STEM Alone Is Not Enough

If one does a general Google search for STEM, there will be more than 60 million results. If you narrow the search to STEM education news, more than 70,000 articles will appear for the past year alone. The interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education has clearly become a national interest and priority, beginning as early as 2006 when President George W. Bush announced the American Competitiveness Initiative in his State of the Union message. President Obama has repeatedly called for and introduced legislation to support STEM education, and just recently, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the STEM Education Act of 2014.

The concerns of presidents past and present are about a changing economy and America's role in that economy. Those concerns are absolutely important and valid. And, the development of STEM education is important so Americans will be able to take their place in a changing work force.

But there is something missing -- something that so far is absent from the STEM education discussion. The fields of science and technology alone do not tell human beings how to use the knowledge or the technology. There is no formula for that. Rather, how knowledge and technology are used is framed by the moral values people hold. This is evident in the evolving technologies of warfare. The development of obliteration bombing of civilian populations in World War II raised significant ethical questions that science and technology alone could not answer. Another example, the development of the atomic bomb -- its delivery and long-term effects -- also raised significant ethical questions which went beyond the pale of science and technology.

One of the reasons knowledge and technology have advanced so much in the last century is that we have narrowed our fields of investigation. So it is not surprising that, science and its developing technologies alone cannot ask or answer the questions of how or when such technological developments can or should be used.

The use of technology, in any area of life, reflects the values we hold. Whether it is the technology of the latest iPhone to the technologies of life-saving interventions in medicine, the instructions for the technologies do not come with instructions on when they should be used. So when we are distracted from a meeting or a conversation by the newest messages on our communications device we are -- even if we do not recognize it -- reflecting our moral values.

Bioethics, my own field of expertise, was born because of the evolution in science and technology in medicine. We have continually increased our ability to diagnose and treat. Every time I teach a course on bioethics to students at Loyola University New Orleans, I point out that all of our knowledge does not tell us when to use, or stop using, our technological capabilities. These are the painful questions which are too often part of heartbreaking end-of-life controversies and this is why the patient's voice and values are so important in making decisions when we use medical technology.

I should be clear that, in a diverse society like the United States, there will often be a variety of answers to the value questions when they are asked. Science and technology often come with a clear sense of what to do when such knowledge is used. But, these areas of knowledge, by themselves, do not ask when we should actually do things. While it is important that society educate women and men in the areas of science and technology, it is also important that we educate people to ask the questions about when to use such knowledge.