Science Directions

Psychology is a science. Psychology is essential to the evolution of technology. Psychology is all about engineering. Psychology is at the forefront of mathematics innovation. In every respect, psychology is a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) discipline.

Why, then, does the National Research Council’s (NRC) Board on Science Education insist that psychology not be included in the K–12 science curriculum? Why, then, does the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) define STEM education to exclude social and behavioral sciences at the K–12 level?

At first blush, the answers seem reasonable and pragmatic. Demands on the K–12 science curriculum already exceed capacity — not enough teachers, not enough time in the day, too much material to cover as it is. In most cases, psychology is not taught as a science course, so adding it to the science curriculum would require major changes in the teaching work force, learning standards and the entire culture of K–12 science education.

Of course, these are simply arguments for keeping things the way they are. For clinging to a concept of K–12 science education that maintains a 20th century outlook. For sustaining the status quo, even as it falls further and further behind the realities of 21st-century science and society.

The NRC and PCAST understand the importance of supporting and strengthening the quality of K–12 STEM education. U.S. students demonstrate a declining interest in science-based professions. International comparisons show the science proficiency of U.S. students is not keeping pace with students in other industrialized and rapidly industrializing countries. Our students are not keeping interest, and they are not keeping up.

We can agree with the NRC and PCAST that a strong STEM work force is vital to achieving national goals and solving societal challenges. We share the fundamental assumption that science is needed to make progress in such areas as energy, health, environmental protection and national security. We all know that a lot is at stake.

What the NRC and PCAST apparently do not understand is that psychological science is absolutely essential to solving these challenges. If we are serious about preparing a scientific work force capable of addressing these challenges, and if we are serious about attracting more (rather than fewer) students to pursue careers in science, then we need to be encouraging (rather than discouraging) students to pursue their interests in the social and behavioral sciences.

The high school psychology class should be a science class. Even better, the concepts and phenomena of psychology should be woven throughout the K–12 science curriculum. Students must learn that social and behavioral phenomena are proper subjects of scientific inquiry, even in the context of physics, math and biology courses. With this kind of education reform, everyone wins.

Psychological science is key to solving the challenges we face as a nation and as a society. The last great frontier of science is unraveling and understanding the complexities of human cognition, emotion and behavior. In a forward-looking world of science, psychology is front and center.

Yet our nation’s wise and learned scientific advisers desperately cling to the past rather than looking forward. They insist on taking the easy road rather than the high road. In the process, they shortchange science, and they fail society.

The truth is that psychology must make its own case to be counted among the STEM disciplines. That is why one of the three goals of APA’s new strategic plan is to increase recognition of psychology as a science — to enhance psychology’s prominence as a core STEM discipline. By improving public understanding of the scientific basis for psychology and by promoting the many applications of psychological science, we can make the case.