Are our schools preparing Spocks or Kirks?
This blog post first appeared on Hindsight, the blog of the Minnesota 20/20 think tank.
STEM education’s ideal outcome produces Captain Kirks, young adults highly skilled and knowledgeable in science, technology, engineering, or math, and also able to clearly and articulately communicate their understandings and findings to the non-science community.
However, pursuing STEM at the expense of the social sciences and language arts risks manufacturing too many Doctor Spocks: highly knowledgeable but with little ability to relate to colleagues outside the hard sciences. (For a modern example, think of the Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon.)
Two major Minnesota factors are making it difficult to deliver the holistic approach necessary for students to fully integrate both disciplines. First, an emphasis on increasing test scores leads to more instruction in areas a bubble sheet can easily assess while cutting away much of the other stuff.
Factor number two exacerbates education’s either/or approach. Minnesota’s 13 percent-per-pupil inflation-adjusted state aid cut hampers a number of education factors, including the smaller class sizes necessary for teachers to oversee and guide students in harder-to-measure areas.
Creativity and academic risk-taking decrease, repetition and memorization increase. All four are important in varying degrees, but taking away the first two limits students’ ability to build real knowledge, apply that knowledge to new academic areas, and communicate that knowledge to peers in a relatable way.
Tech Is Only One Element
Back to the Kirk-Spock analogy: both will land great jobs in a science field, but Kirk will move faster to the top and have more job security, while Spock’s job is easier to outsource. That was part of the message from a 2009 MnSCU workforce report asking greater-Minnesota manufacturers what skills they sought. Firms responded that quality technical skills were only part of the equation. Effectively communicating with clients and building relationships were key social science talents employers value. Global awareness and language were also significant.
That's why companies move to, and grow in, Minnesota.
A recent NPR Market Place story also highlighted the need for good public speakers. “These days, communicating great ideas is important. ‘It’s the good presenters. …It’s the confident communicators who are rising up the business ladder,’” according to a public speaking consultant in the story.
“I think what was once considered a throw-away soft skill has been growing in importance as people begin to realize that knowing your business is not enough,” says another.
STEM is critically important but much less valuable if achieved through diminishing other skills. Sadly, Minnesota’s education funding declines and emphasis on testing run contrary to uniting those duel academic paths.
Joe Sheeran is communications director of Minnesota 20/20, a nonpartisan think tank that
addresses what its web site calls "the issues that matter for Minnesota's future success: education, health care, transportation, and economic development."