The Philosophical & Pedagogical dichotomy between STEM and STEAM

Benedictions E-STEM-ed friends.

[large social-distancing beard with sagacious accent]

[focus on the accent here]

Let us ponder and deliberate...

Philosophers have long reflected upon categories and prescriptions that silo knowledge into disciplines. Knowledge is organic and constantly growing. Human consciousness is a phrase that attempts to capture how society at large awakens and absorbs the old and new knowledge. Civilization advances and flourishes by a division of trade, skills, labor, and the learning required to master a job.

The function of academia has always been to organize and teach knowledge. Over millennia, the divisions, trades, and skills have changed. But more importantly, academic disciplinary divisions (Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, Social Studies, Life Science, Economics, Music, etc.) have grown in number, depth, and application. Over millennia, each disciplinary silo has evolved into a curriculum that facilitates the learning process for a jejune generation of new students. Education establishes a foundation for how to learn so that we may continue, as the human race, and prosper.

It is not only the depth of science, but its ubiquitous inter-disciplinary dimensions that force upon us an acronym merger of Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) in the 21st century. The STEM acronym has been broadly accepted and adopted expeditiously in the last decade by the education sector, and is conventional within mainstream media.

For most K-16 programs of education, this acronym should not be disconcerted by the addition of Art. There are circumstances where Art, as an addition to the other disciplines must work, even times when the addition of Art is optimal. For the most part, and for the greater good of humanity, STEM is completely and effectively different from STEAM.

I am nonplussed by STEAM.

(Foreboding inauspicious sardonic laugh here; pun very much intended.)

To be sure, Art is loved by all. It is considered as the higher form of practice and perfection, as implied by many abstract and stoic thinkers, beginning with the distinguished Socrates-Plato-Aristotle syzygy. Beauty howbeit aside, there is an imperative philosophical and pedagogical dichotomy between STEM and STEAM. Understanding and differentiating between these two ideals was a classical problem; it has been debated and written about since antiquity. Many a modern dissertation could wax exhortingly about the importance of reexamining this dichotomy, especially as it informs STEM knowledge and teaching it.

Essence and Form.

Theoretical and Practical.

STEM knowledge does not separate into these categories, inasmuch as it demands convergence of them. The burden of proof and the rigor of experiment to establish STEM knowledge seem to demand these categories converge. Together, they make an epistemological claim upon human knowledge by application.

Experimental science is practical. Laboratories. Equipment. Tools. Hands. Sensors. Measurements. Calculations. Data.

Experimental design, however, is theoretical. Hypotheses. Theories. Constraints. Contemplation. Minds. Predictions. Purpose. Intentions.

Only after both the theoretical and practical have converged enough times, observed enough times, and repeated enough times is the scientist, engineer, or mathematician confident of his or her knowing and knowledge. Sufficient, almost binary precision and logic establish the datum. When the data become axiomatic, human consciousness is awakened; it is absorbed into the corpus of all human knowledge. Having epistemological justification, we have innovated, increased, expanded the frontiers of human understanding.

Art, on the other hand, has never sought to make any epistemological claims of knowledge, inasmuch as it is a demonstration and proof of the existence of refined knowledge. An infinite number of buildings can be erected upon a construction site; myriad forms. But the architect chooses one plan that works for a set of given parameters or preconditions. The architect demonstrates that this essence, form, and function is both a theoretical and practical solution to the problem.

Artists that gain fame do so by popular consent. A social consciousness awakens because it has acknowledged some deeper meaning and message. The polis subscribes to and believes in this demonstration of an ideal. There is no measure or even a notion of “sufficient” proofs, precision, or binary 0-1-0-1, right-wrong exactness. No epistemological claim is want of justification here, only resonance. This artistic interpretation embodies an essence that speaks to me, my heritage, my country, my people, to us, to the masses, to the public. It is the demonstration of true mastery, refined knowledge and perfection. Such is the nature of all Art.

Stepping out of the Scientific Silo to merge STEM.

Taking one deep breath, attempt to fathom how the scientific history of the last 150-300 years has unfolded. How profoundly have a scientific method of inquiry, Newtonian mechanics, Cell theory and its microscopic visualization, electro-magnetism and its applications, Atomic theory and the filling out of a periodic table, quantum mechanics, particle accelerators, and nuclear energy… how have all of these break-through achievements helped to coalesce a biology, chemistry, or physics discipline – as we know them today – within the ubiquitous, ever-expanding fields of science? How profoundly and dynamically has the body of collective human knowledge, an academic consciousness awoken and changed in just a few centuries!

