We constantly keep hearing that in order for USA to compete in our global economy, there has to be a strong emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum in schools to get the children better prepared for the skills of tomorrow. There is an increased awareness of the need to raise test scores in STEM. To achieve that we are seeing a concerted effort by both public and private institutions working together to address this problem.
The reason for the urgency is because, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) rankings, America ranks 25th out of 34 countries in mathematics. Also, the study found that 23% 15-year old can’t use math in their daily life, so it is quite evident that we have a serious problem.
All of these joint efforts are laudatory; however, it is unlikely to have much of an effect unless adults change their attitude and perception of STEM. If STEM is important to our competitiveness than adults have to be very careful in the mixed message they send to children about STEM in their daily conversation. This has to change since children are quite clever. The old admonition “don’t do what I do, but do what I say” is not going to work.
Adults who are not good in math should exercise some restraint around children in joking about their lack of basic math skills. I often hear successful adults say, “I am not good at math.” Often these adults are unconsciously using self-deprecating humor for their embarrassment of not being good with numbers; however, these type of statements send a mixed message to children that perhaps math is not that important to their future success.
There are so many examples of this on TV. One such incident that I will point out took place on November 28th when I was watching news show called “Morning Joe” on MSNBC. The panel at the table were discussing the “fiscal cliff” that the White House and Congress were negotiating. At one point during a segment on "fiscal cliff" (around 17 minute mark) as they started talking about numbers, one guest at the table joked that she was not good at math and others all joined in about their lack of math skills and had a good laugh over it. These are all very successful people who basically sent a message that you don't need to be good in math and science to be successful.
Look, we have a serious problem with children’s math scores and when successful adults make fun of not being good at math, it just sends a wrong message to children that perhaps math is not that important. The unintended consequence of this kind of loose talk is that children stop taking STEM seriously. They have learned to do what adults do, not what they say.
Adults have to take some responsibility and have to be very careful in what kind of message they are sending to children in the way they talk about STEM. It is not something to joke about for not knowing it and apologize for knowing it. The fact is we all have to know it and take it seriously. If we don’t know it then we should relearn the basics as there are so many resources (many free) available today to refresh what we have forgotten. If we are not willing to make the effort and relearn the basics then why would children take STEM seriously and work hard to learn it in school. Tom Friedman aptly says in his book “The World is Flat,” the winners of global competition will come down to countries that have a better educated work force. Today, STEM is not a nicety but a necessity for winning this global economic game.
Jay Oza is a founder and principal innovation development consultant at 5ToolGroup, a company that specializes in helping startups and established firms bring innovation to market within 90 days through our unique 5Tool Methodology that integrates sales, marketing, partnerships, customer development and agile/lean methodology to enable frugal or ("Jugaad") innovation. We believe that to succeed today, you have to continuously look for ways to do lot more with lot less. This is the only way to win today!