It is, in fact, a Monday. But the piece you’re about to read is already up elsewhere, so I figured I’d post it here as well. I know what you’re thinking: If we talk about education now, however will you spend your Tuesday night? Never fear, dear readers, for tomorrow will be filled with hipsters instead! And don’t worry, this won’t be the last you hear about innovation…
Edit: Well this happened again…
We’ve all heard the statistics: in 2009, America ranked at 31 out of 65 nations for basic science skills and 23 out of 65 for basic math. Furthermore, 31% of American students are taught mathematics by an instructor without a math degree and less than one percent attend high schools focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). For a country whose competitive edge is rooted in innovation, this seems like a pretty clear wake-up call to reform the way U.S. schools teach STEM courses.
The White House has responded to this information with various initiatives aimed at getting students interested in STEM through hands-on learning, with the broader goal of “inspiring them to be the next generation of inventors and innovators” (Educate to Innovate). If America is to stay successful (whatever we mean by that) even as countries like China move to encroach upon our superpower status, we have to maintain our entrepreneurial spirit.
But Yankee ingenuity doesn’t come from STEM achievement alone.
A similar push for science education occurred in the U.S. during the Cold War, when we pitted ourselves against the Soviet Union in the race to explore space and develop nuclear armaments. But it’s 2012, and the tangible objective of innovation isn’t about national security.
It’s about the user interface—when companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook, create products that revolutionize the way we communicate with one another. The brains behind these businesses wouldn’t be able to do that without (analytical and communication skills that allow them to truly meet consumers’ needs. These skills don’t come from technological fields. They come from subjects like economics, sociology, and literature.
Let’s look at Steve Jobs. His name is on over 300 U.S. patents, and Apple products and software have had a massive impact on American media consumption. That isn’t just a result of STEM competency, though. What made Jobs’ approach special was his persistent perfectionism—apparent in the perpetual train of versions of iProducts and operating systems—as well as his ability to focus on details that would improve the user experience.
Jobs introduced a breakthrough feature of Apple computers: their huge variety of proportionally-spaced fonts, which made computers appealing, fun, and human at a time when they were used mainly for engineering. The inspiration for this came from a class that couldn’t be farther from STEM: calligraphy.
Without a doubt, America needs to rethink its approach to STEM education. But neglecting and devaluing “frivolous” subjects won’t help us cultivate the innovative spirit. What will revive it are classrooms that empower driven pupils with analytic talent, creativity, and a keen awareness of the human touch—whether they’re STEM-focused students or not.