The Root of STEM’s Problems

Science, Science Studies, and STEM Education in America 

In today’s fact-challenged atmosphere, it can be hard to remember that science had a pretty good PR team at the turn of the twenty-first century. Growing up in the 1980s, I watched popularizing TV shows like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Mr. Wizard, and Bill Nye the Science Guy. And, of course, there were the toys. I spent my days playing with chemistry kits, practicing basic computer programming, and polishing stones (tiger’s eye was my favorite). I even had a confusing red plastic Fischer Price number that looked like a microscope, but included slides with colorful images of the planets. I also spent my time voraciously reading to earn stickers in my library’s book club and trying to master the detective-fiction form. But as a girl with wide-ranging hobbies, my interest in science and ease with mathematics earned me the most attention. I grew accustomed to that backhanded compliment: you’re really good at this for a girl. That aptitude became a part of my identity. For a while, it made me feel competitive when other young women showed similar interest or talent. I was supposed to be the good one.

What I had picked up on, even at that young age, was a fundamental tension in science’s public image. According to the toys and TV shows, science was supposed to be an awe-inspiring intellectual inheritance. My middle-school curriculum was designed to foster interest in this version of Science—still an undifferentiated and undisciplined subject at that grade level. We learned facts and celebrated the people who deduced or discovered them. We marveled at light as it bent through prisms; we wired circuits that lit tiny incandescent lights; we read about dinosaurs and observed their remains when we visited the Museum of Natural History in New York City. But science was also enmeshed in national discourses of competition, meritocracy, and personal responsibility. I was constantly goaded to pursue a scientific or technical career because “the world needs more women in science,” though nobody ever told me why. Still, I was good enough in those subject areas that I had a difficult time explaining my choice to study anything else. I ended up double majoring in English and mathematics in college, while enjoying a heaping serving of science electives on the side. But when I decided to pursue only one Ph.D. in English, teachers and family members responded by observing: “But, you’re really good at math and science.” They assumed that aspiring humanists simply lacked the capacity for scientific thinking. If you could succeed in science, why would you do anything else?    

As I was pursuing my wide-ranging, multi-disciplinary education—made available to me by scholarships that allowed college to be fun and exploratory, rather than nakedly utilitarian—the public conversation about science, mathematics, engineering, and technology was changing. In 2001, the assistant director of education and human resources at the National Science Foundation, Judith Ramaley, rearranged the acronym SMET to STEM, and in 2007—three years after I graduated from college—the US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine published their 564-page report Rising above the Gathering Storm, which began the consolidated push for STEM in K-12 and higher education. This report helped to inspire the America COMPETES Act of 2007, which was reauthorized in 2010 and still drives policy today. The title of this law is the clunky acronym, America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act; the rhetorical somersaults required to create that acronym emphasize how central competition is to policymakers’ understanding of science.  

The Science-with-a-capital-S that I learned about as a young person was a fairy tale; actual scientific labor looks remarkably different than my TV shows, toys, and teachers led me to believe. It involves failure, frustration, recording, repetition, institutional pressure, and many other things that are often unrepresented or misrepresented to the public. Nonetheless, both the fantasy of the individual genius who wins every competition and the myth of the innocently curious scientist enjoying her intellectual whims in a vacuum continue to be promulgated by both true believers and by policymakers who want to push more people into STEM for economic reasons.

When Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholars Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar ethnographically studied the nature of scientific labor, they concluded that scientists “systematically conceal the nature of the activity which typically gives rise to their research reports.” The concealment they describe sounds insidious, but it is reasonable enough in context. Scientists have a sense of which activities “count” as science and which do not, and they only write about the former. They record, often in a passive voice, how an experiment of a certain configuration yielded interesting results, but they typically leave out the note-taking, recalibration, interpretation, and consensus building that it took to reach their conclusions. When a quorum of scientists with enough clout agree upon a given interpretation, a fact is born. As Latour and Woolgar put it, “an important feature of fact construction is the process whereby ‘social’ factors disappear once a fact is established.” That standard practice of retroactively erasing “‘social’ factors” reinforces the mystique of science by making it less accessible to the public. Even if you do understand, for example, how the Large Hadron Collider at CERN works, you are unlikely to know how many scatter plots it produced, or how many debates over how to interpret those images took place, before the public announcement that the Higgs Boson was discovered. In press releases, words like “discovered” or “detected” confer the deceptive impression that the particle appeared immediately and obviously recognizable, as if it had worn a HELLO, MY NAME IS badge.

