the only purpose of higher education.

In the propriety school segment, the attacks of the Department of Education are about the massive default on student debt, driven by the failure of such graduates to find “gainful employment”. In traditional schools, student retention is a continual problem, especially as students have given up on their dreams to have a profession of choice. A fast food job or plant worker job is not considered as “gainful employment “even if they bring in a modest wage. A recent survey showed that 41% of jobs taken by recent graduates did not require a college degree. Now all universities have been compelled to expand their job related support and structured guidance on the employment process. More importantly, business and technical degrees are being emphasized and expanded because they are met with much better job prospects than liberal arts programs. Parents and students are just not willing to incur large educational loans unless there is some hope of a resulting job that will provide enough income to pay back the debt while building a household. This is causing many universities to downsize the Humanities Departments and cut back on liberal arts programs.

A few years my family faced a similar dilemma when my daughter had to decide where to attend college and which program would best meet her needs. Although I certainly wanted my daughter to end up with “gainful employment”, I was just as motivated by the desire that she have a broad based, liberal arts foundation to make her a better, more intellectual and thoughtful member of society. We had our focus on the long term goals, not the immediate ones.

My daughter wanted very much to be an architect and make decisions about designing, building and developing properties. She had choices between two kinds of programs: (1) a technical based five-year Bachelor of Architecture program that provided maximum technical coverage (no room for electives), with better job prospects; or (2) a more humanities based Bachelor of Arts degree with significant liberal arts input, although it would require two additional years to be a licensed architect.  She chose the latter program, even though the job prospects were not as robust. That decision was made based upon the value she and my entire family placed on a liberal arts education.

A colleague and strong Humanities advocate, Charles Walker, recently shared with me his view on a liberal arts education in his article included in a University publication at

As it turns out, the factors addressed there mirrored the thoughtful discussions that my family and I utilized in our own attempts to balance (1) an education that provides a technical, job ready set of skills and knowledge against (2) a well rounded humanities program in the tradition of classic liberal arts education. Although the former technical program would provide better preparation for the first job after college, the second offered greater support for longer term career growth and success. How so?

Critical thinking skills – All the humanities courses require reading in both historical and current texts, exercising critical thought in analysis and understanding. And exercising the mind in one functional area sharpens the mind in every functional area! You develop the skill of learning for yourself, of being able to think for yourself and make considered decisions! Humanities will teach you how to think, which is to say, it will teach you how to live. Decision making and problem solving really are the essence of management responsibility. And this benefit alone makes such an education more practical and useful than any job-specific training ever could.

Cultural Sensitivity – “Students in humanities study a curriculum which covers the breadth of the human experience throughout history,” Walker says, explaining that the material helps “develop an appreciation for other cultures across different races and backgrounds.” A thorough knowledge of a wide range of cultures, organizations, events, philosophies, and possibilities makes the phenomena of life appear more coherent and understandable. This diversity of learning forms a context that is crucial for full understanding and a general knowledge of the world provides that context. How much better will the decision maker be able to succeed in a globalized, technologically expanding business climate?

Ability to Research – Your real education at college will not consist merely of acquiring a giant pile of facts while you are here; it will be in the skill of learning itself. Knowledge builds upon knowledge. When you learn something, your brain remembers how you learned it and sets up new pathways, and if necessary, new categories, to make future learning faster. Knowledge of many subject areas provides a cross fertilization of ideas, a fullness of mind that produces new ideas and better understanding. This means the decisions made will be of higher quality, with greater insight and more human understanding.

And in addition:

Enhancing Creativity – Knowledge of many subject areas provides a cross fertilization of ideas, a fullness of mind that produces new ideas and better understanding. Those sudden realizations, those solutions seemingly out of nowhere, are really almost always the product of the mind working unconsciously on a problem and using materials stored up through long study and conscious thought. The greater the storehouse of your knowledge, and the wider its range, the more creative you will be. The interactions of diversified knowledge are so subtle and so sophisticated that their results cannot be predicted.

Life, itself, is a whole – Most jobs, most endeavors, really require more knowledge than that of one field. It will help you see and feel your defects and to change yourself, to be a better citizen, spouse, human being. Wisdom is seeing life whole–meaning that every realm of knowledge must be consulted to discover a full truth. Knowledge leads to wise action and to an understanding of human nature.

Liberal arts will bring you happiness – A cultivated mind enjoys itself and the arts. The extensive but increasingly neglected culture of western civilization provides endless material for pleasure and improvement. A deep appreciation of painting or sculpture or literature, of symbolism, wit, figurative language, historical allusion, character and personality, this is open to the mind that can understand and enjoy it. Knowledge makes you smarter and smarter is happier. Recent research has demonstrated that contrary to previous ideas, intelligence can actually increase through study and learning. Educated and intelligent people have, statistically, happier marriages, less loneliness, lower rates of depression and mental illness, and a higher reported degree of satisfaction with life.

My daughter? She entered the Bachelor of Arts in Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis. Her first class was not about drawing plans or using computer graphics, or understanding design relationships or strengths of materials. Rather it was devoted to walking through and understanding failing neighborhoods, discerning how they no long provided linkage to the citizens, trying to understand what steps could rebuild a sense of place and belonging that would restore the urban fabric long since missing from the neighborhood. What is the role of place, of connections, in defining our living areas and our civilization?

These are broad questions, worthy of a broad based and culturally rich solution. Now my daughter is an Urban Designer with a transportation and community planning company. Although she regularly uses the architectural skill of her technical education, it is the liberal arts knowledge and insight that allow her to make a real difference in the communities and cities she serves.

In the long run, the power of a strong liberal arts tradition and grounding in the humanities will make our world a better place.

Welcome to the Exchange!

Speaking to you from the Exchange…this is Joe McGirt! Welcome to The Academic Exchange: Reflections on Higher Education, a blog on the varied aspects of Higher Education and the issues that are the primary catalyst in this time of reflection and change. I am a 40 year veteran of classroom instruction in higher education and a 10 year veteran of the crucible called Academic Administration. My training includes undergraduate degrees from the University of North Carolina and Indiana University, an MBA from Harvard Business School and a Juris Doctor from the University of North Carolina. I have had a full and varied career in fields from Management, Law Practice and Entrepreneurism to Academic Administration. I am a lover of teaching and education and the adult students I teach most every night. I hope to create a place where professionals, teachers, students, and people interested in the academic world can discuss their views of every aspect of higher education…curriculum, classroom assessment, retention and persistence, technology, financial aid, student support, classroom management, adaptive learning, MOOCs and many more.

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