Why we need to build more humanity into STEM education

STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education is often trumpeted as a panacea for economic growth. It’s the key to our future where all the good jobs and wage growth will happen. But that only tells part of the story.

Sure, science and tech are fast growing sectors and there’s a continued need for highly educated people to fill roles doing things like building AI systems, developing next generation medical and transportation technology, and reimagining smart, sustainable cities. But STEM education alone won’t unlock the innovation and creativity necessary to invent the future.

Going soft

While the hard skills required for the STEM-centric jobs of the future are important, focusing on them exclusively at the expense of developing other skills is a dangerous path. As Alibaba founder Jack Ma recently told the audience at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum, success in the future of work will come down to having the right mix of science and engineering smarts, along with emotional intelligence. What humans bring to the table, he said, is “heart, soul, beliefs and value[s].”

But those key drivers of future innovation are at risk if we focus too narrowly on STEM. The result will be a one-dimensional workforce ill-equipped to compete in the emotional economy. To thrive in the future of work, we need to take a more holistic approach to developing well-rounded people. One that gives equal billing to the arts, humanities, and social sciences alongside math and science.

Proponents of STEM education sometimes argue that adding arts or humanities to STEM education misses the point. After all, they say, everything is powered by technology these days and diluting our singular focus on STEM will just see us fall behind the rest of the world. STEM education should include the arts, but only in the context of science (UI design for engineers, for example).

But this perspective misses a broader truth about what the future of work will actually look like.

Future skills to pay the future bills

According to a paper by Harvard’s David J. Deming, success in the future workplace will be dependent on one’s ability to harness innately human skills like collaboration, critical thinking, and empathizing with others.  That echoes the advice given to educational institutions by the Institute for the Future in their Future Work Skills 2020 report. To be competitive, education must place “additional emphasis on developing skills such as critical thinking, insight, and analysis capabilities,” writes the IFTF. That includes, “experiential learning that gives prominence to soft skills—such as the ability to collaborate, work in groups, read social cues, and respond adaptively.”

These critical skills are lacking in laser-focused STEM curriculums, but take center stage when educators bring in liberal arts and social sciences. That means making education “people-centric” instead of “subject-centric” and helping students develop the soft skills that will enable their success in STEM fields.

Those skills will only become more vital as the proliferation of AI increasingly puts a greater emphasis on our human qualities in the workplace. A recent Pew survey found that experts believe we need to start focusing on “nurturing unique human skills that artificial intelligence (AI) and machines seem unable to replicate.” According to Pew’s experts, “workers of the future will learn to deeply cultivate and exploit creativity, collaborative activity, abstract and systems thinking, complex communication, and the ability to thrive in diverse environments.”

As Brown University professor Rose McDermott notes, “Such skills are taught, if at all, almost exclusively in social science and humanities courses.”

Implications for business

For startup founders and business leaders, these insights are important, too. A recent study found that among the top skills lacking from new graduates are the same soft skills that futurists predict will be so necessary. That’s a big problem because recruiters—even in the hard sciences—specifically look for those abilities. One study of the science industry found that the top skills recruiters look for are the ability to work in a collaborative team, adaptability, and interpersonal relationship building, in that order.

That means business and HR leaders must develop plans for improving those skills. The IFTF report recommends experiential learning as a chief method for educational institutions to build vital soft skills. That’s great news for business leaders because workplaces are quite literally perfect for experiential learning (which might also be called, “on the job training”).

Most companies already have systems in place for training employees on job-specific skills. Those systems can be adapted to help employees develop the soft skills necessary to flourish in the emotional economy. Bring in speakers or educators on diverse subjects, for example, or encourage employees to attend conferences that may fall outside the bounds of their specific job requirements. Give younger team members the opportunity to lead meetings or group projects.

In many ways, for businesses, it comes down to culture. A company culture that values the human skills so important to the future of work will be better equipped to prosper in it. Give your employees time and space to think, encourage them to take breaks and reflect, create opportunities for collaboration, and allow for failure as part of the creative process.

STEM skills will help us build the future, but only if we enable ourselves to do it with heart and soul. To do that, we need to bring our humanity back into the equation.


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