It is important to pause here and note that science seems to be under attack in our current moment, as the March for Science indicates. I consider this to be a broadly anti-intellectual time rather than a uniquely anti-science one, since other scholarly pursuits are not faring any better. But, in either case, governmental hostility towards research funding, public education, and environmental protection have inspired many of us to rally around science with stickers and other paraphernalia that declares “SCIENCE IS REAL.” In this hostile context, I want to make clear that just because I claim that some aspects of science are hidden from public view does not mean that I claim that its findings are untrue. Rather, I insist that understanding how we came to agree upon that truth is a worthwhile intellectual endeavor. As David Bloor argues, “Both true and false, and rational and irrational ideas, in as far as they are collectively held, should all equally be the object of sociological curiosity, and should all be explained by reference to the same kinds of cause.” In other words, if we talk to someone who we disagree with, we will discuss how we each came to different conclusions, if only in the attempt to convince them of our position.  But when we agree with each other, we move on with our conversation or our lives, never pausing to ask that ever-important and difficult-to-answer question: how did we come to agree that we know this? 

Our tendency not to ask questions about presumed facts is deeply rooted in the social and cultural assumptions that we inherit as we make our way in the world, and it has consequences within and beyond science. For example, biologist and feminist science studies scholar Evelyn Fox Keller argues that the “Sleeping Beauty myth” shaped the medical model of fertilization for generations. This myth that the egg passively awaits insemination from the gallant sperm, she says, was “elicitable” in the data: when you look through a microscope, the egg appears immobile while the sperm are clearly active. Embryologists did not just imagine what they empirically observed, but—perhaps because their observations accorded with dominant biases about men and women’s gender roles—they did not look beyond the myth for a more accurate understanding, either. When feminist scientists interrogated this received wisdom, they learned that eggs were much more active than microscope magnification could detect: eggs produce “proteins or molecules responsible for both enabling and preventing adhesion and penetration.” To gain that knowledge, they needed to create different apparatuses that could enable them to ask and answer entirely different questions.

Challenging bias is reason enough to question matters that seem settled as fact—but it’s not the only reason. Intellectual history is full of examples of people who advanced science by questioning inherited wisdom once thought to be fact. Albert Einstein famously defied prevailing assumptions about the seemingly objective act of measurement. He wrote: “Every description of events in space involves the use of a rigid body to which such events have to be referred. The resulting relationship takes for granted that the laws of Euclidean geometry hold for ‘distances;’ the ‘distance’ being represented physically by means of the convention of two marks on a rigid body.” In other words, if a yardstick tells me that I am standing two feet from you, we presume that I am still standing two feet from you even once we remove the yardstick. But, Einstein challenged the presumption that we could remove the measuring rod and think no more about it: he theorized that if you return the yardstick and add motion along its length, an observer who is not in motion will see that the length of the rod itself changes at very high speeds. Distance is relative, not fixed.  

In the egg fertilization example, we can easily recognize the “fact” in question to be “social” because it relates to gender norms. But measurement is just as “social” an activity: it was something that once required explanation that we eventually learned to take for granted. STS scholars have applied similar thinking to technology, too. What counts as a “fact” in this context is a bit different; it usually involves design decision that was once open to debate but has since come to seem like common sense. For example, we are familiar with the air tire on the low-wheeled bicycle today and, in retrospect, it seems a clear improvement from the Ordinary (or Penny Farthing) bicycle. But Trevor Pinch and Wiebe Bijker have shown that there were many competing design possibilities available before one model became the clear favorite. The air tire solved the design problem of vibration at high speed from one perspective, but “For yet another group of engineers, it was an ugly looking way of making the low-wheeler even less safe (because of side slipping) than it already was.” Just as a scientist or science studies scholar might re-open a fact for debate to approach a problem anew, we can question the decisions that are built into our existing technologies in order to re-imagine and re-design our material world.  

