STEM Culture and the Real STEM Crisis

Most of us don’t grow up to be engineers and mathematicians but we do grow up learning STEM culture. In the US, education and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are now commonly known by the acronym STEM. STEM endures a long and multifaceted relationship with the political economy, education, and military industrial complex of empires and nation-states. At least since the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, initiatives in US education, government and industry have tried to harness STEM (and schooling), often as technical practices of progress. The results of STEM policy practices—as both development and exploitation—depend on one’s perspective. As Vine Deloria, Jr explains, some STEM innovations constructed as novel within a Western discourse of science would be naïve within Tribal and Indigenous frameworks.

For decades numerous grants and contracts have funded STEM initiatives, not only to advance STEM, but also to increase a public interest in STEM, and especially to broaden participation in STEM among traditionally underrepresented populations—women, African Americans, Latino/as, Native Americans/American Indians, and persons with disabilities. For contemporary examples, see the 2003 National Science Board’s workshop Broadening Participation in Science and Engineering Research and Education and the 2010 President’s council of Advisors on Science and Technology report to the president: Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Education in STEM for America’s Future.

A renewed focus on STEM in education and society reflects the fact that educational achievement and STEM advances continue to be markers of political and economic competiveness in our interconnected world. Systematically referenced to economic parameters, a myopic focus on STEM to the detriment of other knowledges is in part how STEM culture remains both elusive and pervasive. Problems, solutions, and even the questions that can be asked, often begin and end with STEM. Arguably, STEM is as social, uncertain, political, and aesthetic as other ways of interpreting and changing the world, but it is often positioned as disinterested, rational and sure in finding solutions for long-term, complex challenges. Despite STEM culture (or perhaps because of it), education, government, and industry regularly report a STEM crisis, and then return to STEM to solve it.

Enter an Anthropologist of Educational Policy Practice

In 2007, I began a six-year collaboration as the co-principal investigator of two multi-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grants (NSF 09-598; NSF 11-509) aimed at diversifying STEM—part of NSF’s response to the STEM crisis. As the research methodologist and diversity and education specialist, I worked with a team of engineers, postdoctoral students and graduate students at a large state research university in the Southern region of the US to provide and evaluate engineering research experiences for teachers and undergraduates. Partner-participants included 27 STEM high school teachers, and their students, at10 high schools in six minority-majority school districts, as well as 31 STEM undergraduates from 18 institutions in more than 10 states from Massachusetts to California.

My work in proposing, planning, implementing and evaluating these grant projects serve as a case-study of policy-based funding for STEM education and research—and a way of understanding what I am calling grant-science (Daza, 2013) and STEM culture as policy practice. For this short piece, I focus on the centrality of such policy practice for high school STEM teachers. The problem of analyzing this data in isolation might be to blame teachers, but critical ethnography identifies the dilemma of social, political, economic, and historical contexts within which they teach.

“Teaching in the public school setting today is extremely challenging”

A teacher in the project describes engineering: “Engineering is about efficiency…. Efficiency is taking the strong enough structure at a low price versus the strongest structure and high cost.” But what about the cost of efficiency (or perhaps an engineering affect) on education? Teachers find it “very difficult to have the freedom of doing [research projects] in [their] classrooms that are so rigidly driven from the district administrations to teach the same ‘cookie cutter’ lessons on same topics and of course [standards] driven as well.” The result is “teaching too much of [the content] in isolation and not enough application. The tendency is also to cover the material for tests.”

Math sticks with students better if there is some kind of application with it. For example, calculus makes more sense because there is application and they own it more.

Students’ problem is with the algebra in calculus. Because that stuff was just drill and practice, drill and practice. They learned it for a test and they forgot those basic algebra skills because they never applied them.

We lose kids. They never get to the calculus class.

Teachers confess. “My habit of the last 10 years or so has been to stress the subject material and not concentrate on activities and self discovery lessons because of concerns about time constraints. … After the last two summers, I am reminded of the importance of self discovery for my students and their success.” Imagine the thousands of students in this class over the last 10 years. Still, teachers keep “looking for effective ways to do more research with students without using a lot of time.”

Space permits only cursory insight into these high school STEM teachers (13 females and 14 males), who participated in six-week summer engineering research experiences as part of an NSF Research Experience for Teachers grant in 2008–10. Most (19 of 27) teachers identified as White; four as African American; two as Latino/a; and one as Asian; the Asian female teacher identified as Middle Easterner and two male teachers identified as Black and American Indian and Black and Latino, respectfully. They teach high school STEM subjects, such as biology, chemistry, physics, technology, geometry, trig/calculus and algebra. Most had between 4–14 years of teaching experience; there were three teachers with less than three years of experience and three with more than 15 years of experience. 20 teachers continued to participate in grant-related activities after the summer program at their high schools, districts, and the university. Many teachers continue to maintain their connection with the university beyond the project, earning masters degrees at the university and mentoring undergraduates on another project.

STEM Policy Practice for and against Diversity and Creative and Critical Thinking

In shaping STEM policy practice, actors such as the Obama administration, the National Science Foundation, and industry leaders (eg, Bill Gates on education) lament teaching to the test and call for diversity, innovation, and creative and critical thinking. Unfortunately, their policy-based educational funding hinders these aims, as well as drives disinterest. Despite efforts to diversify STEM education and fields at all levels for decades, populations traditionally underrepresented in STEM remain underrepresented and Whites outnumber all minorities by almost three to one across all STEM disciplines and careers (Weatherton, Daza and Pham, 2011). At the same time, high performing youth across all groups appear to be gravitating away from STEM fields. Why? In part, STEM culture responds to its own crisis, ignoring context. And policy-based educational funding is currently a reflection of neoliberal scientism (Daza, 20122013). Its general over-reliance on economic and quantitative understandings of highly contingent lived experiences of learning in schools leads to over-use and- confidence of high-staked standardized testing in decision-making (and research and policy practice) and is itself a product of STEM culture that alienates youth and teachers. Such policy-based funding for STEM education and research has grave implications. As I have written about elsewhere, diversity is a commodity in obtaining funding rather than broadening STEM (Daza, 2013). There is an emphasis on short-term, applicable, and efficient initiatives that fit funding cycles and can be measured as a good use of tax-payer money. See, for examples, Megan Tracy’s “NSF, Peer Review and Debates over Congressional Oversight” in AN and a critique of the Recovery Act’s Race to the Top policy-based, competitive funding.

Training our imaginations now for the future cannot begin and end with policy-based educational funding systematically referenced to STEM and economic parameters. This is the real STEM crisis. Although STEM culture is not one fixed thing, in education its perversion for the appearance of scientific rigor has contributed to high-stakes testing, prescriptive curriculum, the erosion of creativity and critical thinking, and the decreased relevance of arts, humanities, and social sciences. Educational research has been impoverished by a lack of federal funding in general and policy-based funding’s limited understanding of the role of context in particular. Anthropologists of STEM education, research, and policy emphasize the centrality of contexts. Programs, policies, and curricula are not static but dynamic, context-specific entities. Before we can ask whether or not a program or policy works, we need to know what actually happens on the ground. Anthropology contributes to understanding how STEM policy practices in education and research are mediated across different contexts. Working across disciplinary boundaries is challenging, but complicity with STEM is also infiltration into STEM culture (Daza, 2012).

Stephanie Daza 

This was originally posted in Anthropology News.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *