From the Executive Director

Advising the President on STEM education

A recent report from PCAST demonstrates a failure to understand the essential role psychological science must play in solving societal challenges

By Steven Breckler, PhD

President Obama has made education reform a high priority of his administration, with an emphasis on preparing and inspiring students in the STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics — disciplines.

It is no secret that Psychology has very deep concerns about how our nation’s education, science and policy leaders define the STEM disciplines.  Psychology is seldom assumed to be included, even though the discipline is infused throughout science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (see my previous Monitor commentary).  APA’s past-president James Bray convened a special task force (PDF, 112 KB) to examine the problem and to recommend a course of action for psychology.  Indeed, the report has attracted broad interest from scientific and educational leaders and is already being used to shape APA’s advocacy activities.

Several developments over the summer of 2010 reinforce our cause for concern.

In July, APA learned that the National Research Council’s Board on Science Education had completed a draft of their Framework for Science Education Standards.  The initial draft of the framework would eliminate psychology and the broader social and behavioral sciences from the K-12 science curriculum.  As reported by the Science Directorate’s Government Relations Office, APA has been vigorously pressing the NRC to revise their framework.

Now comes word that President Obama’s own Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has declared that the social and behavioral sciences are not appropriately considered STEM fields at the K-12 level.  In their report to the President (PDF, 1.06 MB), 20 leading scientists and engineers offered recommendations about how to better prepare America’s K-12 students in STEM subjects.  It is clear that these “leaders” believe that subjects in the social and behavioral sciences will be of no use in this regard.  The full text of PCAST’s definition of STEM education (from Box 1-1 of their report) is reproduced here.

Box 1-1: What is STEM Education?

“STEM education,” as used in this report, includes the subjects of mathematics, biology, chemistry, and physics, which have traditionally formed the core requirements of many state curricula at the K-12 level. In addition, the report includes other critical subjects, such as computer science, engineering, environmental science and geology, with whose fundamental concepts K-12 students should be familiar. The report does not include the social and behavioral sciences, such as economics, anthropology, and sociology; while appropriately considered STEM fields at the undergraduate and graduate levels, they involve very different issues at the K-12 level.

We note that this report does not seek to define specific core or elective curricula, which are the subject of other important efforts. Our focus is on system-wide approaches for improving K-12 STEM education.

From: Prepare and inspire: K-12 education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) for America’s future.  Executive Office of the President, President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, September 2010 (prepublication version).


PCAST’s view of STEM education is disturbing, but not new.  The narrow understanding of science, and its domains of application, runs very deeply among many of our so-called science and technology leaders.  Indeed, many policy makers share this myopic view of science.

Yet, the PCAST framing of STEM education is interesting and nuanced.  They recognize that the social and behavioral sciences are properly considered STEM fields at the undergraduate and graduate levels, just not at the K-12 level.

What PCAST does understand is that social and behavioral sciences are not taught as science in K-12 curricula.  Although exceptions surely exist, this is generally true.  The curricular infrastructure for teaching psychology as a science is weak compared to that for biology, chemistry, and physics.  Indeed, most state and national standards for science education do not recognize psychology as a science, and do not count psychology courses as satisfying science requirements.

What PCAST does not understand is that they are simply reinforcing the status quo, and in the process perpetuating bad policy.  PCAST may be justified in concluding that the social and behavioral sciences “involve very different issues” at the K-12 level.  What they fail to understand is how this state of affairs undermines the President’s goal of preparing and inspiring students in the STEM disciplines.  I am afraid that PCAST is providing the President with very bad advice.

Consider the reason why STEM education is considered so important.  PCAST itself is very clear about this.  On the first page of their report, they state that STEM education will determine our ability as a nation to solve societal challenges in such areas as energy, health, environmental protection, and national security.

Psychological science is absolutely essential to solving these challenges.  If we are serious about preparing a scientific workforce capable of addressing these challenges, we need to prepare and inspire more students (not fewer) to pursue their interests in the social and behavioral sciences.

It seems that PCAST does not understand this.  It seems that the NRC’s Board on Science Education does not understand this.  And by these bodies perpetuating poor advice, I fear that the President will not understand this.  It is a shame, because our nation will be less prepared as a result to face the challenges of the 21st century.