07/16/2012 04:52 pm ET Updated Sep 15, 2012

Science And Tech: Not The Only Ways To Innovate

By Meredith Wade

We’ve all heard the statistics: in 2009, America ranks 31st out of 65 nations for basic science skills and 23 out of 65 for basic math. Furthermore, 31% of American students are taught mathematics by an instructor without a math degree and less than one percent attend high schools focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). For a country whose competitive edge is rooted in innovation, this seems like a pretty clear wake-up call to reform the way U.S. schools teach STEM courses.

The White House has responded to this information with various initiatives aimed at getting students interested in STEM through hands-on learning, with the broader goal of “inspiring them to be the next generation of inventors and innovators.” If America is to stay successful (whatever we mean by that) even as countries like China move to encroach upon our superpower status, we have to maintain our entrepreneurial spirit.

But Yankee ingenuity doesn’t come from STEM achievement alone. A similar push for science education occurred in the U.S. during the Cold War, when we pitted ourselves against the Soviet Union in the race to explore space and develop nuclear armaments. But it’s 2012, and the tangible objective of innovation isn’t about national security.

It’s about the user interface—when companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook, create products that revolutionize the way we communicate with one another. The brains behind these businesses wouldn’t be able to do that without (analytical and communication skills that allow them to truly meet consumers’ needs. These skills don’t come from technological fields. They come from subjects like economics, sociology, and literature.

Let’s look at Steve Jobs. His name is on over 300 U.S. patents, and Apple products and software have had a massive impact on American media consumption. That isn’t just a result of STEM competency, though. What made Jobs’ approach special was his persistent perfectionism—apparent in the perpetual train of versions of iProducts and operating systems—as well as his ability to focus on details that would improve the user experience.

Jobs introduced a breakthrough feature of Apple computers: their huge variety of proportionally-spaced fonts, which made computers appealing, fun, and human at a time when they were used mainly for engineering. The inspiration for this came from a class that couldn’t be farther from STEM: calligraphy.

Without a doubt, America needs to rethink its approach to STEM education. But neglecting and devaluing “frivolous” subjects won’t help us cultivate the innovative spirit. What will revive it are classrooms that empower driven pupils with analytic talent, creativity, and a keen awareness of the human touch—whether they’re STEM-focused students or not.

About Meredith:

Meredith is a guest contributor to She is a rising high school senior in Salt Lake City, Utah, and interested in history. She writes, "To me, though, history acts as a really great excuse to examine and understand many different facets of human society, and it allows me to throw myself into things like literature, art history, and sociology." She loves listening to (and, less frequently, making) music, dancing, and studying Arabic. To read more from Meredith, check out her blog here.

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