These logos help illustrate how STEM and Entrepreneurship have become two of the hottest topics associated with education recently. As an scientist, engineer and entrepreneur I’ve been waiting to give my kids insights into these fields since the day my oldest was born in Berkeley, CA approximately a decade ago. It’s been a long and restless wait with much money wasted on disappointing educational toys throughout the years.
However, STEM careers in general, and engineering in particular, aren’t suited for everyone. For many STEM can seem intellectually limiting, socially stunting and emotionally sterile. Indeed, at various points in my career I have encountered stagnant situations which made me feel STEM was an dead end. Finally, for the talents and efforts required, STEM can also appear to be suboptimal life strategy given the comparative advantages of careers in medicine, law and business in terms of salary, security, prestige, procreation, etc.
The key factor for enjoying my career in STEM was if I was able to work on a creative solution I was passionate about. When I was simply studying for an Electrical Engineering/Computer Science B.S., a Cognitive Science & Biomedical Engineering M.S. or a M.D. degree I was only mechanically going through the motions dictated by others. Engineering in particular lacked the poetic beauty found the the more abstract fields of math and physics yet seemed relatively trivial and disconnected from solving sizable real-world problems compared to the fields of medicine, law and business.
But when I was stimulated by bright colleagues in rarefied environments like Silicon Valley, designing an early web-based electronic patient record system that could save millions of dollars or running full-tilt in a startup I was grateful for my broad STEM background and couldn’t learn enough. Studying for artificial external rewards paled in comparison to learning out of internal curiosity to solve real and immediate problems.
One of the hardest aspects of studying STEM is that the long and indirect learning curve can represent an significant challenge. Creative and inspirational payoffs usually don’t come before a lot of upfront heavy lifting and traveling down a long dark tunnel. Unless one has the mental facility and spiritual endurance to master the fundamentals at some intimate level, mathematical or otherwise, the personal rewards may never come. This may explain why STEM appears to have a noticeably higher attrition rate than other fields.
I always wanted to be an entrepreneur long before I knew what that word meant. However, I made the common mistake of confusing “entrepreneurship” as a career in and of itself instead of just an perspective that overlays any of number of careers from contractors to software developers. In a similar miscalculation, I saw STEM as a well-defined career and end goal in itself rather than as merely a means that would allow me to work on a broad range of interesting problems that matter to me.
Few people are lucky enough to know with confidence exactly what they want to use a rigorous STEM education for before they begin study and suffer from the lack of passion and drive that come from such clarity. It’s a catch-22 problem. You have to study at some length and depth to have a realistic idea of what are the interesting problems that will fire your imagination. However, without that passion the exercise of study (especially dry subjects like analog circuits or organic chemistry) can seem pedestrian in comparison to Shakespeare or Plato.
I don’t know if my kids are suited or destined to go into STEM, but I certainly feel obliged to equip them with the opportunity to explore and understand as much of it as possible and as best they can. STEM training in any amount is an invaluable asset in containing our restless limbic system to think in a rigorous, systematic, and logical manner about everything from finance to politics to philosophy. I hope they are suitably equipped if and when they find their own meaningful problems to solve in life.