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Why STEM Matters, Part 1: Science

If you’ve even partially paid attention to the world of education in the last few years, you’ve probably heard the term “STEM” thrown around.  As with many education buzzwords, some people love it, some hate it, and some are just pretending that they know what it means.  But there’s real value in the push for STEM concepts and STEM curricula to be implemented in our schools, and it has everything to do with what STEM truly stands for.

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math are the four disciplines of STEM.  People are often surprised to see these being pushed in elementary and secondary schools: Isn’t engineering something you study in college?  Kids are naturals when it comes to technology, why do we need to waste time teaching them about it?  There’s also the tendency to lump the first three together into “science class” and leave lonely old Math out there for “math class.”  However, each part of STEM is intricately connected to the others and together they enable a worldview that is beneficial to anyone who wants to thrive on our planet, not just those who want to be scientists and engineers.  In upcoming posts, we’ll talk about each of these disciplines in more detail to understand what makes them so necessary to education.  First up: Science.

Science is a way of viewing the world empirically.  Things and events can be described qualitatively and quantitatively; cause and effect can be established; complex chains of events can be distilled into their fundamental characteristics; and most importantly, explanations can be derived for any event or thing we observe in the natural world.  Science has no room for miracles or magic, since these by definition have no explanation.  Things fantastical or metaphysical don’t hold up to even a brief scientific investigation: Harry Potter needs some sort of propulsion system or that broom isn’t going anywhere, and exposure to gamma rays turns you into a cancer patient instead of the Incredible Hulk.

Within the natural world, though, if you can’t explain a phenomenon with science, that’s just because science hasn’t advanced enough to explain it yet.  Just over a century ago, physics was a dying field.  Newton’s Laws of Motion had already explained how all physical objects move, and Maxwell’s equations had satisfactorily explained the less visible concepts of electricity, magnetism, light, and electromagnetic radiation.  Then a patent clerk in Switzerland, working on some equations in his spare time, completely changed the way we understand physics with a series of four papers that said, among other things, that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared (E=mc2).  Suddenly there were all kinds of new questions that we didn’t even know needed answers!  In the century since, many have been answered, but many still remain.

We now know that atoms are made of protons and electrons, which in turn are made of quarks. What’s a quark made of?  No clue, but we’re working on it.  We know that the Earth’s surface is made up of tectonic plates that move at a few inches a year, about as fast as your fingernails grow.  But what causes them to move?  We’re working on that too.  There are so many things left to discover, and so many questions out there for future scientists to answer. This never-ending quest to find out something new is what makes science exciting, whether you’re expanding your own personal understanding or adding to the collective knowledge of the human race.

Students need that curiosity, that drive to learn, that ambition to reach beyond that which they think they can achieve.  They need those new experiences that increase their knowledge of the world around them, allowing them to make better inferences and design new experiments to test new hypotheses.  These students grow to be adults who reject illogical arguments, are skeptical of pseudoscientific advertisements, think critically about about the world around them, and are more informed citizens and voters.  We may need some students to eventually become scientists, but we need all students to think like scientists.

stem bricks kid

Explaining (non-magical/fantastical) things with science is based on turning observations into inferences.  We do this all the time, we just don’t think about it.  Do you know the man in the picture at left?  You may instantly recognize him, or perhaps you have to think for a moment.  Maybe you still can’t work it out, even if I tell you that you’ve definitely seen a picture of this man before.  Still struggling?  Once I say that it’s Gandhi, you can no longer look at the picture without seeing the resemblance to the photos you’ve undoubtedly seen of the much older man (minus mustache, plus glasses) who this young man would grow up to be.

This is an example of how scientific thought works: our current observations are combined with information we have from past experiences to develop answers to questions.  However, without relevant past experience (for example, if you’ve never seen a photo of Gandhi at all), you might not be able to make the right inference, no matter how many observations you make.  There’s an easy way to avoid that, though: keep observing the world around you and you’ll be able to answer more and more questions.

Understanding anything (The difference between a salad fork and a dinner fork? An Audi and a BMW?  Plagioclase and potassium feldspar?) is just a matter of having the prior experience that’s applicable in the particular situation.  Fashion-conscious people can tell the difference between boot-cut and slim-fit jeans.  Flavor-conscious people can pick out tarragon as one of many flavors in a meal.  Rhythm-conscious people notice when a song is in 5/8 time signature.  The only barrier to being able to do any of these things and more is the number of experiences you’ve had in a particular field.  This is a fact every student needs to understand: even your biggest weaknesses are conquerable through experience, and no one starts out as an expert in anything.

Science can be used to explain nearly any phenomenon in the Universe, but it does have some jobs that are beyond it.  Science will never explain romantic love, or be able to say whether a criminal’s sentence or judge’s decision was just, or assert or deny the existence of a divine being of any kind.  Thankfully, there are plenty of poets, lawyers, clergy, and philosophers who are more than capable of explaining these things in compelling, but ultimately unscientific, terms.

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