Is STEM the New Green?

Chris McLaughlin, real estate tycoon and man about town, comments here occasionally. He’s one of the few card-carrying important people who will debate/discuss my education writing with me. He’s a smart guy, and I enjoy the give and take. He also runs a company called Maximize Social Media, which helps companies build and sustain a presence within social networks.

Not long ago, Chris and I got into a texting chat over everyone’s favorite buzzcronym: STEM.

To shorten it, I basically said STEM is hyped, marketing crap aimed at suckers. It’s GREEN for Republicans. He came back with: no, no, we need people to invent Google, which is the typical argument one hears associated with STEM obsession. Innovation, economic dynamism, etc. JOBS.

With that in mind, I thought I’d show you job numbers — sourced roughly from Wikipedia — of a couple famous web economy companies compared to notable Polk companies/employers.

Facebook: 2,000-4,000
Lakeland Regional Medical Center: 4,600
Polk School System: 13,000
Google: 33,707
Publix: 152,000 (total); 9,000 in Polk

I think that makes for some fascinating juxtapositions. Our sexy transformative companies aren’t really job producers. Publix employs five times more people than Google. We need people to start Publixes.

Anyway, Chris would likely argue that Google, Facebook, etc. create entire new economic ecosystems in which companies like his can operate. That’s probably somewhat true, but I don’t think it’s true enough. Very few people, I submit, make a living off Google/Facebook/Apple who are not directly employed or paid by them. But perhaps I can be proven wrong.

And I want to ask Chris if he considers his Maximize Social Media a STEM company. Why or why not?

That’s the kind of question I want us to consider here. Let’s do some collective thinking about STEM and its value as an educational model. After all, Florida Polytechnic is supposed to become a STEM campus. What will that even mean in a practical sense? What makes an educational program STEMMY?

2010 Jan 30 #30

A student checks his robot at an USF in Lakeland Robobattle

Let’s start with the buzzword itself. It was apparently coined by Judith Ramaley during her tenure as assistant director of the education and human resources directorate at the National Science Foundation from 2001 to 2004.

It stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. My first reaction, as always, is to become skeptical of language that manipulates meaning for the sake of sound. These are all different concepts. Science and math are disciplines; engineering is a craft; technology is a product and a tool. You study the elements of and experiment within the first two. You practice engineering; it’s the only one of these words ever employed as a verb. You engineer a bridge or jet wing; you do not math or science it. And you use technology. It’s a tool, like a hammer. You do not study hammers, although you might design one or receive training in how to operate it.

And exactly where does coding and system administration fit in the STEM rubric? I would argue that’s where the biggest portion of what we call STEM jobs dwell. IT departments and freelance IT gigs. Shouldn’t it be SCEM? Science. Coding. Engineering. Math.

I want to be clear that I respect the components of what we’re absently calling STEM, as I understand them. Indeed, science pretty thoroughly informs my approach to religion. And though I struggled from Algebra II on, I did make it as far as college Calculus before I ran out of numerical horsepower. I would love to get another crack at it with a better teacher — or at least one better attuned to those to whom numbers do not come naturally. (I had far better Calculus instruction at Palatka High School than at my elite, private northeastern college, for what it’s worth.) I have absolutely adored astronomy since I was a child. I know the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, and I can explain roughly — very roughly — the difficulties in reconciling quantum theory to modern astrophysics.

I would argue I’ve used STEM concepts — math and technology — to produce a pretty solid and provocative picture of school achievement in this county and state. None of the STEMMY math teachers at McKeel have been willing to challenge it. And the state’s version of the same thing, presumably designed by people obsessed with STEMMY stuff, is pathetic and incompetent. Even an English major like me can see that — and tell you why.

But as a professional practitioner of the liberal arts, I do not dwell daily in the STEM/SCEM world. I don’t live in the world of certifications, etc. So I’m looking for help in understanding and decoding this world and giving it meaning. To that end, in no particular order, here are some thoughts/questions for Polk’s advocates of STEM education and STEM living.

1) Isn’t it actually TEM in Polk County and most of “conservative” America? Or at least a different STEM: Scripture. Technology. Engineering. Math.

