Thursday, November 16, 2017

Why sustainability should be part of STEM/STEAM

STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) or STEAM (add art) are popular trends in education right now. They are certainly important skills to be teaching our youth but we must be careful to prepare them to address the problems of the 21st century, not make them worse.

Courtesy KROMKRATHOG, Freedigitalphotos.net
In our view, STEAM is a means (how) and sustainability should be the end-in-mind (why).

We see at least four benefits in embedding sustainability principles into STEM/STEAM programs:

Innovation should be directed toward solving the world's problems.  Teaching kids to build robots is fine, but what about having them build robots that can clean up an oil spill, plant trees, or open doors for amputees? Sustainability, writ large, encompasses all the big problems of the world. Linking STEAM and sustainability can increase student engagement. They want to be part of the solution, not a helpless recipient of previous generations' mishaps.

Systems thinking reduces unintended consequences. Too often we have solved one problem only to create a bigger one. Think of DDT or the pesticide/food production/bee problem. Since sustainability involves looking at the interconnections between the environment, economy and community, it reduces the chance that innovations will have serious unintended consequences. At a minimum sustainable thinking will help identify potential consequences so they can be managed.

Sustainability already has a robust toolbox. The typical engineering approach has been called Heat-Beat-Treat. The industrial society has been Take-Make-Waste. Both are unsustainable. We certinaly don't want to be reinforcing that thinking with our youth. Instead sustainability practitioners have developed a large suite of tools that might inspire or inform STEAM projects. For example, biomimicry uses nature as inspiration. Already companies are making paints inspired by the cleaning process of lotus leaves or bullet-proof vests based on the strength of spider filament. Here's a short list of techniques that students could draw upon:
Employers are looking for people with sustainability knowledge. This region is trying to brand itself as a sustainable destination, so we will need people who understand these concepts to help bring our institutions and businesses up to expectations. More and more careers have a sustainability component and new careers are being born. Countries around the world are working toward 17 Sustainable Development Goals (like zero hunger, clean energy, sustainable communities).

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