Three hundred years ago books were a luxury. Only 100 years ago, there was no such thing as a two volume textbook of physics where students worked through ideas of motion, gravity, and force for half of the year, while dedicating the second semester to energy, electro-magnetism, quantum mechanics, and relativity.

(Today, this 1st year college course is freely download-able from OpenStax, along with many other foundational college-level STEM textbooks.)

Microscopy, luminescence, and staining techniques have so advanced the biological and medical sciences that today’s middle school student’s understanding of how a cell works is clearer than the notions held by prominent academic professionals of the 19th century.

Two hundred years ago, only professional mathematicians were exposed (or had access) to ideas of Calculus and Cartesian mapping of algebraic equations and geometry. Today, any good high school anywhere around the world will demand such understanding from all of its graduates.

Thus, academia has witnessed each STEM discipline turn into a silo for specialties to emerge and niche enclaves and subfields to thrive. Each division and its epistemological purpose was well-served; it standardized the textbook content of high school Physics, Chemistry, Earth Science, Biology… and divisions continue to function well, serving their purpose within higher education and graduate work.

But the ground beneath us is moving.

Middle & high school innovators are now moving away from this separation of subjects to a model that merges all of STEM. Integrated STEM, project-based learning, and curricula are now designed to focus on engineering specific solutions using a smaller corpus of scientific facts and knowledge. With respect to the grade level and subject matter, students are given information to solve a larger, relevant, and very real problem.

How beautiful.

Due to the ubiquitous nature of information, an earnestly seeking student can dive deeply and swiftly acquire meaningful interdisciplinary content that may scaffold a STEM project. Conversely, the opposite can also be true for 6th-16th year students: due to the ubiquitous nature of information, it is easy to be lost in bad data, superfluous details, irrelevant hypotheses, jargon, and significant but tangential discoveries. A good teacher gathers; a great teacher inspires.

Integrated STEM cross links and connects big ideas between the silos of science. Great teachers kindle curiosity by giving enough tools to a budding scientist for meaningful discovery, healthy growth, and opportunities for individual expression. Thus, meticulously ordered topics slowly initiate, awaken, and train the curious mind to carefully examine the mysteries of science.

Only one generation ago, (approximately 20 years, as accounted for by economists) when most teachers were in middle school themselves, exams were crammed with facts. Analysis & synthesis questions were acknowledged as beneficial, but they were far and too few in between STEM fields. (Another well-intended pun.) It was widely held that if each natural or social science followed a silo curriculum, eventually all of these ideas would coalesce within the student mind, and the educational system will have produced a competent scientist. But the historical record shows a dearth of science and engineering graduates.

The ubiquitous nature of information and learning, MOOCs, DIY projects, kits, instructables, coding, data, and robotics have dynamically and fundamentally altered the “fact-cramming exam” paradigm.

Beauty comes from asking students to engineer a solution beginning with sufficient background and limited knowledge. What is beautiful about the integrated STEM paradigm is how educational objectives are all met, and usually exceeded, along with a healthy dose of realistic pragmatism.

In reality, young professional scientists always work from a limited body of knowledge and expertise. Laboratory research projects, R&D, budgeting is always constrained by time, resources, human capital, and energy – towards some goal or engineering end: procurement, prototyping, proposal submissions, testing or manufacturing a product, or publication.

School districts across the country are clamoring to keep up with technological change, what we learn and how we learn it: curricula that include programming, web development, photoshop or AutoCad, STEM laboratories and maker spaces, blended physical & virtual learning, Learning Management Systems, MOOCs affiliated with the most prestigious universities and grand-masters around the world, cloud-based servers, digital literacies and platforms of communication that allow access, creation, and instantaneous sharing of media… the ubiquity, pace, and exponential growth are unprecedented and mind-blowing.

Standardization of a collective Common Core curriculum for most subjects taught in public schools in most of the United States allowed for programs like No Child Left Behind because we were able to establish a baseline for what was absolutely necessary post Internet revolution.

The Next Generation Science Standards were adopted in 2014 by most states in America because the tectonic pedagogical shift came from a profound epistemological discovery: we need to step out of the silos of science. It is the practical application of a subset of STEM ideas that fulfills, and often exceeds educational and academic objectives. This is because the impetus for discovery and engineering genuinely emerge from students. Experimental, project-based, integrated STEM curricula better serve society because they are grounded in a pragmatic realism that reflects the true nature of life and a career as a 21st century scientist.


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