Why STEM Shouldn’t Have the FCPS Crown

When I think about third grade, happy images of Girl Scout meetings and gaining confidence in my ability to write through winning second place in a short-essay contest come to mind. (Life was so simple back then.) Unfortunately, though, what also flashes through my mind when recalling third grade is feeling inferior to my best friend. You see, in the beginning of the year, my teacher announced the names of students who had been placed in advanced math classes, and I was not one of them. My best friend, however, was on that seemingly elite list, and the following year, in fourth grade, she was transferred to another elementary school with a fully-funded Gifted & Talented program. Three years later, when I came to Robinson, I discovered that there were MANY students, who, like my childhood best friend, had been placed in advanced math classes. In eighth grade, I even got acquainted with a classmate who was taking tenth-grade geometry… and she was in middle school. Again, the inferiority complex hit. I much prefer reading and writing stories to making graphs and measuring liquids. Why does elite academia emphasize STEM so much? What about the other students on the other side of the spectrum, us lowly earthlings who prefer similes over square roots?

In education, the STEM bias is easy to see. Here in Northern Virginia, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology is consistently lauded as the best high school in the region. In US News’ 2018-19 ranking of National Universities, 6 of the top 20 schools (Princeton, MIT, Johns Hopkins, Caltech, Dartmouth, and Rice) are more renowned for their engineering and medical programs than for their English and humanities courses.

Let’s start with a very simple question. Why is STEM so prevalent in our schools? “In terms of high-paying careers, and placement in jobs directly out of four-year colleges, a lot of those careers are STEM, and that’s why it trickles down to the high school,” explains counselor Lindsey Bauer. “Because STEM careers are growing, we want to set kids up for success in those careers.“ And studying mathematics and sciences definitely does have some benefits. “The benefits of STEM in schools include giving students skills to problem-solve and work in collaborative learning groups,” said mathematics teacher Kate Dirga. It’s also a very measurable, objective field of study.

However, there are also benefits to focusing on English and other courses of study as well. “English and the study of literature allow us to create a connection between others and empathize with the world around us,” said English teacher Matt Barker. On the push towards STEM, he added that it is focused upon more because it typically leads to a successful career. “A focus towards literature and English might not be leading to the same thing, but may create a more well-rounded person rather than just a career-oriented person,” Mr. Barker said. “I think Robinson does value having a range of English classes because we have standard, we have honors, and two different IB courses.”

So what can FCPS do to make sure students who prefer to be creative and study literature aren’t undermined by the glossy allure of the sciences? It’s simple: just have a better balance. “I think STEM should be integrated into the curriculum along with everything else, because life is integrated,” said Amy Krellwitz, who teaches technology and engineering. “There’s a lot of value in reading and writing that goes into STEM,” sub-school principal Ann Wong pointed out. Another solution that would help decrease this bias toward STEM is a narrower, more individualized focus on certain areas, especially in electives. “I definitely think FCPS should create more programs,” said sophomore Jordan Lewis. “I can’t do what I want to do because I’m so focused on the core subjects, but I can’t take electives that I’m interested in and could potentially help me in the future. FCPS should offer more options.”

At the end of the day, success means different things to different people. Eight years after that third-grade announcement of who my lucky mathematically gifted classmates were, my friend and I still keep in touch and do well in school. It may be true that 30 percent of the top 20 schools ranked by US News and World Report are heavily STEM-focused, but included in the top 10 is Columbia University, which is widely known for its exceptional School of Journalism. And according to a 2016 Forbes article by contributor George Anders, there are certain high-paying positions, like in the field of corporate communications, for which humanities majors are four times more likely to get hired. If FCPS is willing to provide the variety and integration that we students need, the county can play an even larger role in our path to success.