STEM Is for Everyone

Special Focus : Why STEM Education Matters?
Learning and Behavioural Sciences February 27, 2014

Geeky boys excitedly huddled together, figuring out the latest glitch in their robot design  — this is a popular stereotype image of engineering students. Not unexpectedly, such images turn off vast numbers of students who otherwise would be interested in studying science, mathematics and engineering. Girls especially may find such images unappealing. But the good news is that today, in the 2nd decade of the 21st Century, only very few engineers and scientists design and build robots. There are many more applications of what is now called STEM-thinking in the world around us. STEM is a popular abbreviation forScience, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. STEM is not just “gadgets.”  It’s a way of thinking and doing.

STEM has different meanings to different people. To me, it’s broadly defined:  
A person has STEM literacy if she can understand the world around her in a logical way guided by the principals of scientific thought. A STEM-literate person can think for herself. She asks critical questions.  She can form hypotheses and seek data to confirm or deny them. She sees the beauty and complexity in nature and seeks to understand. She sees the modern world that mankind has created and hopes to use her STEM-related skills and knowledge to improve it.

While both males and females benefit from STEM knowledge and skills, worldwide females are under-represented in STEM studies and careers. The reasons are complex and not fully understood. Culture, tradition, the engineering workplace, and access to quality education and access to STEM careers — all may be important. At my institution, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – arguably the most well known STEM-focused research university in the USA, less than 5% of undergraduate students were females when I was an undergraduate there in the 1960’s. Today, I am happy to report that almost 50% of undergraduates are females. In traveling the world, I have seen an increasing number of female students engaged in both undergraduate and graduate studies in STEM fields. And in head-to-head competition, my perception (not based on rigorous data) is that in the developing world the females typically outperform the males in their STEM studies. Perhaps they are more highly motivated?

STEM literacy moves into everyday lives and thinking. Consider this question as an example: How many seats offered for sale each week by your local movie theater are actually sold to customers?  Estimate a percentage of seats sold.  Think for a minute before proceeding… Many people estimate 40% or 50%. You might have been turned away recently from an opening weekend blockbuster film, so you might even guess closer to 100%. Well, the correct answer across much of the USA is about 5%!! That’s right, about 5% of all movie theater seats offered for sale during a week are actually sold to paying customers.  How can this be, when all we see is nearly filled theaters? The answer is that most of us go to see films during popular times such as weekend evenings, when the seats are relatively filled, not the Tuesday 11:00 AM showing when you might be the only customer in the theater. Your own appearance during busy times creates a significantselection bias. You as customer experience a crowded theater. The theater owner laments 95% empty seats. Both are correct.

What’s the point of this theater example?  It’s our ability to reason properly with numbers and statistics.  STEM thinking. The same logic applies to all “rush hour” situations: commuting to and from work, many people going on summer vacations at the same time, etc. We need to be knowledgeable interpreters of data-informed situations. Who knows? We may change our behavior to avoid crowds as a result!

Despite current economic uncertainties, worldwide there are millions of STEM-related jobs currently now open, looking for qualified applicants. Yet, so many people are unemployed. Why the mismatch? Why don’t more young people select STEM careers?  

Let’s look briefly at some of the issues and problems around STEM studies and careers, for both young women and young men. We’ll do this by stating some misperceptions and then discussing them.