This STS approach is particularly rewarding because it takes those deceivingly singular words, science and technology, and reminds us of the multitudes they contain. Science really denotes the interactions among people, apparatuses, ecologies, and ideas; technology seems to connote specific artifacts, but it, too, encompasses debates and decisions, labor and maintenance. STS encourages us to confront the complexity that our popular culture would have us ignore.

You might be wondering, what kind of profession could stand up to this type of scrutiny? It’s true: outsider perceptions of any job have an aura of fairy tale about them. Popular representations of English professors rarely depict our committee meetings, the daily maintenance of our email inboxes, or the seventy-five partially finished drafts we write before we submit an article for publication. But my profession does not create facts, nor does it have the cultural capital of STEM fields. The very fact that we think of our current time as being anti-science when all teachers’ unions and institutions of higher learning are under attack further shows that science looms largest in our public imagination. The stakes of misrepresentation are higher when we think about science and technology for those reasons.

An anecdotal example could be useful here: I teach a writing about climate change course, and my students usually enter class with the shared belief that climate policy does not change because politicians just don’t understand science. Most students who enroll in this course are pursuing degrees in biology or ecology, and they hope to one day “discover” the data set that will cut across political lines and inspire broad-scale political and social action. They think of my writing class as a themed version of a state requirement that has nothing to do with their future ambitions, because, as gifted science students, most of them have been taught to devalue other fields. But then I ask them: how many actual articles did you read from, say, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) before you were convinced? The answer is often zero. They have usually watched videos or read articles that discuss how scientists agree on this issue, but they have rarely studied any actual scientific publications. I explain to the students: that means you were not convinced by science itself, but by an ethical appeal to science. This class exercise does not typically undermine students’ faith in the science of climate change. Rather, it helps them see that other types of expertise matter, too. More scientific data does not produce better policy, but a better understanding of rhetoric, history, ethics, and political science might. Inflated faith in science—and atrophied interest in other fields—can impede well-meaning students from learning the skills they need to accomplish their stated goals.    

This outsized faith in science and technology is ubiquitous, even beyond my classroom; people with enough power to drive policy use this shared belief to promote STEM at the expense of other disciplines. Rising above the Gathering Storm helps us see how these assumptions operate in practice. The “gathering storm” that the title ominously refers to is the loss of highly skilled scientific and technical jobs to international competitors. According to the letter which serves as a preface to this document, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering shared a concern at their joint meeting in 2005 that “not only … manufacturing jobs but also … jobs in administration, finance, engineering, and research” are moving overseas. In other words, they dreaded that the economic effects of deindustrialization and globalization were going to impact the technocratic class in the way that it had already affected the working class, though they frame that issue as a problem that would “degrade … social and economic conditions” nation-wide.  

The co-authors invoke nebulous fears about losing the American “quality of life” throughout the report, but they are more concrete when they discuss their concerns about losing status on an international stage:  

Although many people assume that the United States will always be a world leader in science and technology, this may not continue to be the case inasmuch as great minds and ideas exist throughout the world. We fear the abruptness with which a lead in science and technology can be lost—and the difficulty of recovering a lead once lost, if indeed it can be regained at all. 

The generic discussion about losing our “lead” uses an appeal to the idea of American exceptionalism to frame the coauthors’ more tangible concern of unemployment. We do not often use government subsidies to try to avoid unemployment in other areas of expertise, so the coauthors sugarcoat this request as a worldwide competition their proposal can help America “win.”  

To maintain the “lead” in the ill-defined game of scientific leadership, the National Academies’ Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) created the Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century in 2005, and gave them ten weeks to develop a policy proposal to counteract this concern. The book-length report that they produced proposes a four-pronged approach: (1) “10,000 Teachers, 10 Million Minds, and K-12 Science and Mathematics Education,” (2) “Sowing the Seeds through Science and Engineering Research,” (3) Best and Brightest in Science and Engineering Higher Education,” and (4) “Incentives for Innovation.” These essentially boil down to two strategies: promote STEM education at all levels and sponsor research and development in the private sector with government funds.  

