A Humanistic Approach to STEM pt.1

As a graduate student, I was constantly engaged in scholarly activities but I was never asked to (nor did I ever) define a specific area of scholarship. As a tenure-track faculty for almost six years now, I can say with confidence that my scholarship resides in environmental education, specifically using visual methods to understand how culture shapes the ways by which children view the environment in order to promote equity in science and science education.

Scholarship, however, does not adequately describe the individuals who collectively make up the varied communities and places that we inhabit. A scholarly identity, more so than scholarship, speaks to who we are and the changes we wish to effect in human society. Whether we realize it or not, scholarly identities are the reason why we find ourselves here in the first place – they form the foundation upon which our scholarship is built and provides meaning for the work that we do. Personally, I am searching for a scholarly identity because I am not sure where the environment is located in Science, Technology, Education, and Mathematics education (STEM).

Leading up to this symposium, I had always assumed that environmental education fit under the broader umbrella of STEM. After all, that is where most environmental education programs are located in K-12 schools and colleges. All my training up to this point had taught me to view environmental education as one of several components of STEM (together with biology education, engineering education and so on). That is until recently, when a few of my students challenged this assumption. For that, I am truly grateful because it was a timely reminder that faculty often know less than we think we do.As a human endeavor, education is inevitably embedded with values.

At the Chancellor’s state of the university address this week, D.E. outlined his vision in terms of an economic model. For example, we need more international students because higher tuition rates improve fiscal stability. This made me think: what is the model being used for the current vision of STEM? Or put another way, what are the values that are being taught and learned? Currently, STEM education speaks to the need for innovation, international competitiveness and in the U.S., a race to the top. STEM education highlights 21st century teaching and learning that provides knowledge in a global economy while developing problem solving and critical thinking skills. While these are all relevant, I think STEM education could, and perhaps should be, much more.

And the reason for this is that while we are busy preparing students to ‘succeed’ in the world, the world is undergoing rapid environmental change. These photographs, taken two weeks ago on a road trip to a conference, are intended to highlight the environmental challenges facing human societies, both now and into the future.

Farmers Market, China

Increasingly, we have concerns about population and food

Hinkely, CA

Water Quality (this is the town of Hinkley popularized by the movie Erin Brokovich)

Urbanization and Transportation

Impacts of globalization

Energy independence and peak oil

And at the center of it all, is our relationship with the natural world.

STEM acknowledges all of this, but only implicitly. I wonder if this is because environmental issues are inherently political, ethical and cultural? The history of science is replete with examples of how these and other human elements have traditionally been disconnected from the scientific process, reinforcing a utilitarian worldview vis-à-vis natural resource use. My research into children’s views of the environment over the last decade has found that children in different cultures perceive the environment as a commodity to be used for human benefit.

Environmental education, on the other hand, strives to develop a worldview where the environment has both extrinsic and intrinsic value. Does this mean that environmental education and STEM education are ideologically incompatible?

-Bryan Shao-Chang Wee

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