  • Engineering is all about hardware, gadgets and circuits.  Not true. Some of the highest growth and most important engineering topics of today are far from gadgets. Like bio-engineering, bringing together the science of biology with the design philosophy of engineers to create new and exciting inventions to improve our health and well being. Or systems engineering, where engineering processes are applied to design new systems in education, health and welfare for a country. The ‘engineering mentality’ and approach are needed in virtually all aspects of society. This is good news for both men and women whose career goals are more towards societal improvement than techno-gadget creation.
  • STEM students are best evaluated by standardized multiple-choice tests. Too many countries make this mistake. That is, they strictly rank order their students graduating from secondary schools based on a single number, the score on a countrywide standardized multiple-choice test.  Their future possibilities rely solely on this number. Such a test is viewed as a “Magic Bullet” unbiased way to evaluate and rank students. Guess what? Such systems create young people who are dutifully good at rote learning, memorizing to score well on such tests.  And their teachers tend to “teach to the test.” Standardized tests do not encourage the development of critical thinking skills, risk taking, tolerance for and even celebration of failure, and “thinking outside the box.” All of these latter talents are required for inventiveness, to try to create new things and processes.  Thomas Edison “failed” over 1,000 times before he successfully invented the incandescent light bulb. Too many cultures do not accept failure, which is often seen as a sign of weakness or an embarrassment to the family.
  • The world already has too many scientists. There is a misperception in such a statement. Not all STEM students become scientists. Very few do. Most STEM-literate students follow more regular non-technical careers but with a rich STEM knowledge that can give them a competitive advantage in this increasingly complex highly connected world. Becoming STEM literate can help any career path. But every country, every society can benefit from scientists who contribute to the collective knowledge of mankind. In physics the majority of the universe is said to be ‘dark,” with dark matter and dark energy, concepts we know very little about. There is much yet to learn. In astrophysics, we are just now discovering some of the many millions of planets out there, some of which may host intelligent life. There is much yet to learn. In the life sciences and bioengineering, we are making huge strides every day, leveraging formally disparate fields such as computer science with the more traditional science of biology. Cures for diseases are being found. Life spans are increasing at astonishing rates. Infant mortalities are decreasing. And still there is much yet to learn.
  • I do not plan to be an engineer or scientist, so STEM is not for me.  Becoming knowledgeable about STEM is not about the 0.01% who might become Ph.D. researchers or the 1% who might become engineers.  In this data-informed, technology intensive 21sT Century the entire populace needs to become STEM literate. We all need STEM thinking skills. Many apparently non-STEM jobs have become STEM jobs, especially in the trades.  Do you know that the average new car has about 50 microprocessors? Forget about crawling under it with a few of your Dad’s old tools to fix it! And Moore’s Law of computers, which has resulted in the iPhone being equivalent to a multi-ton supercomputer of the 1970’s, has affected most other trades as well. But perhaps the most important reason for everyone to become STEM literate is to build a more informed citizenry. In that way we individually and collectively become better decision makers about all the options that our world and we face. STEM is not only for Ph.D. researchers. It’s for all of us!


There is a relatively new worldwide initiative that offers the promise to change and improve STEM education worldwide. That is called Open Educational Resources (OER), meaning free educational materials available to all via the Internet. MIT helped to start the movement over ten years ago, placing the teaching materials of 2,000+ courses on their web site, free for the world to use. Millions of learners visit this web site every year. Now there are thousands of contributors of OER content worldwide, including k-12 education as well as tertiary (college-level) education. Collectively, we are “crowd-sourcing” education for the world!

MIT’s materials and many other OER contributions are STEM-focused. STEM learning can be vastly improved if these resources are used effectively.

At MIT we operate an OER STEM initiative aimed at secondary school STEM classes. The program is called BLOSSOMS, representing Blended Learning Open Sources Science Or Math Studies. BLOSSOMS is an international (multi-cultural) project developing a freely available repository of interactive videos for STEM classes. The students sit in their regular seats in class, all electronic devices turned off, and the teacher shows segments of a BLOSSOMS video module to them on a screen or TV set in front of the class. After a few minutes, the screen fades to black, the video is turned off, and the “teaching baton” is handed to the live in-class teacher who engages the class in a very interactive, problem-based response to what they have just seen. The class needs to achieve some interim-learning objective. After this is accomplished, the teacher then turns on the video again, and they all watch the next video segment. This iterative Teaching Duet process continues through the entire class time.  Each BLOSSOMS video module is accompanied by a 100% complete lesson plan. The BLOSSOMS lessons are not from textbooks, they do not involve rote learning, and they require the students to think through novel problem situations in science, math and engineering. There is no test.

Hopefully, together, we can co-create new and exciting STEM-focused learning opportunities for our young people, leading them to select more STEM courses and maybe pursuing STEM careers. BLOSSOMS is one example of OER content freely available to all, allowing hope that our key credo may now be realized:

With today’s computer and telecommunications technologies, every young person can have a quality education regardless of his or her place of birth or wealth of parents.