This report contends that technology and the jobs that create it are responsible for the “vitality” of the American economy:  

Without high-quality, knowledge-intensive jobs and the innovative enterprises that lead to discovery and new technology, our economy will suffer and our people will face a lower standard of living. Economic studies conducted even before the information-technology revolution have shown that as much as 85% of measured growth in US income per capita was due to technological change.  

The coauthors do not explain how “technological change” created this windfall—or even what they mean by “technological change”—but since the economic growth “could not be explained by increases in capital stock or other measurable inputs,” they deduce that technological change is the likely cause. In my days as an undergraduate math major, I would have called this logic “proof by lack of imagination.”  

Even if we agree with the generalization that technological change is responsible for the positive things this document hopes to protect—namely “our high quality of life, our national security, and our hope that our children and grandchildren will inherit ever-greater opportunities”—it could not escape our attention that they also characterize certain technologies as a part of the problem. In the following paragraph, the coauthors explain that, “Thanks to globalization, driven by modern communications and other advances, workers in virtually every sector must now face competitors who live just a mouse-click away in Ireland, Finland, China, India, or dozens of other nations whose economies are growing.” Here “modern communications and other advances” are partially to blame for the “gathering storm.” Technology, when invoked in its most abstract form, is responsible for economic benefits, yet specific technologies are to blame for any socioeconomic problems. This tension raises the question: how are the STEM-trained employees of the future supposed to know if they are developing the beneficial types of technologies or the harmful ones? 

This trend of selective blame-placing continues throughout the document. For example, the coauthors accuse media for America’s declining competitiveness on the global market, pointing out that one of the problems with K-12 education is that “American youth spend more time watching television than in school,” as if the quality of education is directly improved by minimizing the TV to time-in-school ratio, regardless of the content that students are watching on television or how the students are spending their time in school.  

The coauthors emphasize their argument with a quote from Jeffrey R. Immelt, chairman and chief executive officer of General Electric, which deploys similarly vacuous quantitative reasoning: “If you want good manufacturing jobs, one thing you could do is graduate more engineers. We had more sports exercise majors graduate than electrical engineering grads last year.” Again, I am left wondering why this ratio matters. Rising above the Gathering Storm frames students that major in sports exercise as an obvious problem because it conceives of education as a zero-sum game in which they hope to win the most funding and the most students. While think pieces about these educational policies and documents often imagine a showdown between STEM and the humanities, STEM proponents see any non-STEM major as a threat to their potential funding. Their third policy proposal explicitly seeks to “increase the number and proportion of US citizens who earn bachelor’s degrees in the physical sciences, the life sciences, engineering, and mathematics.” Even if they want to attract more students to STEM fields, why insist upon a higher “proportion” of baccalaureates in these areas?  

One answer is that luring more talent into STEM fields dilutes the labor field, creating more competition for jobs and allowing large companies to pay employees less money. A more generous, less conspiratorial answer is that the coauthors of this document characterize the breeding of scientists and technologists as an inherently virtuous pursuit. They point out that, “Although the committee was asked only to recommend actions that can be taken by the federal government, it is clear that related actions at the state and local levels are equally important for US prosperity, as are actions taken by each American family.” Just as American families once demonstrated their patriotism by growing victory gardens, today’s family can presumably promote national interests best by pressuring all young people to pursue narrow, utilitarian, and innovation-focused educational goals. Students today face exponentially more social pressure to major in STEM disciplines than I felt as a young student who was shepherded towards those areas.    

Some of the policy proposals in this report make good sense. If fourth and eighth graders fail to demonstrate proficiency in mathematics, incentivizing students with scholarships and teachers with training and funding seems like a reasonable idea to help keep talent in the educational sector. But Rising above the Gathering Storm assumes that more funding for science and technology is the answer to every problem. For example, the co-authors note that, “The United States is one of the few countries in which industry plays a major role in providing healthcare for its employees and their families. Starbucks spends more on healthcare than on coffee. General Motors spends more on healthcare than on steel.” They interpret this fact as a reason why companies would move jobs overseas and, consequently, a justification for why we need more funding in STEM education—even though their policy proposal would not affect Starbucks employees in any way and funding single-payer health care would address this problem more directly. 

