Why We Really Need Participatory STEM Education

In my role as Executive Director of San Francisco's Exploratorium -- and as someone long active in science education policy -- I'm often asked whether I believe the answer to our current economic slump is a renewed focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education. My honest answer is that, while I believe that STEM may result in more engineers, programmers and scientists, its true benefit will be that it will make us a stronger, smarter, more productive society -- if such learning is participatory and inquiry-based.

A great society is founded not on quick answers but on hard questions. The sort of STEM learning I advocate inspires a deeper level of thinking and learning that can be applied to a wide range of industries, professions, and fields. The spirit of critical thinking and independent reasoning that comes from personal inquiry results in stronger, more imaginative industries, which leads to a healthier economy.

In examining the best way out of our current economic crisis, we need to take the long view. Following the systemic job losses we've seen, not just over the past four years but a decade or two, entire industries have disappeared and those jobs, whether replaced by foreign workers, machines, software, or greater productivity per employee, are gone forever. Meanwhile, the workforce is scrambling to apply once in-demand skills to any viable sector of the economy where those skills no longer apply.

This short view has infiltrated our education systems as well. Instead of focusing on engagement, enrichment and creative thinking, students are being encouraged to study solely for the test, and keep employment as their ultimate goal. While this may work for the short term, it is not a viable long-term solution. The world of work is continuously evolving, and with new technologies and advancements, industries that may seem viable today may quickly change, or even disappear. And new industries that we can't even anticipate today may lead the way tomorrow.

A role of education in this society is to equip us not just to help us find a job today but a career -- and an approach towards learning -- for tomorrow. We need to equip our people with the skills to anticipate and react to change, to keep pace with however our economy changes. To do this, we need to encourage critical thinking across the board -- in our schools, yes, but in our current workforce as well. By transforming education from rote memory (teach to the test) to experiential, inquiry-based, we will further encourage innovation, flexibility, and creativity. We need a population of learners who aren't afraid to try, fail, and try again.

STEM education, and a particular emphasis on science, is key to this development. Science learning at its best encourages us to observe our surroundings, ask questions, and attempt to find solutions in indirect ways; a generation fluent in science's experiential and analytical skills is ultimately the key to the creation of jobs. And a good grasp of statistics and probability is our best defense against nefarious and sometimes deceitful claims.

Silicon Valley provides an excellent example of the value of risk-taking inquisitiveness. While much of the country has floundered, this region's job creation numbers are up, with a 3.8 percent increase as of 2011. While many of these jobs are directly related to the tech field, consider the larger reasons behind Silicon Valley's growth: It is populated by a community of innovators who are not afraid to take risks, who are not afraid to question convention and evaluate alternative hypotheses, and who are inspired by the opportunity to create new solutions for old problems.

Not all start-ups succeed -- in fact, most fail. But the curiosity-driven spirit behind these attempts is what keeps Silicon Valley's job market dynamic, and constantly growing. In addition to constantly creating a new pool of jobs, these innovative and critical-thinking instincts also helps people from various backgrounds find jobs within the space. Much of start-up work has to do with being intelligent, passionate, and creative, and being willing to dive in and learn as you go.

The early fostering of interests, skills, and talents in today's youth is the key to excellence in the long term, but reinvigorating this level of interest and engagement in adults is a way to address the issue of job creation now. We need to both invest for the future, in the earliest grades, and cultivate an environment that makes more people feel comfortable questioning the overall structure of things. We are in a recalibration period for a number of industries -- publishing, manufacturing -- and a population that feels comfortable thinking outside of conventions and accepted practices is essential.

The most meaningful learning tends to occur when students are encouraged to ask questions, experiment, make mistakes, and use their own resources to discover how and why things work. It doesn't have to be about getting the right answers, but about learning to question everything around us and coming to new answers. Science at its best is about learning to wonder and pursue our curiosity. It teaches us to think critically about the world around us -- one of the core skills named by the 21st Century Skills project as a key to success in school and beyond.

At the Exploratorium, our goal is to nurture that sense of wonder and help us to see with new eyes. We witness the excitement and passion visitors have when interacting with our exhibits constantly. This was the vision of Exploratorium founder Frank Oppenheimer: to instill a love of science and inquiry and make it accessible to everyone; to teach people to look at the world around them in new ways; to learn by doing and to play; and most importantly, to never stop asking questions. He wanted to create what he called learning addicts.

Imagine what the world would look like if this kind of excitement were an ubiquitous part of the classroom experience. Children would grow up equipped to ask hard questions, seek deeper knowledge, take risks, and tackle the challenges before us. Rediscovering this energy is exactly what we need in order to breathe new life into an economy in desperate need of direction.