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STEMming Higher Education

20 May Posted by in Academics | 1 comment

I’ve been interested at the new flurry of comments about the need for STEM emphasis in Virginia higher education, emanating from the gubernatorial campaign. I find myself both attracted and annoyed by the arguments.

Attracted: I assume we do need more scientists and engineers in the United States. Mason has a very good record in training undergraduates and in developing relevant Masters programs, with unusual attention (thanks to boosts from relevant faculty) to gender issues as well. We are eager to help develop teachers and assist in K-12 programs as part of our regional outreach. We plan some new developments in the science education and outreach front even in the coming year. So at one level the STEM emphasis is welcome, and provides an opportunity to seek additional support for things we’re doing and want to do.

Annoyed: at least two kinds of distortion potentially lurk in the STEM arguments. Both involve a potential narrowing of what higher education is supposed to be about. First, there’s every reason to attend to a substantial number of fields, outside STEM, that also deserve emphasis as meeting measurable national needs. Admittedly, I speak here as a non-scientist, eager to make sure the fields I know best continue to get some attention. But why not a bit of a push as well for global expertise including appropriate foreign language facility, just as one case in point? Second, STEM training itself must be flexible and anchored in a liberal education framework, else we’ll train for current and not future needs and produce specialists inadequately aware of broader social and political issues. On both these fronts, of course, Mason is also well positioned and eager to contribute.

So let’s welcome the fashionable emphasis but with appropriate balance and context, and be willing to speak up for larger educational values even as we seek to pluck some petals from the STEM approach.