SEEDing a New Kind of STEM

Most agree that the U.S. needs more students studying the STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering, and math. As U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has stated, "Inspiring all our students to be capable in math and science will help them contribute in an increasingly technology-based economy, and will also help America prepare the next generation of STEM professionals -- scientists, engineers, architects and technology professionals -- to ensure our competitiveness."

The Obama administration has initiated a 100Kin10 program intended to train 100,000 new STEM educators over the next 10 years. This comes in response to an expected increase "from about 6 million to 9 million jobs over the next decade," according to Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, that will demand STEM-related knowledge.

We need to ask, though, what kind of STEM we want to grow. If we germinate it from the same soil that gave rise to post-World-War-II American industry, we will simply grow more of what we already cannot sustain.

We do not need more scientists creating more high-fat processed foods or more technologists devising more efficient ways of killing people. Nor do we need more engineers figuring out how to enlarge our already enormous ecological footprint or more mathematicians inventing increasingly esoteric forms of financial arbitrage. The STEM fields do indeed contribute to our technology-based economy, but whether they do so for good or ill depends upon how we grow these new educational shoots and to what end.

As the dean of a design college, I find it encouraging that Secretary Duncan mentioned architects along with scientists, engineers, and technologists in his list of next-generation STEM professionals. This brings to mind the work of my colleague, John Maeda, President of the Rhode Island School of Design, who has led a national effort to turn STEM to STEAM, with the "A" expressing the need to add art and design into the mix. He and his colleagues make the excellent point that we not only need more scientific, mathematical, and technological know-how, but also more creativity and innovation skills that enable the future workforce to imagine entirely new ways of thinking, seeing, and making, rather than simply going along our current unsustainable and unhealthy path faster or more efficiently.

The change in abbreviation from STEM to STEAM, though, represents a troubling change in metaphor. STEM has a biological connotation that suggests growth and evolution, with the ability of these fields to adapt to changing conditions, much as the stem of a plant does in response to external stimuli. STEAM, in contrast, carries a mechanistic connotation, not just that of the steam engines that helped prompt the 19th century industrial revolution, but also to the phase change in heated water, which can either get captured as a fuel or evaporate into thin air without much effect.

Such metaphorical differences matter. The arts and design can have the effect of moving the STEM fields in a more sustainable and constructive direction, or they can simply make the increasingly toxic and untenable world we have created for ourselves more attractive and thus more acceptable. STEAM tends to cloud our vision more than clarify it, and I worry that simply adding the arts to STEM may not turn this educational initiative in the direction that it needs to go, however much I applaud the idea behind STEAM.

Instead, let me suggest a metaphor more related to the biological connotation of STEM and one that I think can help us ensure that the STEM fields take us in a better direction. Every STEM arises from a SEED, an abbreviation for Social, Economic, and Environmental Design. The SEED network consists of a group of architects and designers who argue that every decision we make in the future needs to follow the triple-bottom-line of bringing social and environmental benefits as well as economic ones. Had we taken social and environmental impacts into account over the last two hundred years of our industrial development, we would, without question, have created a world more socially just, environmentally friendly, and economically balanced than the one we have now.

So, as we rightly push to increase the number of students in the STEM fields, we need to SEED that growth with a different set of assumptions than the ones that have nourished those fields in the past.

We should do all we can to encourage students to imagine science that enables us not only to understand nature, but also to steward it; to innovate technology that helps us improve the quality of life not only of the wealthy, but also of the world's poor; to engage in engineering that allows us to do things not only more efficiently, but also in more culturally and climatically appropriate ways; and to devise mathematics that facilitates our ability to work not only smarter, but also more sensibly and sustainably.

This may strike some cynics as entirely too idealistic to take seriously. But for those of us who work with the "millennial" generation in the classroom everyday, I would argue that germinating STEM from this new SEED is precisely how we will get more students to study science, technology, engineering, and math. The current generation wants to improve the world and not just enrich the fat cats of finance or the captains of industry, and we will attract more students to the STEM disciplines not just with the lure of jobs, but with also a sense of this work having a meaningful and beneficial impact on their future. Millennials strike me as the most practical generation I've known, and there is nothing more pragmatic -- and more pressing -- than our designing a more socially just, environmentally sustainable, and economically equitable future for ourselves.

Thomas Fisher is Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.