Wednesday, April 22, 2015

STEM is not synonymous with education

Print Friendly and PDF
My local NBC channel, WNYT channel 13, has been bludgeoning its viewers lately with stories it relates to STEM, the Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics push, with its STEM13. One would think that I, as a career math teacher, would appreciate such coverage and clamor for more. But no.

There is a strong linkage between the four subject areas, but in promoting it uber alles (in its true translation as "more than anything else"), it has belittled each of the 4 subject areas, deeming them each subservient to some higher academic god.  That is to say nothing of what it does to history, language, art, music, physical education, and so on.

STEM has a place, once the basic footings of mathematics, science, history, literature, language, art, music, and physical education have been put in place.  (I leave out technology, for it, as Oxford dictionaries states, is  "the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry". Seems to me, before it can be applied, science must be known.)

Sure, in the professional setting, all these areas are interwoven frequently. They naturally would, once the foundations have been laid.  But stressing them to the exclusion of anything else is putting the cart well in front of the horse. 

Gottfried Leibniz is quoted as saying "Music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting." Just being able to appreciate that sentence requires one to know something about Leibniz, music, and math. The mathematics in music is astounding, almost magical.  If you have any doubts about how key mathematics is in music, take a look at the wikipedia page for Pythagorean tuning. That's right, Pythagoras. The same guy who worked with triangles.
To quote Wikipedia
According to legend, the way Pythagoras discovered that musical notes could be translated into mathematical equations was when he passed blacksmiths at work one day and thought that the sounds emanating from their anvils were beautiful and harmonious and decided that whatever scientific law caused this to happen must be mathematical and could be applied to music. He went to the blacksmiths to learn how the sounds were produced by looking at their tools. He discovered that it was because the hammers were "simple ratios of each other, one was half the size of the first, another was 2/3 the size, and so on".
Imagine if Pythagoras had no concept of ratios. Sure, there is a slight chance that such an event might spur someone to invent a concept of ratios. A very slight chance. 

While on the topic of music and math, stop and watch a short video from TED. It is part of a web page from the site ed.ted.com which can be found here. After watching that video, just ask yourself again as to whether or not music and math travel together.

It might be that our nation would be more prosperous with more "STEM" people. What is more important is that the foundation of mathematics be fully grounded, and the inclusion of music can only help make that happen. The tunnel vision of "STEM" seems to be pushing subjects like music to the sidelines. That has to stop.

No comments: