My husband and I were discussing whether the production of pharmaceuticals and other vital commodities would move back to the United States from China. He brought up an angle that had eluded me.
“We aren’t raising enough people with the education and ability to produce many of these things,” he said. “To make matters worse, not only are we not producing nearly enough design and production engineers, chemists, and people who know how to operate numerically controlled machine tools, powerful unions have placed almost insurmountable impediments to manufacturing in America and have pushed wages beyond the economically sustainable. Add to that all the politicians willing to buy votes with unrealistic economic promises and seeking power via unnecessary regulations, and we simply are years from returning to a manufacturing economy. That’s without even mentioning lawyers poised to attack any successful company.”
With that in mind, my attention was caught by a newspaper article that was part of a series of how a variety of professionals are working during this pandemic. We have all read so much over the past few years about a renewed focus on STEM— science, technology, engineering and math—exactly those areas in which my husband was declaring our country to be deficient. This particular article featured a science teacher developing remote lessons. Although meant as a laudatory piece, it actually showed how meaningless a STEM label can be. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “A touchy-feely humanities class by any other name would still be a liberal arts class.”
As the article describes, at the beginning of distance learning, the featured 6th-grade teacher decided that it would be hard to interest the class in her planned lesson on thermal energy. She chose to substitute a lesson on the science of social distancing, showing a flexibility that is, indeed, admirable.
However, when she described her new lesson, I was left shaking my head. Where I was expecting a lesson encompassing data, statistical analysis, and maybe even experimentation based on scientific principles, the teacher provided writing prompts for the students to describe their feelings and personal experiences and to express how they felt about government officials’ responses to the virus.
Excuse me? As a homeschooling mom, I was a big fan of integrating different subjects. For instance, mentioning how Sir Isaac Newton invented calculus during the 1666 bubonic plague outbreak from which he quarantined himself at his mother’s home in Lancashire brings math alive. But that is not studying calculus. When we read a biography of a scientist such as Robert Boyle, I didn’t think that we were learning science. It was a history lesson that, depending on the strength of the writing, might also include some language arts. I hoped it would stoke interest in learning Boyle’s Law, and thus complement a science class, but I didn’t confuse reading a biography with studying hard science.
For our country to survive, we do need citizens who are scientifically, technologically and mathematically versed. As our infrastructure crumbles, engineers are vital. If we intend increasing homeland manufacture of strategically important products like pharmaceuticals, semiconductor chips, and heavy machinery, let’s start by making sure that our schools don’t mistake teaching science and math with teaching about science and math. Whether we need a bridge buttressed, a vaccine developed or silicon chips manufactured, let us not confuse being able to wax poetic about those developments with the technical skills required to do the actual work.