I’d bet my next paycheck that the majority of Polk County folks reject the scientific concepts of the Big Bang, Evolution, or Global Warming. I similarly bet that a large portion, perhaps even a majority, either disbelieve that dinosaurs existed or believe they walked with humanoids of some kind roughly 6,000 years ago. I would bet lots of money that Lakeland Christian School sells its STEM programs to prospective students and parents. I would bet just as much money that it rejects these core scientific conclusions/theories. It rejects them even though they were produced by the same scientific method that split the atom, produced the polio vaccine and figured out gravity. Am I right?

And if so, why are we talking about STEM at all if you reject its foundations?

2) Schematics and rote versus analysis, creativity, and judgement:

I suspect we’re talking about it because coding and engineering is really the core of what the powers-that-be mean when they talk about STEM. And most of those jobs simply don’t require very much analytical science. And I suspect they require very little sophisticated math in practical worldly application. Essentially, I think they require memorization, instruction-following, and constant use. It’s the creation and use of schematics. Much like competent fishing.

This is not meant as an insult. Memorization, adherence to instruction, and constant use require discipline and attention, which are quite useful skills. But I think you could take any motivated person who can read, plop them down in a coding class, and teach them to code and administer a system. Where does math come in? Where does applied knowledge of scientific concepts come in? Tell me if I’m wrong, because I’m really curious. Couldn’t I do it tomorrow? And aren’t any pre-requisites for coding class unnecessary, other than the ability to read and follow instructions, which are as much liberal arts concepts as STEM concepts?

I think much of engineering is like this as well, but I feel less secure about that perception. Any engineers out there, please provide an example of actual math you use in your daily work. And of course, not all engineers are the same. I acknowledge that people designing things that move probably have to use Calculus. But I think the key word there is “design.” Isn’t most engineering not, in fact, bound up in design? Educate me, engineers. Tell me how sophisticated math and science practically work into your day.

And really the same goes for health care professionals. Why are doctors and nurses considered STEM jobs? Or are they? Again, isn’t it memorization, rote, and judgement based on observation? For surgeons, there’s also manual skill, like a pianist or craftsman. But isn’t critical thinking and the ability to listen to what a patient is telling you — which are clearly skills developed within the liberal arts — what separates a serviceable doctor or nurse from a good or great one?

Again, please tell me. Because I have a sense that many academic math and science requirements are, in fact, completely unnecessary to do most STEM jobs well. Sort of like saying you have to be able to run fast to hit a baseball. Both are athletic skills with almost nothing to do with each other. One you’re essentially born with; the other you can develop with lots of practice.

3) What is a STEM job?

— Physician
— Nursing
— Auto mechanic
— Social media broker
— Unpaid blogger
— Plumber
— Walmart stocker/customer flow specialist.
— Machine operator at manufacturing plant
— Train conductor engineer
— Police officer

You could make an argument that all of these are STEM jobs. You could also argue that all are not. Each works with technology and systems, but judgement and practical skill are what makes people good at these jobs. And I would argue that anyone with a strong liberal arts background could do any of these jobs very well after a period of hands-on training. Just like anyone with a math background could do well after a period of hands on training. I see no way in which Calculus is relevant to medicine. But maybe I’m wrong. Tell me. Maybe in research, but in hospital and office work?

And then there’s this, from a recent story from the Atlantic about what’s required to get and keep a decent job in modern manufacturing. It focuses on one young man’s work:

At Spartanburg, he studied math—a lot of math. “I’m very good at math,” he says. “I’m not going to lie to you. I got formulas written down in my head.” He studied algebra, trigonometry, and calculus. “If you know calculus, you definitely can be a machine operator or programmer.” He was quite good at the programming language commonly used in manufacturing machines all over the country, and had a facility for three-dimensional visualization—seeing, in your mind, what’s happening inside the machine—a skill, probably innate, that is required for any great operator. It was a two-year program, but Luke was the only student with no factory experience or vocational school, so he spent two summers taking extra classes to catch up.