Reports like Rising above the Gathering Storm have been influential at driving both policy and public opinion. They manufacture alarm (the “gathering storm”), urging us to recommit to our social and financial investment in STEM at the expense of other disciplines. Such policy documents presume that science and its sister fields, technology, engineering, and mathematics are inherently better for society than other fields, but their logic falters when they assert (explain would be too generous of a word) why. Even if the supremacy of these fields seems like fact, science studies reminds us that we have the right to ask: how did we come to be convinced by it? Is it just a coincidence that this supposition benefits the professional organizations that write these briefs?

The presumptions that underwrite Rising above the Gathering Storm become more conspicuous when we compare it to its predecessor, A Nation at Risk (1983). The Reagan-era report used similarly alarmist language and appeals to American exceptionalism, but it also included a much richer understanding of desirable educational aims. “Our concern,” it states,

goes well beyond matters such as industry and commerce. It also includes the intellectual, moral, and spiritual strengths of our people which knit together the very fabric of our society. The people of the United States need to know that individuals in our society who do not possess the levels of skill, literacy, and training essential to this new era will be effectively disenfranchised, not simply from the material rewards that accompany competent performance, but also from the chance to participate fully in our national life. A high level of shared education is essential to a free, democratic society and to the fostering of a common culture, especially in a country that prides itself on pluralism and individual freedom. 

Rising above the Gathering Storm and other policy documents that hock STEM education fail to recognize what even A Nation at Risk understood: complementary forms of knowledge production are each valuable in their own right—and they can enhance one another. 

Some policymakers have recognized that STEM can be anemic without a broader educational foundation. Following Georgette Yakman, they have agreed to add art to the mix to accommodate for this apparent weakness, promoting “STEAM” as the new-and-improved STEM. But this educational model seems to have arbitrarily left the humanities “H” on the side for no better reason than that it cannot make a new, neat acronym. No one is lining up to promote unsexy acronyms like THEMAS, STEMAH, or the Yiddish-sounding SHTEAM.  

Like its predecessor, STEAM detrimentally overemphasizes innovation and competition, overlooking the importance of maintenance, analysis, context, and reflection. If the “gathering storm” is really the socioeconomic effects of globalization, the storm might be better be weathered by, say, promoting humanistic or philosophical inquiry that can help young people reflect on what we, as a society, owe to each other—or by exploring radical economics that imagines alternative ways that societies can flow and grow. But these documents incite concern about innovation, alone, urging us to ignore the socially beneficial effects of a well-rounded education.  

When I was a young person who was just showing promise in the areas of inquiry we now call STEM, I enjoyed playing with toys and learning about the world, but I couldn’t see how science addressed the messier and more important aspects of my life: what it could teach me about coping with the pain of my father’s incarceration? How could a discipline that encouraged me to strive to be “the best one”—not just for a girl, but in my class in general—teach me to be a good teammate or friend? Meanwhile, my teachers couldn’t see why I would be drawn to anything except science if I could get good grades in those difficult classes.  

We can do better for the next generation of students.  

If the goals are truly to bolster a vibrant economy and to enhance our students’ lives, and not just to produce higher-producing drones, we could start by helping students see the value of different types of knowledge production in their own right, and encouraging them to explore how disparate fields can speak to each other in mutually beneficial ways. We can cultivate a science curriculum that promotes collaboration rather than competitiveness, modeling to young people the culture of co-authorship that awaits them if they pursue a research-oriented career in STEM. We can demand that civics and ethics be a part of STEM education, to equip students to navigate technological systems that might exploit them, or to design new technologies or policies altogether. We can also help young people see how scientific understandings of the world raise new philosophical questions—like those Karen Barad asks in her amazing study of philosophy and quantum physics, Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007) or Ruha Benjamin et al. raise in their study of technology, surveillance, and race, Captivating Technology (2019)or inspire new literary pursuits, like Richard Powers’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Overstory (2018). But as long as we keep the culture wars going, promoting STEM at the expense of other kinds of knowledge, America might win the “lead” that Rising above the Gathering Storm was so concerned about—but American schoolchildren will lose out, nonetheless.

Jennifer L. Lieberman