Why STEM activity is vital for the future of society

A fool on a fool’s errand

A recent Nature article has slated STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) activities to engage with young people, calling it a "Fool's errand". It's author, Colin Macilwain, was an engineer but for the past 17 years has spent his life working for the dark-side (i.e. Nature and science policy think tanks).

"What no one asked was whether these many activities actually benefit science and engineering, or society as a whole. My answer to both questions is an emphatic ‘no’." states Macilwain. He goes on to say "Start by asking why no such government-backed programmes exist to pull children into being lawyers or accountants. The obvious answer is that there is no need: young people can see the prospects in these fields for themselves."

I was considering writing a blog post gently explaining why I disagree.

But not today. This man is wrong and his views are ill-informed.

I am involved in science communication and public engagement in UK. A portion of my job is designated to create STEM activities using the LCOGT telescopes.

However, I am an exception in UK. Most of my colleagues do public engagement because they enjoy it and see value in it, not because they are paid to do it (they aren't). There is very little funding in UK for these sorts of activities. In the US there is considerably more leading to considerably more "education and outreach specialists".

In astronomy it is certainly not the case that the goal of STEM activities is to produce more astronomers. That would be totally ludicrous. There are currently ~600 professional astronomers in UK. The public engagement activities I do annually reach more children and young people than that and I certainly do not tell them to all become astronomers.

Here is the crux of my case against the article by Colin Macilwain: we are trying to increase the scientific literacy of the whole population, not to push people into scientific careers.

1. Science is everywhere

I think science is amazing. Unlike history, law or language, science would continue to do its thing without humans. It is the fabric of the natural Universe we are part of. Can you ignore that when you let go of something it drops to the floor, that flowers follow the Sun, or that we only ever see one side of the Moon?

Macilwain suggests that students never need encouragement to follow careers in law and accountancy unlike science, therefore we should not encourage them into science because there are no jobs. I wonder if his argument  applies to apprenticeships too?

The occupations which attract the highest salaries are artificially inflated because of our reliance on them in this material world. 5 years ago I am sure Macilwain would have considered banking to be one of the top professions, along with stock brokering.

Many students are attracted to courses in law and accountancy because they can make money and there is a clear career path.

When you tell someone about a scientific idea, you change their view of the world forever.

Does the same apply to the description of VAT or conveyancing?

2. We have monkey brains

Not the chilled monkey brains from Indiana Jones. The human brain is a big problem solving engine. It is excellent at finding patterns and wants to work out why what we see around us happens. When my little sister was a toddler her favourite word was "Why?". No answer was sufficient and would always be followed by "Yes, but why?".

School curricula in US and UK is about learning facts, largely because it is easy to test facts. The UK education minister Michael Gove MP, wants the UK to have 100% of student marks to come from exams because he values learning over everything else. Gove has no time for coursework which he believes makes it easy for students' to attain higher grades. What he is forgetting is that an exam largely tests recall and rarely tests understanding, whereas a presentation, talk, poster can test both.

Gove and Macilwain are similar in this respect. They appear not to value people forming their own questions about what they have learned.

When we do STEM activities in schools and with the public they are designed to make the audience question what they do and what results they get. In this way you can build understanding which is a far more useful commodity than storing facts. Obviously to be a scientist you need both, but the thing I have always liked about physics is that you can get by with only a few facts as long as you understand the underlying physics or nature.

3. Science for Development

I am co-chair of a task force for children and school, to assist the work of the International Astronomical Union's Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD). This was born out of the International Year of Astronomy in 2009 which reached 815 million people in 148 countries. This showed there was a huge amount of interest for astronomy, particularly in the developing world. The aim of the OAD is to use astronomy to raise the prospects of people in the developing world in 3 areas; children and schools, universities and tertiary education, and the public.

In many areas, providing really good STEM resources has resulted in schools (which in the developing world are often run by the community with teachers who have no training) giving a far better education than if they'd been left to their own devices.

4. Predestination

Macilwain is under the delusion that everyone is born knowing what they like and what is worth spending time at being good at.

'“I just wish little Mary got the chance to do science at school” is not a phrase, I would submit, that politicians often hear on the doorstep.'

Many children are taught science badly or incorrectly. There are many excellent science teachers out there but there also non-specialists (e.g. biologists teaching physics) or even arts graduates who teach science and who struggle with the material (in UK you do not need a degree in a discipline to be able to teach it to 16 year olds).

The reason kids rarely beg their parents for more science is because the way it is presented in school is often dull and unengaging, and very much about following procedures, largely because of a prescriptive and unimaginative curriculum. At school I hated experiments because you had to blindly follow a list of steps and arrive at an unenthralling result. The chemistry experiments I remember are where things went totally wrong. This is the excitement of science.

STEM activities in schools should be encouraged because there is precious little of it actually happening in school. Kids want to do more music and more sport because they are engaged in it. They actually make the music. They experience the exhilaration of scoring trys, runs, goals, or roquets. They work as part of a team and are better people for it.

As a professional scientist I experience all of those things with science, but I never once experienced it at school. The science curriculum is lost in the Victorian age of teaching. We do a disservice to kids if we do not find new an innovative ways for them to explore science.

Macilwain suggests you should pursue what you want but not waste time on science because there is no job for you. I would argue the opposite. We do not know what we will end up doing because of changes and chances of this fleeting world. Science is always there because science is about questioning everything and looking for the underlying truth.

Some of the kids in STEM programmes Macilwain wants to stop may turn out to be policy makers, politicians and other people of influence. Would you rather have a scientifically literate person making decisions on stem cell research, GM crops or the nuclear deterrent, or someone who blindly accepts whatever a political aide hands them?

I would be delightfully happy if the end result of me running STEM activities was to stop kids believing science is hard and help them realise that it can be as simple as asking "Yes, but why?".

So I am proudly on what Macilwain calls  "a fool's errand" but hopefully I am more like Ivan the Fool.

Ps. I'll let you into a secret: STEM activities very often do legitimate, publishable science. See Zooniverse, Faulkes Telescope Project, International Astronomical Search Collaboration, and Las Cumbres Observatory (that's just a very small sample within the astronomy community).