What STEM Students Need to Know
The U.S. is about to spend a small fortune on teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. The White House has promised $200 million a year to expand K-12 computer-science education. Several large tech firms have pledged another $300 million to the effort. That’s a good investment in theory, but the American education system is in no position to make the most of it.
The last time the U.S. made a serious change to science and math teaching was the 1960s. The Soviets had shocked the world in 1957 by launching their Sputnik satellite into orbit, a technology coup that scared the hell out of America’s leaders. Too bad we can’t manage to be nervous now, when we ought to be.
Why? Because our K-12 STEM teaching is inept. Students should reach college prepared to take serious science and engineering courses, yet many don’t. Our math teaching is half a century out of date, and without math there is no STEM. Computer science builds on electronics and “discrete mathematics,” as opposed to the classical type leading to calculus.
Discrete mathematics deals with such problems as: “In how many ways can you arrange five different things?”; “How many different routes go from A to B on this map?”; and “What’s the probability that a typical New Yorker will fall down a manhole before he is hit by a crazed cab-driver?”
Students need classical math more than ever. But discrete math is fundamental to computing and ubiquitous in the real world. Students should begin studying it as soon as they have finished arithmetic in the fourth or fifth grade.
The clumsily named field of “computer science” actually deals with software, not computers. To understand software, you need a basic understanding of computers; for that you need some basic electronics education.
There are many ways to build a von Neumann machine—the world’s standard digital computer since World War II. You could use gear-trains, complex molecules or gigantic Tinker Toys. But electronic circuits have been the best way to do it since the early 1950s.
Digital circuits are built mainly using transistors. Computing students must learn about transistors and semiconductors. And they must learn the basic engineering and physics underlying all electronics. No student should leave high school without understanding voltage, current and resistance.
Today’s absurdly casual approach to English, history and civics is even more irresponsible than our outdated science teaching. But improvements are possible. Online schools can teach a modern curriculum seriously and can draw students from all over the country. Once a few online schools make a name for themselves by offering rigorous STEM classes, traditional schools might come around. We have forgotten how to teach, but we still understand what “competition” means.
Messrs. Freeman and Gelernter invented social networks and built the first Twitter-style stream in 1995. They have regretted it ever since.
Appeared in the December 19, 2017, print edition.