Sunday, January 31, 2021

Trades vs. STEM in schools

Aaron S. Robertson 

NOTE: The following is my response a few days ago to an interesting question posed to me by a candidate for the local school board in my hometown. I thought it was worth sharing here, as this is a question that all K-12 school districts across the country must continuously grapple with. The candidate's question dealt with limited resources (physical classroom space, number of hours in a school day, budgets, etc.) and where more emphasis should be placed if trades and STEM courses found themselves in too strong a competition for those limited resources. Very thought-provoking, and not a very easy answer, in my opinion.

Trades vs. STEM: This is a really thought-provoking question you raise, and I'm admittedly finding it a little difficult to answer. I'm a strong proponent of having both tracks (trades and STEM) well-represented in K-12 schools, along with a rigorous liberal arts curriculum.

With technology rapidly changing, STEM fields are undoubtedly the future. There will be technologies and even whole sectors and industries created that we can't even imagine right now.

On the other hand, when it comes to the trades, there will always be steady demand. We'll need skilled workers to continue manufacturing goods, building and repairing our vehicles, installing and maintaining our plumbing and HVAC systems, building and remodeling our homes and commercial buildings, etc., etc., etc. Demand to fill openings across the trades, as you're probably aware, is especially hot right now, as we're trying to reverse debilitating training and employment trends caused by having shifted away from offering these programs in schools for a number of years.

Should the two tracks ever get into a tug of war over limited budget resources, I'm wondering if it would be best to survey students and parents (along with maybe even conducting some in-depth interviews and focus groups), as well as look back at prior course enrollment data, to aid in determining what should definitely be saved, and what might have to be scaled back or even cut altogether? That way, we can say we've done all we can to best represent local flavor and demand.

There can also be a case made that many of these courses and training opportunities can easily be found elsewhere, for those who are really interested in seeking them out. In the STEM arena, for example, there are many professionally-facilitated in-person academies, workshops, and boot camps out there for youngsters, as well as online courses through popular Web sites like Khan Academy and At the end of the day, we must realize that there are only so many hours and resources available in a school day, and so it's really up to families and motivated students to extend their learning beyond the classroom and school day in ways that are meaningful and satisfying for them.

What do you think? If trades and STEM courses found themselves in too much competition for limited resources in K-12 schools, what should be saved? What should be cut? Are there other solutions we're not thinking about here? Feel free to share your thoughts and insights in the comments section below.

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