A Time to Stop and Think About : STEM, Programming, & Feynman


In a single day, three pieces of media influenced me to write a post. This is one of those times when I hope people involved in curriculum planning and long-term education planning read IT Babble. Of all the things I have written this year, this one is the most important.

First, I read a post on Slashdot, Coding Bootcamps Already 1/8th the Size of CS Undergraduates. This is talking about crash courses in programming and how they are going to be producing more programmers than university programs.

Second, I watched the movie The Challenger Disaster. I should have known all about this, and was upset with myself for not knowing. The movie highlights Dr. Richard Feynman’s methods for determining the cause of the accident in the face of a huge bureaucracy.

Finally, I read an article by Deborah K. Fitzgerald- At MIT, the humanities are just as important as STEM. This quote from the article will sum it nicely, and hopefully stick with anyone who reads it: ..”the world’s problems are never tidily confined to the laboratory or spreadsheet. From climate change to poverty to disease, the challenges of our age are unwaveringly human in nature and scale, and engineering and science issues are always embedded in broader human realities…

I think everyone needs to take a breathe and step back. I am concerned that art, music, literature, philosophy, the study of language, etc. are being considered insignificant to computer programming and other STEM subjects. The STEM term has grown from a buzz word, to business model. It is being marketed by non-profits, publishers of textbooks, and online services for schools. It is being driven into the public eye by a media frenzy. This is simply a huge mistake.

Science and technology education opportunities should be developed in all levels of education, and they should be kept current. But the people who choose to follow a science or technology career need to be connected to the world in order to understand the problems before they propose solutions. Human beings tend to connect to the world through religion and philosophy, art, music, media of varying types, and of course writing and publishing.

Many STEM projects are pushing computer programming, but I do not think anyone is paying attention to what type of programming students are learning. There is a huge trend going-on right now. Students are being directed to build apps and make webpages that do something entertaining. App building is creative, but it is done with code that is already part of someone else’s design. It is regulated by companies. It is not truly original thought, nor is the process of developing a world of app builders going to benefit the future of science and technology. It is only going to benefit a handful of people enjoying short-term profits.

Teaching kids to make apps or webpages is not the type of curriculum that drives the universal benefits that are derived from studying programming. Programming can be studied as a topic, but it should not be seen as something the masses need to master.Not everyone can be a programmer, nor should they. Programming should be part of a project, such as in robotics, but it does not have to be the whole project or topic. Programming is a tool, and knowing that it is a tool means that other skills are required to make it truly effective. Students must learn these other skills as well.

What education needs to do is reach back in-time and refocus on what is important. The world needs professionals who can use tools and teach themselves new tools as they evolve. Society needs as many people as possible who are aware they need to be responsible to be equipped in the same way every carpenter knows they need a t-square. Doctors, Engineers, Artists, Teachers, and other professions must understand more than the single dimension in front of them in order to face unknown problems or problems that violate known theories.

Using canned curriculum and programming libraries   ,and calling those things new and innovative, is sending the message that applying knowledge is limited to what is being provided and what already exists. Having a society of people focused only on what already exists, is not going to solve the next Challenger Disaster, raise a Russian sub-marine from impossible depths, create the equivalent to a supercomputer in a garage, revolutionise the way films are created, save millions of people from evil regimes, or improve infant mortality rates by 100s of percentage points.

All of those things were achieved by teams of people from varying backgrounds who did not have Google and who did not have tools given to them. They were achieved because there was a problem, and everyone involved simply believed that they could solve the problem, and if needed, create the tools.

Unless STEM curricula are designed to put a few students in a room with a box, and help them learn to turn that box into something better than a box, then those curricula will fail. Unfortunately, when they fail the world will know about it 10-15 years too late.

Students need learning opportunities in as many subjects as can be afforded. Humanity does not know enough about how our individual mind goes from seeing a glass of ice, and then deriving the inspiration to solve a problem that has hundreds of engineers at NASA confused. Because we do not know, we should not assume that the things we are removing from curricula are insignificant. We should only assume that we need to keep questioning and keep searching. We need different types of people doing that questioning and searching, because obviously we are doing it wrong.

Perplexing the future is.

Tony DePrato




3 thoughts on “A Time to Stop and Think About : STEM, Programming, & Feynman”

  1. I am becoming more interested in the Computer Science Teachers Association efforts to teach computational thinking in schools (ISTE also has some excellent resources on the same topic: computational thinking). I believe this kind of thinking has great potential to be beneficial to students in all disciplines.

    I also cut my teeth on programming / system administration in the glory days of DOS, and then TI-99, and then my first big-iron was Solaris and HP-UX. I didn’t have any tools to abstract the machine, you just sort of had to know how computers work (which I still think is pretty neat).

    I think focusing on teaching kids how to think is the key thing in these times.

    1. I agree. I had a student ask me about Xcode, he actually paid for a developer account. I asked him what language he was using in Xcode, and he said – “Xcode so I can make apps.” The worst part is that a bad experience early on could turn students away from programming or science. I am starting to do some programming weekends here in Shanghai this month, focusing on problem solving etc. and not trying to emphasise a language or even anything practical like an apps. The students are really young, so I just want them to feel like that can do it. We will see how it goes.

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