Monday, February 12, 2018

Clarifying STEAM as Complementary to STEM

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on...................."

In the Washington Post, an article by Cathy N. Davidson, founding director of the Futures Initiative and a professor in the doctoral program in English at the Graduate Center, CUNY sets forth a new study by Google that suggests STEM skills are not necessarily the keys to success at the company.

"All across America, students are anxiously finishing their “What I Want To Be …” college application essays, advised to focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) by pundits and parents who insist that’s the only way to become workforce ready.  But two recent studies of workplace success contradict the conventional wisdom about “hard skills.” Surprisingly, this research comes from the company most identified with the STEM-only approach: Google.
In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas."

Ms. Davidson goes on to cite another Google study, Project Aristotle, suggesting that the most successful teams at Google:

"exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard."

Does this mean STEM skills aren't necessary, or that tech companies will now look to liberal arts majors in their hiring?  Of course not.  STEM skills are the lifeblood of technology.  But it does open the door for consideration of skills other than STEM skills as also being important in the hiring and promotion process.  It is the beginning of the recognition that STEM skills are not the only skills that are critically important.

The comments to the article are as telling as the hypothesis that communications and soft people skills are critical.  Dispensing with the obvious politically motivated comments by those to whom even the term liberal arts education, is anathema and merely the ramblings of fuzzy thinking leftists -i.e. the Trumpets - two or three valid points are made.  First, STEM skills, while technical at heart, are not completely devoid of the soft skills of empathy, team problem solving, effective communications and thinking in the larger context or outside-the-box.   Indeed, development of STEM skills involves team problem solving, empathy, communication and the generation of new ideas.  While we may argue that the arts and humanities bring an additional value to education and training, we ought not to adopt the false narrative that only the arts and humanities can do that.

Second, there is a difference between coders and technicians and those who manage the efforts of that category of workers.  The workplace needs all kinds of skills.  Steve Jobs was an innovator.  He was a designer, not a coder.  Apple would not be the company it is if he had not had those skills.  For technology companies, coders are essential. But so are managers, marketers, sales people, designers, innovators and thinkers of all stripes.  The greater development of all skills in every employee, the greater the chance the company will thrive.

But the most rational point in the comments is made by both STEM trained coders, scientists and mathematicians and those who rely on soft skills emphasized in the Oxygen study, and that is that the balance of skills is what is most desirable.  Even for those who labor almost exclusively on technical projects relying on STEM skills, having additional grounding in critical thinking, people skills and the ability to effectively communicate is of great value -- even for a company like Google which prides itself on the high level attainment of its technical people, hiring only the very top percent of those graduates who performed well in STEM courses.

While those of us who argue for STEAM would apply its value to a university education, if we just limit the discussion to inclusion of the arts and humanities in the K-12 curriculum, the idea of giving students exposure to, and development of,  knowledge in the arts and humanities, is to improve their performance of their STEM skills, and increase the likelihood that they will succeed as STEM majors in college and on the job, allowing companies like Google to reap the benefits.

This has never been an either / or choice.  The question isn't whether STEAM is better at teaching the soft skills, nor whether or not STEM teaches those skills too.  The question is how to maximize all the skills that are advantageous in the workplace for all workers.  And so the comments that suggest liberal arts majors would benefit from exposure to, and development of knowledge of, STEM skills, is valid, as is the converse, that STEM students benefit from a STEAM approach.  Indeed, STEM skills are often used by artists - ranging from painters, to the theater, to dance, to musicians, composers, choreographers, film makers and more.  The notion that STEM and the "A" in STEAM are mutually exclusive has no basis in fact, and is harmful to all the people involved - students of all stripes, technicians, managers and all employees, companies and to society in general.  Somehow we have got to figure out how to get past that bias and prejudice.

It may well be that only a STEM background is necessary for the purest technical applications, but work today isn't now, and will be even less so in the future, about only those kinds of skills.  Creativity, imagination, design, and new ideas are the life blood of enterprise and that requires multiple skills.  Eventually Artificial Intelligence will reach the point where pure coders can be replaced by robots, and then coders will have effectively coded their way out of employment.  But it will be a longer stretch before AI reaches the point where human ingenuity and thought involved in the generation of new ideas will happen.  Eventually perhaps, but not yet.

Clearly, Google has prospered by consciously recruiting the elite of STEM employees.  It has also prospered, perhaps unconsciously, by the evolution and growth of STEAM employees.

We need a country that has vision, and can equip students who will eventually populate our companies and our society with multiple skill sets and, at the least, develop an understanding of different kinds of skills and how they are integrated with each other.  Decrying STEM or STEAM is shortsighted. Making the argument that one, or the other, is unnecessary is counter intuitive and counter productive.

STEAM embodies the bigger picture.  A vivisectionist argument against STEAM illustrates a myopic approach.  There are many ways to give genesis to the big ideas that will help us both prosper and meet the challenges we face.  We need that bigger picture.  And so we need our people - all of them if possible - to be able to communicate, create, imagine, and collaborate.  STEM can do that - in part.  STEAM likely can do it across a wider, deeper spectrum.  Arrogance in insisting that STEM or STEAM is the only answer serves no one.

Very likely the resistance to STEAM comes from an irrational bias against anything that is not STEM.  That bias may have actually served a purpose for the tech industry in its infancy.  But it is no longer in its infancy, and that bias will ill serve it for the future.  I suspect that studies that show the value of skills other than STEM will not yet put the resistance to bed.  But its a start, and we need to push through that slightly open door to make the argument that STEAM enhances STEM.  It complements it, not weakens it.

We must adhere to the argument that STEAM improves STEM, not attacks it.  We must make it crystal clear that adding the "A" - the arts and humanities - is not a threat to the value of STEM, but a way to expand it and insure STEM works at an optimum level.  Perhaps we haven't emphasized enough the point that STEAM is an added, complementary value.

Increasing studies that show the value - not just to managers, but to all employees - that STEAM brings, will help us to break down the irrational barriers that once existed to keep us from making STEAM the standard.  First in K-12, but eventually on the university level as well.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit