The Myth of STEM; The Only Way

The ‘Myth of STEM; The Only Way’ is a guest blog post from Johnathan M. Holifield, Co-founder of ScaleUp Partners LLC, and is the fifth blog post in the Case Foundation’s Myth of the Entrepreneur series. This series is intended to intentionally examine, and change, the stories our culture tells about entrepreneurship. For more information on the Case Foundation’s approach to the Myth series and Inclusive Entrepreneurship, please check out our introductory piece. We encourage you to join the conversation using #Ent4All on Twitter.

I can hear my friends now, invoking an old sports adage about winning to insist that “STEM isn’t everything; it’s the only thing!” These champions of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education are made members of the whimsically branded STEM Mafia, fiercely advocating that the path to innovation and entrepreneurship is paved with engineering and computer science degrees.

It’s well-settled that improving U.S. economic competitiveness requires a lot more Americans with high levels of proficiency and expertise in STEM. In fact, STEM is already a national education and economic priority. And for sure, STEM disciplines power a disproportionately large number of job-creating, higher growth enterprises, enable enormous efficiency and productivity gains and represent many of our top employment opportunities. However, as important as STEM is to our economy, a focus on it alone is too limiting. It will be insufficient to generate enough American innovators to create the companies and fill the jobs we’re counting on to fuel U.S. economic prosperity, and particularly limiting in terms of driving inclusive growth and innovation.

Entrepreneurship is fueled by more than just science; it is also fueled by art. So let’s incorporate the “A” for art and evolve STEM to STEAM.

The Innovation Economy demands new education and entrepreneurship models and interdisciplinary solutions that combine imagination and creativity with technological skills. There is growing recognition that to be successful in technical fields, individuals also must be creative and use critical thinking skills that are nurtured through exposure to the arts. By de-emphasizing the role that art plays in entrepreneurship, we may be making it harder for certain segments of the population to see themselves as business owners, changemakers and problem solvers.

Simply put, the increasingly, if not definitively, false choice between “soft art” or “hard science” should be rejected. Recalling the Schoolhouse Rock cartoon of my childhood, Conjunction Junction, it’s clear that the best function to improve entrepreneurship and employment outcomes is to adopt the right conjunction—and. STEM and art; not STEM or art.

STEAM embraces all of the nation’s critical STEM imperatives, while complementing and enhancing them in at least four important ways. STEAM:

  • Addresses employers’ need to attract and retain creative, problem-solving workers;
  • Introduces market applications and entrepreneurship opportunities for STEM-based intellectual property (IP);
  • Connects deep and diverse sources of untapped talent to entrepreneurship and employment;
  • Turns STEM’ers into entrepreneurs.

In terms of 21st century employment, the abilities to work collaboratively across many disciplines, to challenge current practice and develop new solutions and opportunities—clearly more art than science—are highly desired skills. In fact, an IBM global study of more than 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries and 33 industries found that the most important skill needed to successfully navigate an increasingly complex, volatile and uncertain world is creativity.

Art is also vital to higher growth enterprise and job creation. STEM may create a considerable amount of the IP produced by innovators and researchers and builds skills needed to drive Innovation Economy priorities, but by introducing creative market applications, art makes such IP and skills useful across a broader spectrum of our economy, achieving greater positive impact.

By moving STEM-based IP from the laboratories and workshops in our basements, garages, colleges, universities and corporations into markets where they can have the most impact, STEAM is the market application force for STEM. Many skills needed to translate technological innovations into thriving businesses—like design, marketing and communication, executive leadership, collaboration, technology transfer and more—are rooted in art.

Letting go of the myth that all job-creating, higher growth entrepreneurs come from STEM backgrounds and embracing STEAM enables us to connect new talent to new opportunities. Over the past decade, women’s share of undergraduate degrees has steadily increased, representing about 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded by U.S. institutions in 2012. However, the share of women earning STEM degrees has not increased, holding remarkably steady at about 37 percent.

The number of Blacks earning bachelor’s degrees increased by an impressive 41 percent, and the number of Hispanics earning undergraduate degrees increased by an extraordinary 85 percent in the last dozen or so years. Unfortunately, as the rates of Black and Hispanic students earning college degrees have increased, when it comes to STEM, they’re not keeping pace with their peers. By age 24, Blacks will comprise only 2.7 percent and Hispanics just 2.2 percent of the U.S. STEM graduate population.

Together, these groups represent a huge quantity of non-STEM talent—too much talent to remain on the sidelines as benchwarmers merely watching the game instead of performing in the game as dynamic economic competitors and contributors. With today’s relentless competition for jobs and opportunity around the world, sustaining our nation’s global economic leadership will require greater contributions from many more Americans—including these groups.

Without distracting from worthy efforts to improve STEM education attainment of women, Blacks and Hispanics, STEAM provides a complementary means to identify, capture and connect the growing cache of non-STEM talent and creativity to top entrepreneurship and employment opportunities. More people making more contributions as job-creating, higher growth entrepreneurs and higher value, intrapreneurial employees will surely provide our nation competitive advantages.

As for STEAM transforming STEM’ers into entrepreneurs, “lean startup” guru and successful entrepreneur, Steve Blank sums up the role of startup founders and employees by comparing them to artists and composers:

Founders fit the definition of a composer: they see something no one else does. And to help them create it from nothing, they surround themselves with world-class performers. This concept of creating something that few others see—and the reality distortion field necessary to recruit the team to build it—is at the heart of what startup founders do. It is a very different skill than science, engineering, or management.

Blank’s analogy is spot on. Developing supplementary skills that unleash their full potential, STEAM is the conduit through which STEM’ers pass to become entrepreneurs.

Shifting from STEM to STEAM bolsters our efforts to construct new narratives—inclusive narratives—around entrepreneurship, innovation, employment and economic competitiveness. Advocating that STEM is the only thing deprives our nation of the chance to fully engage a diverse array of talent who can be the innovative, job-creating entrepreneurs and top performing employees our economy sorely needs. Nothing more is at stake than our sustained economic prosperity.

Taking a cue from James Brown: All Aboard . . . the STEAM Train!

Our guest author, Johnathan M. Holifield, is Co-founder of ScaleUp Partners LLC and author of a forthcoming book about Inclusive Competitiveness and our country’s unique opportunity for shared economic prosperity. Learn more here: The Future Economy and Inclusive Competitiveness. You can connect with him on Twitter at @TheTrimTabber.