When most people talk about beefing up STEM education, they mean expanding the availability of the integrated learning of science, technology, engineering and math classes. It’s needed, proponents say, because there simply aren’t enough young Americans educated well enough in these subjects to take the available jobs in the 21st Century economy — and because there is a huge STEM achievement gap between whites and blacks, the poor and the wealthy.

But what if this achievement gap can’t be solved by more STEM classes? That’s the argument made in the following post by Esther Dyson and Lucy N. Friedman. Dyson is a journalist and commentator on emerging digital technology, a philanthropist and an entrepreneur through EDventure Holdings. She also serves on the Board of Directors of ExpandED Schools, a non-profit dedicated to closing the learning gap by increasing access to enriched education experiences.  Friedman is the founder and president of ExpandED Schools, a nonprofit dedicated to closing the learning gap. Since its founding in 1998, ExpandED Schools has provided more and better learning time to more than 800,000 kids in New York City and beyond.

By Esther Dyson and Lucy N. Friedman

The kids you see running around on playgrounds today just might be the ones who could design smarter cities of tomorrow. They may discover cures for what ails us, develop renewable energy sources and devise better ways to feed growing populations. But will the problems that plague everyone be solved only by the lucky few who are privileged enough to be born into means?

A new report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) suggests so. Recently released technology and engineering literacy scores from NAEP’s Nation’s Report Card – which measures whether students are able to apply tech and engineering skills to real-life situations – revealed a 28-point gap between students from low-income families and their more affluent peers, and a 38-point gap between black and white students. This discrepancy must be addressed – not merely for the sake of the students left behind, but for the prosperity of our country and the health of our planet.

Yet we must be wise about how we attempt to narrow this gap. Many, no doubt, will read this report and call for more technology in under-served schools. Bring in the lab coats and computers and beakers and robots. Teach children to code and build and measure. It’s great to focus on tech and coding, but invention is only a small part of actual innovation. If an increased focus on STEM comes at the expense of sports and arts and humanities, we all lose. After all, problem solvers need people skills to see their creative ideas to actual implementation.

Thinking about it this way, much of effective technology and engineering literacy draws upon experiences that take place on ball fields and theater sets, in dance studios and debate halls. In fact, one need only look at the engineering design process itself to understand why a well-rounded education and extra-curricular experiences are best poised to cultivate the skills measured by the technology and engineering literacy assessment.

Engineering design, in both the classroom and the real world, comprises a series of steps that problem solvers use to create functional products and systems in order to meet human needs and wants. Broken down, the steps are: ask what the problem is, imagine a solution, plan, create a prototype, test it and improve. Engineers, be they students or professional scientists, must analyze a situation to determine the problem and then understand what motivates people. They need to be creative and brainstorm possible solutions before gathering materials and designing a model. In other words, they need to apply the very skills that are honed through activities like chess, comic book creation and film-making. They need to rely on aptitudes discovered through drama, yearbook, cooking clubs and band.

As Thomas Edison once said about his early efforts to invent the light bulb, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Kids need experiences where they can try and fail, over and over again, without fear of a bad grade and without losing faith in their ability to succeed.

Engineers ask themselves, “Can we make it better?” It’s the same question athletes, musicians, dancers and thespians ask themselves at every practice or rehearsal. This belief that failure brings you one step closer to success is integral to engineering, and requires a persistence and gumption for self-improvement that is learned not solely in a science lecture, but also in places like studios or stadiums.

Unfortunately, these types of hands-on learning – the arts, sports, civics, and yes, science clubs that spark passion and curiosity, that foster growth mindsets, that provide failures and successes and experiences to learn from – are missing from many of our public schools, especially the ones in poorer neighborhoods.

According to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics, 3 percent of U.S. elementary schools offered dance instruction and 4 percent offered drama/theatre instruction in 2009–10. Both of these percentages represent a decrease from 20 percent in 1999–2000. During the same time period, visual arts instruction decreased by 4 percentage points. Schools are too often strapped for time, due to increased testing and curriculum demands, or strapped for cash, due to unequal funding. No surprise, then, that the NAEP survey indicates that only 13 percent of students said their teachers were the top source for learning about technology.

Where are kids gaining an understanding of technological principles? Where are they learning how to develop solutions and achieve goals? Where are they honing their ability to communicate and collaborate? Finding solutions and achieving goals, communicating and collaborating – these are the practices that NAEP measures in its assessment. And it’s this type of thinking that is fostered through the enriched learning that happens beyond the traditional school day, during after-school activities or at summer camps.

Children in affluent families are absorbing knowledge from coaches, tutors and teaching artists who expose them to new ways of looking at the world. Over the past 40 years, well-off parents increased their spending on kids’ enrichment activities tenfold as compared with parents in low-income communities. Which may be why kids born into poverty are likely to suffer a 6,000-hour learning gap by the time they reach 6th grade, as compared with their middle-class peers.

So what happens to the children whose parents can’t afford tutors and extra-curriculars, whose neighborhoods don’t offer easy access to museums or safe spaces for recreational sports, or whose schools have been stripped of funding for the arts? These kids – eligible for free or reduced lunches – now represent the majority (51 percent) of students in our public schools. It is for these students, and indeed, all of us, that we must reimagine what schools can become. An expanded learning-time model that lengthens the school day, enhances the curriculum and draws resources and talent from community organizations must become a priority for policy makers and education leaders. We must worry less about kids learning to read code, and more about them learning to read words and read people.

Students who are poised to become our next generation of thinkers and trailblazers, managers and teachers need time to explore a wide variety of subjects and disciplines; they need opportunities to tinker and fail, discover and deliberate. They need coaches and teaching artists who can encourage and inspire and provide the scaffolding of support that help young people successfully navigate the road between childhood and adulthood.

All students, from every zip code, need the enriched learning experiences that will allow them to uncover new talents and develop their full potential. Not just to solve the world’s problems, but also to determine which problems are worth solving.