In a STEM-obsessed world, let’s remember to value real inventions over test scores


Let’s judge STEM super kids by the innovations they produce rather than by their test scores. Here, President Obama experiments with a concussion cushion football helmet at the 2014 White House Science Fair. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Ever since President Obama announced the “Educate to Innovate” campaign for Excellence in Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM) Education in November 2009, U.S. educators have launched a number of initiatives to push down STEM education to an earlier and earlier age. Entirely new curricula have been formed, new school programs have been created, and even classic childhood favorites like Sesame Street have been re-thought for STEM careers. The core belief is that if you teach kids early, they will embrace STEM disciplines and maybe even turn into STEM super kids.

But will all this focus on creating STEM super kids actually pay off?

If by “pay off,” we mean creating the basis for an innovation economy, then it almost certainly will. Just about everyone agrees that pushing down STEM education to an earlier and earlier age works – and may be the only way for America to preserve its innovation lead in the global economy. This makes intuitive sense – kids who get a jump start on STEM education early in their educational lives will probably be more attuned to STEM careers later in their educational lives.

And, anecdotally, we’re already starting to hear about STEM super kids as young as age 13 being courted by the likes of Apple and other tech companies. There are now $1,000 3D printers that show up in STEM gift guides for kids. There are all kinds of robotics and engineering kits for the Pre-K crowd. Kids as early as age 5 can now practice designing circuit boards. If only a fraction of these STEM super-kids go into future STEM careers, that still goes a long ways towards addressing the STEM skills gap that everyone’s talking about.

However, if by “pay off,” we mean simply closing the achievement gap with the nations of Europe and Asia, then the evidence is much more ambiguous. According to the latest PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test results from 2012, U.S. STEM test scores haven’t budged since the announcement of the “Educate to Innovate” campaign five years ago. In fact, America now appears to be falling behind countries such as Poland and Ireland when it comes to math and science scores. Not to mention the fact that China is now No. 1 in the world.

When the STEM education campaign was launched in 2009, President Obama suggested a ten-year window for evaluating the results. Since we’re now at the midway point, it’s fair to ask how far we’ve come in the past five years. If educators don’t start producing better test results by the time the next round of PISA test results come out in 2015, the risk is that all those tablet apps and 3D printers and robotics kits will start to look like just shiny and expensive toys. What’s the good of a $1,000 3D printer if kids still can’t figure out what to do with it? (Those PISA scores are supposed to measure “practical” skills and not “theoretical” skills)

As long as the stories about poor U.S. test results continue to gain traction (and headlines), it will be harder for the truly unique STEM programs out there to maintain or gain momentum. It’s not just the Science Fair at the White House. It’s the Lego racing cars that seven-year-olds are building. It’s the STEM camps dedicated to nanotechnology and robotics. It’s all the effort that has gone into rethinking classic childhood favorites.

The Boston Children’s Museum, which now offers a full guide to STEM education for kids in partnership with WGBH and National Grid, probably has the best advice for how to think about STEM: Just get kids curious about science and the rest will fall into place. Constantly find ways to stimulate that curiosity. Don’t worry about test results, worry more about taking your kids for a long walk in the park and getting them interested in what they see all around them. That’s when they will be able to create the innovations of tomorrow.

And that’s a strategy that seems to make sense – our foreign competitors, to be fair, want to be as much like us as we want to be like them. If the choice is between (a) having innovation clusters like Silicon Valley and middle-of-the-pack test scores or (b) having top-of-the-pack test scores and a second-rate innovation economy as in China, the choice is clear. So let’s not fall into the trap of solely measuring success by metrics like test scores. Let’s instead focus on all the intangibles of innovation – companies started, apps created, unique science fair experiments and most importantly, dreams fulfilled – for judging the future success of our nation’s STEM programs for kids.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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