This summer I had the privilege of going to Scifoo, where I met interesting folks and heard about a lot of interesting successes in science. But my story here involves something that was rather less than success. One session was about education, and set itself to address the question, “How can we better motivate youth to enter the sciences and engineering?” As I listened to an influential policymaker, I became more convinced than ever that policymakers really aren’t the people who should be answering this question—they don’t know how to inspire scientists. And it struck me that the preceding session in that very same room, wherein a presenter showed us his mind-searing video taking the viewer on a “flight” through a brain replete with hundreds of thousands of real-data-generated neurons, implicitly had the answer. So did Carl Sagan and his influential PBS show, Cosmos:
The trouble begins with a central term used among those who think about science and technology education. That word is “STEM,” and it is an acronym for “science, technology, engineering and mathematics.” On one level, the term makes perfect sense: there is a core set of technical skills that each of those in STEM must acquire. But there are big differences within the group. Engineers and scientists tend to be different sorts of folks. They require very different sorts of training. And they lead fundamentally different sorts of work lives.