After six semesters studying machine tooling, including endless hours cutting metal in the school workshop, Luke, like almost everyone who graduates, got a job at a nearby factory, where he ran machines similar to the Gildemeisters. When Luke got hired at Standard, he had two years of technical schoolwork and five years of on-the-job experience, and it took one more month of training before he could be trusted alone with the Gildemeisters. All of which is to say that running an advanced, computer-controlled machine is extremely hard. Luke now works the weekend night shift, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

When things are going well, the Gildemeisters largely run themselves, but things don’t always go well. Every five minutes or so, Luke takes a finished part to the testing station—a small table with a dozen sets of calipers and other precision testing tools—to make sure the machine is cutting “on spec,” or matching the requirements of the run. Standard’s rules call for a random part check at least once an hour. “I don’t wait the whole hour before I check another part,” Luke says. “That’s stupid. You could be running scrap for the whole hour.”

So where does this math and these formulas come in? Because all I read in that passage is discipline, following instructions, programming/coding, and an “innate” ability to visualize in 3D, which can’t be taught. Where is any of that actually Science. Technology. Engineering. Math? I guess it’s technology in that you learn how to use a piece of technology. But I’ll bet money the 30-day training period, coupled with rote learning of code and the hands-on practice, is what matters in his job — and in most STEM jobs.

And by the way, his job sucks. 12-hour shifts all weekend for $20-something/hour after years of practice.

Why is computer-language coding a STEM job, but learning German or Arabic not?

Anybody out there who uses actual high level math or science in the pursuit of his or her job, please explain how.

4)Tribal signifier:

Now we come to the core point, as I see it. Like everything else in our society it seems, the STEM mania is about tribal and political identification. Political conservatives love to say STEM because it makes them feel superior to silly little liberal arts majors, who tend to be thought of as politically liberal, too. STEM implies discipline and pitiless measurement — and it discourages questioning and squishy emotion and an ethical approach to your fellow man. That’s what church is for. Everything else is a spreadsheet cell and a checklist. In STEM business, you just follow the schematic, learn the formula, game the numbers, get rewarded. Tell me why I’m wrong.

Those of us who wrote papers for subjective evaluation in college were somehow coasting. Whatever. I’m not required to worship your perceptions of yourselves. My non-STEM skill has managed to hold up reasonably well without a masters degree. At least for now. And in general, we liberal arts grads should hold our heads up and stop cringing and wondering if STEMMY people work harder or better than we do, or that there’s even such a thing as STEMMY outside of a few very elite professions. Give me critical thinking over slavish obedience and warmed over Randism any day.

Most of us, one way or another, are going to do jobs that revolve around sales skills, following instructions, and hustle. I think even Chris would agree with that. Those skills are not unique to people who see numbers in the shape of a tree or see poetry in the shape of a tree. And it is foolish for the country to throw up lots of pre-requisite and credential requirements for jobs whose number one pre-requisites are job-specific training and practice.

Indeed, you show me a tech god; and I’ll show you a liberal arts god. Apple is better than everybody else at corporate design, sales, and intuiting what its customers will consider cool. Coding is just a means to that end. Squishy liberal arts made Apple Apple.

Nothing is so political and tribal as education. And I think the single most important conceptual education issue is the difference between education and training. STEM’s political pushers want to obliterate any definitional gap between those two words.

But a clear difference exists. One equips you to develop and apply judgement to living and personal development and the other equips you to perform a task. And I say, without hesitation, that serious liberal arts education makes you a far better candidate for training in the vast majority of jobs. It makes you better on your feet. But it also makes you more likely to question your boss — and maybe the fairness and honesty of social structures. No wonder our exceptional “leadership” class is bleating on about STEM. They want you trained, but not educated. Training produces people like many of the rote, party line, “ditto” commenters we find online.

I think STEM is a tool being used to kill off the pesky, unruly liberal arts by blocking access to the rudimentary technical training required for the vast majority of “STEM” jobs. No STEM background? You can’t set a complex machine. Ridiculous.

In a country where everything wasn’t zero sum cultural sum cultural and tribal warfare, we would be coming up with ways to seamlessly integrate liberal arts education and technical training. There’s no reason why a history major can’t graduate into a complex manufacturing job. There’s also no reason why a math major can’t write for a living. Neither should be blocked by unnecessary credentialism.

5) The Fallback plan

There were 16,500 professional athletes in 2008. There are something like 35,000 mathematicians, many of whom are employed in one way or another by taxpayers.

