STEM Education: Revise Or Demise?

America isn't #1 in STEM. We're not even close.
01/23/2017 07:59 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2018

STEM - Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. America is obsessed with it. On the U.S. Department of Education web site, the STEM section is subtitled "Education for Global Leadership." In other words, the country that leads in STEM will lead the world!

And that's the problem: America isn't #1 in STEM. We're not even close. In December 2013, international test results placed the U.S. below the top 25 countries in math. Pundits, politicians and "thought leaders" were quick to react. They all said American students must improve dramatically in STEM or our status as a superpower is in jeopardy. Jobs, productivity and the economy: everything depends on STEM. We haven't been this freaked out about science education since sputnik started beeping in the 1950s.

But will the sky really fall if Chicken Little doesn't get a degree in astrophysics? Will the economy take a hit? Will productivity shrink? Will America lose billions of dollars?

Actually, we might. But it won't be because of Chicken Little's lack of STEM knowledge. It will be because he can't communicate. If Chicken Little can't tell us the sky is falling, his solution - no matter how scientific, technical, engineered or mathematical - won't do a lot of good.

While STEM deficiencies might lead to problems in the future, communication deficiencies are causing expensive disasters right now. Look no further than "The Silent Killer of Big Companies," a Harvard Business Review article from 2012. It linked notorious business disasters such as the financial implosion of Enron, misguided product decisions of Nokia and the explosion of a British Petroleum oil rig. What did they have in common? They were very expensive mistakes caused by "a grievous lack in communication."

Let's look at some numbers:

- A 2015 report published by the Risk Management Foundation of the Harvard Medical Institutions found that communication failures were linked to 1,744 deaths over five years and caused $1.7 billion in malpractice costs.

- A 2009 study by Siemens Enterprise Communications found that a business with 100 employees spends $528,443 a year clarifying communications to employees.

- A 2007 poll by the Computing Technology Industry Association named poor communication as the reason most IT projects fail. And project failure is a major cause of cost overruns, budget blowouts and wasted spending.

- And it's not just IT projects. A 2013 report by the Project Management Institute found that $75 million of every $1 billion spent on a project is at risk due to ineffective communications.

Time is money. And nothing wastes more time than poor communication. You've probably experienced it yourself: rambling meetings, incomprehensible presentations, and vague directions from cryptic managers. Not surprisingly, companies with poor communication have higher employee turnover, deficient customer service and lower productivity. It all adds up to big bucks.

A classic example is the Harmon Hotel. The 49 story tower was supposed to be one of the tallest in Las Vegas. But in 2008, construction stopped after inspections revealed serious errors. Despite a redesign, construction never resumed and the 15 stories already built were demolished in 2015. A case study called "Deconstructing a $1 Billion Disaster" placed much of the blame on lack of communication.

Yet STEM classes are considered essential while communication is grouped with majors such as philosophy, history and English. You know what I'm talking about, the liberal arts. If you say you're kid is majoring in one of them, then your friends say "I'm sorry."

It wasn't always that way. Communication, which used to be called speech, holds a special place in western civilization. The legal system in ancient Greece had no lawyers. So people had to plead their own cases. Consequently, they paid to learn how to give a speech. The sophists, who taught them, were the first paid teachers in the west.

Speech then evolved into rhetoric which was considered a pillar of education in the Middle Ages. Then in the 20th century, the field became known as speech-communication. And finally: communication. But somewhere along the way, communication had its Rodney Dangerfield moment. No one gave it respect anymore. It became a "soft" skill.

It's a long story to explain why that happened. And it doesn't really matter. The point is that communication skills are fundamental and lack of them will be even more costly to our country than a lack of STEM skills.

So here's what I propose. We keep the focus on STEM, but replace Science with Speech - meaning communication. We don't need Science in STEM anyway. To a non-scientist, which is most people, technology, engineering and mathematics are really the same as science. So science is just redundant in STEM. By replacing it with Speech, we prevent billions of dollars in business disasters and save thousands of lives. We still have the technological, engineering and mathematical capabilities if the sky starts falling; and we also have the ability to communicate the problem and solution.

STEM - Speech, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. It's time to revise or face our demise.