I’ve been putting my mind to the whole notion of innovation lately. It’s really easily to jump on board the innovation bandwagon. As this train departs the station I can, hand on heart, say I was an early passenger. That said, I feel somewhat fraudulent up here in first class. To transition our economy we have been told we must innovate. No arguments there…but how?
I’ve been to two conferences lately, one being the Design Conference at the ever funky Powerhouse in Brisbane and the other the massive EduTech conference at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre. They couldn’t have been more different. The former was an exploration of issues of creativity and how to marry this with client demands and the latter was all things education with a real push on promoting STEM. STEM seems to be everywhere at the moment. You could be forgiven for thinking that STEM is the new black. It would appear we have too few students taking these subjects through school and higher education and this is a roadblock to the transitioning of our economy and our nation’s future prosperity.
What’s remarkable about this assertion is that it is in and of itself putative i.e. it has no evidence base. Clearly our future can only be measured when we get there and when we do if STEM didn’t deliver the transition or prosperity we envisaged how can we disaggregate that cause from other causative factors, known in science as variables? Truth is we can’t. Just seems odd to me as the STEM community should know better than to promulgate their cause with such poor advocacy. I’m lucky; I’m not a scientist. I believe much more nowadays in intuition and based on my gut feel (becoming increasingly scientific by the way) I think STEM is not the way to go at all. Let me explain.
I attended by neighbour’s son’s BBQ on Sunday. He’s a really smart young man with a good mature head on his 6ft 9inch shoulders (yes I’m already looking up to him) and he’s just turned 15. He has just decided on the subjects he will be taking for his Year 11 and Year 12 (final two years of high school). The three key electives he has chosen are Maths C (the really hard subject), Physics and Chemistry. The STEM community will be chuffed as this is the calibre of candidate they want – smart, focused and hard working.
Given I had just attended a conference that did not use the acronym STEM once, but was constantly using the word ‘rad’ as a key descriptor in their lexicon, this got me reflecting. A quick trip to Google perfectly argued my point in the kind of succinct way I never could. ‘Rad’ is defined in the Webster Dictionary (around since 1828) as:
‘A unit of absorbed dose of ionizing radiation equal to 100 ergs per gram of irradiated material.’
‘Rad’ is further defined in the Urban Dictionary (I suspect established a lot more recently than 1828) as:
‘An abbreviation of ‘radical’ – a term made popular by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Still primarily used by people on the West Coast who find words like ‘cool’, ‘awesome’, and ‘tight’ to be tired and overused; ‘rad’ is generally considered to be a much higher praise than the aforementioned superlatives. Also used as a general expression of awe.’
You get my point. Two opposing sides of the brain with a completely different view of things, with a differing lexicon. So which direction should you take? Clearly those of a left-sided brain bent will, of necessity, gravitate to the more science-based subjects. Those more creative, drawing on the right hemisphere, will take the more ‘arty-farty’ route. Those trying to influence Governments in terms of education and industry policy are clearly pushing a left-hemisphere agenda to the potential detriment of those not of this persuasion. I think this is not only wrong but may have a deleterious impact on our economy. Here’s my reasoning (and intuition). STEM is unashamedly based in the world of science. Einstein though, perhaps the foremost scientist ever, suggests that creativity is essential when he says:
‘It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.’
So I’m going to posit a new acronym that I think is a much better recipe for success or subject line-up for year 11 and 12 students. I’m calling it SCHEEME. It works too because it is so catchy! It stands for Science (yeah I’m not dissing it entirely), Creativity, History, Engineering, Economics, Mathematics and Environment.
In more detail here is my pitch for each.
Science – of course we need science to keep pushing the boundaries and improve the lot of humankind. Also without the scientific method we can fall prey to all manner of charlatans and opinion, however expressed, can become the abuse of power. It was only in the 16th Century that the earth was the centre of the universe. Without Copernicus and colleagues we would still be laboring under this misapprehension. Perhaps the modern day analogue is the denial of climate change. That’s why we need scientists.
Creativity – this is the way I see it. You can have the best looking, most advanced TV with the most rad streaming service but if the content’s shite then what’s the fun in that? We need creativity for our well-being but more fundamentally we need it to help solve problems by thinking outside the square. My experience at the Design Conference last week showed me a whole world of bright, focused and gifted people with so much to offer from their particular right-sided brain perspective. We ignore this demographic at our peril. Gradgrind, after all, is not one of Dickens’ heroes.
History – Simply put we will commit the sins of our forefathers if we have no understanding of what went before us and the context in which such events unfolded. The current rise of fascism in Europe and America is a reminder that the horrors of not that long ago could re-emerge if we do not keep a weather-eye on whence we have come. A few more Wall Street types could have fared better if they had just done some economic history instead of throwing dwarves.
Engineering – we are in the post-industrial age so engineering is a core plank of how we progress. Key health breakthroughs will involve engineering whether it be genetic or robotic. You will get no argument from me here.
Economics – Economics is at the art-science nexus. Part science with a set of laws, it also requires a more expansive mind to really understand its full complexity. In economics one will find their core beliefs in terms of social policy. To know that is to begin to know oneself.
Mathematics – I guess maths sits as the immutable laws underpinning science so let’s throw it in there. About time we got some of the art teachers to teach it though. Kids learn mathematics (or not as the case may be) in different ways. I suspect we need a different modality to teach left-sided concepts to right-sided people. I’ve heard mathematical geniuses describing numbers in colours in the same way as artists might of a work of art. Surely there is something further to be explored here?
Environment – I’ve not seen anyone throw this into the mix. Climate change is real and it’s happening now. If we cannot imbue in our STEM students an appreciation for and love of our planet then solutions that might be in science may not come to the fore. Biology is that poor cousin subject in the sciences that often gets dropped because the curriculum calendar can’t stretch to one more. The mathematically-minded struggle more with the natural world, which is a real shame. Einstein himself recognized the need for a deep contemplation of the environment.
If there is no planet the STEM versus SCHEEME debate becomes arbitrary anyway.
So next time you see STEM being advocated in our schools and learned institutions, it is worth considering the motivations of those pushing this agenda. The key question to ask is what are they trying to achieve by pushing us headlong into a future world that looks overly dispassionate? When all is said and done what do most famous scientists do of an evening? I suspect it’s to put on a great record or go to the theatre where the breadth and complexity of the human spirit is laid bare. For it is only through this can we continue to grow as individuals, community and a nation.