If you’re looking for private sector employment, conservatives (and aren’t you all), you have just as good chance of becoming a pro athlete as a Google algorithm designer or a Wall Street quant. And you probably won’t destroy the economy with your incompetence by playing baseball.

And in terms of founding Google, well, you have exactly as good a chance of becoming Michael Jordan as Sergey Brin, which is to say no chance. Freaks are freaks are freaks. They are the unpredictable intersection of personality, talent, and circumstances. That intersection will always choose them. And we’ll never know who they are until chosen.

Yet, no one’s talking about baseball or basketball charter schools. (Though, I suppose you could say that Lakeland High wants to start one for football.)

That’s because there is no shortage of competition for elite athlete jobs. The unemployment rate for people who aspire to be professional athletes is so high we don’t bother to calculate such a thing. Indeed, I am an unemployed professional athlete. If a team would give me a chance at QB, I could do some damage. I have a good arm and can read defenses. But we all agree that “professional athlete” as career pursuit is an irresponsible suggestion for kids.

Similarly, everybody needs a fallback plan when they don’t found Google.

And that’s my ultimate point here. In terms of fallback plans, I think most STEM jobs are not particularly elite or mathematically and scientifically demanding. They can be taught to anybody who can read and wants to learn. Accordingly, there are some pretty compelling arguments that STEM graduates, broadly defined, face slightly worse unemployment than other college graduates. Imagine, STEMMY folks, what it would look like if you didn’t hide behind certifications and pre-requisites and had to compete openly with the liberal arts world.

Stuff to chew on when you’re chatting over Yacht Club salmon about how STEMMY your kid’s elementary school is. Tell me why I’m wrong.


Creative Commons License photo credit: Tom Hagerty for Lakeland Local

6 thoughts on “Is STEM the New Green?

  1. My only argument here (because I’m too tired to debate the rest right now) is the comment “Very few people, I submit, make a living off Google/Facebook/Apple who are not directly employed or paid by them.”. YouTube alone produces quite a bit of revenue (http://www.tubefilter.com/2012/06/29/youtubers-six-figures-a-year/). The important line out of this is “thousands of channels are now making six figures or more a year from YouTube advertising revenue alone”

    In 2011 Google produced $80 billion of economic activity for 1.8 million businesses, website publishers and non-profits across the U.S. Check out the state impact here: http://www.google.com/economicimpact/

    I won’t get into the impact of Amazon on mom and pop retailers, etc. But just needed to clear up the economic impact of companies that may not “employ” a lot of people. The old adage of hiring vs creating jobs are two different things.

  2. I concur. I am a nurse, and work at the hospital. Frequently I precept new RNs or nursing students, and I have told every single one of them this: “The most important thing I can teach you is how to THINK like a nurse. The hands-on skills will come, but the global, holistic thought process will define your practice”. That sounds all highbrow, but what I mean is that I can teach a monkey to put in a catheter, but I can’t teach one to appreciate a disease process and it’s outcomes.

    I have my BSN, but I cut my teeth on my BA in lit. I rely on that liberal arts education — all those “compare and contrast” assignments left me with the ability to do just that. I am a better RN because I have a liberal arts education.

    Gotta say, tho, your STEMMY reference made me laugh. In my world STEMI (ST elevated MI, medical jargon for heart attack) means a super fast visit to the cardiac cath lab and probably a long intimate visit with the friendly neighborhood heart surgeon. I can’t help it. I think like a nurse. But I think.

  3. Ken: I think I addressed your point in the piece. I wrote about how these companies do create “ecosystems” for entrepreneurs. I just dispute that allows many people to make a living. Take my own case: I self-published a book that I could never have written 15 years ago, pre-Google and pre-Amazon. So I have great affection for those companies as quality of life enhancers. But I’ll also never make significant money off that book without some bolt of luck. I did it for love. Similarly, for most people, Google, Amazon, are quality of life enhancements built onto their real existences. They are hobby enablers. Occasionally, somebody hits it big, maybe: but just as many people lose because institutions get disrupted. I think the web revolution has more to do with changing the way we live than how we make money.

