Natalie Angier, one of my favorite science and nature writers, has a piece in the New York TImes OnLine this morning, “STEM Education Has Little to Do With Flowers”. The piece is a bit of a critique of a fad that we at Truman have invested in: STEM education. Her essay is short and lively. Read it.

One theme in the essay concerns the way that the acronym reinforces a mentality of siloing the disciplines.

Dr. Stage, a mathematician by training, thinks it’s a “false distinction” to “silo out” the different disciplines, and would much prefer to focus on what the fields have in common, like problem-solving, arguing from evidence and reconciling conflicting views. “That’s what we should have in the bulls’-eye of our target,” she said.

Since Natalie is an excellent writer, she gives an opposing view a chance to be heard.

Dr. Lander argues that that there is a basic rightness to the itemizing spirit behind STEM. “Science is discovering the laws of the natural world, and mathematics isn’t that, it’s logical, deductive truth, and its experiments don’t have error bars,” he said. “And when you get to technology and engineering, it’s the constructed world, and that’s different than the discovered one.”

I like Dr. Lander’s perspective. It’s a nice way to draw some distinctions between the ‘ways of thinking’ of the different disciplines. But we have entered an era where Dr. Stage’s perspective rules the day. Disciplinary expertise and depth of knowledge will continue to be important, but just as important is an understanding of how the disciplines are interdependent and can work together to tackle huge real-world problems.

Yet others don’t frame the word “science” so narrowly, as the province of the given rather than of the forged. Science has always encompassed the applied and the basic, and the impulses to explore and to invent have always been linked. Galileo built a telescope and then trained it on the sky. Advances in technology illuminate realms beyond our born senses, and those insights in turn yield better scientific toys. Engineers use math and physics and the scientific mind-set in everything they design; and those who don’t, please let us know, so we can fly someone else’s airplane and not cross your bridge when we come to it. Whatever happened to the need for interdisciplinary thinking? Why promote a brand that codifies atomization?

I couldn’t end this commentary without pointing out to the reader that we at Truman are starting to take this integrative and interdisciplinary approach to STEM education….err, science and mathematics education. Our SPECTRA program is allowing us to explore new models for introducing students to the beauty, power, and opportunities in the STEM disciplines. So far, we’re excited by what we’ve been able to do. I wonder if we’ll be able to come up with a new acronym to describe our efforts.