    And RunnerRN: thanks so much for the insight. very cool. I hope you’ll share this with colleagues and get them to share their thoughts.

  4. Let me give a brief background of where my comments are coming from: Right after HS, I spent 2 dreadful years in college studying a STEM field which I walked away from. At the time, I had no idea why I needed to do study it nor did I understand why I should be interested in it at all. I then went to work for a few years in random jobs, enlisted in the USAF for two full terms (right through 9/11), and then worked at 2 different IT jobs. Now I come full circle – I am back in school by choice. However outright idiotic my life choices have been, it gave me a new perspective on how to approach a college education and how to enjoy it as well.

    At the dismay of my friends, family, and x-coworkers, I am considering a liberal arts degree such as philosophy, political science, or sociology (I’ll fine-tune it as I continue my lower division studies). In the meantime, I’ve been called names, berated, laughed at, and scoffed at by these people I once respected.

    So for Mr. Townsend or any other readers, what words of wisdom and experience can you pass on to someone in my situation? Is it truly naive to want to study something other than a STEM field? Is it truly letting oneself “slip into the cracks” of society? Personally, I don’t give a response to any of those comments so to not give them any weight; however, they do make their occasional appearances in my daily musings. I also do understand that regardless of what happens, I will need to keep food on the table and a roof over my head.

  5. As a local business operator and employer I am disheartened by the current work ethic our youth seem to perpetrate. Information jobs are limited to those who consume the information. Where is the “Risk” involved with creating or engineering a website. FB and Google are niche, but the real revenue is the control of the information. These phenoms will not be easily replicated. Look at the FB IPO Flop. I am not being dismissive of IT but the saturation point is here and now what? The salaries are falling and the cream is rising to the top.

    It would be beneficial if real world engineers were on campus. That is not the case. I have a lost 21 year old enrolled at FGCU to prove it. She is on an English Lit. track and cannot carry on an intelligent conversation concerning “How” she will use this education to bring value to our workforce. I do not see any real direction being given by our Universities, it always comes down to the individual, all I am seeing are a bunch of individuals with no real ideas on how to make their way in this world. Evidence “Occupy Movement”.

    Furthermore, I cannot say enough negative things about the public school system and all of the issues from lower standards, limited or vague criteria and this overwhelming urge to be “Fair”. What happened to Shop, Welding, Wood Working, a vocational track. Not everyone can work with their brain. The majority of the time it is people who work with their hands who find the simple solutions to everyday problems that have made our lives better and better over the last 100 years.

    Innovation only happens when people struggle, it cannot be mandated, centralized or managed. The foundation has to be in place early for young minds to be exposed to real problems and they have to be allowed to struggle through. STEM is another acronym to make the central planner feel they are doing something. Top down has NEVER worked and it will NEVER work.

    Sorry for the rant…

  6. STC: I am loathe to give you advice. This particular economy is confounding. But I would hope your skills from the military and previous technical background would make a very nice package with your liberal arts approach. And if doing a thing makes one miserable, one will generally stop doing it, I’ve found. So I would say follow your heart intelligently, understanding what the challenges will be and figuring out ways to get a foot in a door and work your way up. And certainly don’t listen to anyone who wants to go all we’re better than you because we learned code through rote.

    Tim: I’m sorry, but I reject your work ethic thing utterly. Perhaps you see different kids than I do or are remembering different kids than I do when I went to school. We weren’t any “better” or “worse” than kids today. Lots of statistics indicate that. The fact is I can come up with a million ways in which your lost 21-year-old will parlay an English degree into the work force. First and foremost, a 4-year-degree, in anything, is a credential. It is supposed to signify that you could sit still and listen. Compare her prospects to someone with only a high school degree. And frankly, no business grad or four-year engineering grad is going to have much more practical than that to add. I went to college 20 years ago, and I don’t know anybody who fell right into their careers. This is a weird, new expecation. College was never meant to be a job preparing experience. It was supposed to be a life-enhancing experience. That said, it’s become an awfully expensive credential. And I agree than not everybody needs to go. I agree completely with your vocational focus. But the fact is many of the “hands” type jobs you cite have been roboticized. We need to find new areas of growth in places like cargegiving for the elderly, etc.

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