Smart Phones, Smart Choices, Re-Assessing Success

You do want to succeed, right? The next question is How?

Well, the secret is out: the password you need is S.T.E.M. Without it, you’ll try, try, and try even harder, but every time you get ahead, the goal posts will move twice as far -- away. (It happens all the time; the 2016 elections make that clear.) But when you know the right password, you’ll be on the road to achieving your dreams.

At least that’s how many people-in-the-know now see things.

President Obama publicly opened the discussion when he called for a full and steady focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (S.T.E.M.) These are key to our future; this is the direction we need to take. It was almost as if he was saying, “Curriculum planners, administrators, teachers, students at all levels -- everybody – let’s take this seriously!”

“[Science] is more than a school subject, or the periodic table, or the properties of waves. It is an approach to the world, a critical way to understand and explore and engage with the world, and then have the capacity to change that world..."    — President Barack Obama, March 23, 2015

“[Science] is more than a school subject, or the periodic table, or the properties of waves. It is an approach to the world, a critical way to understand and explore and engage with the world, and then have the capacity to change that world..."

— President Barack Obama, March 23, 2015

With what result? Available evidence points to a shift in educational priorities. More and more schools are setting up S.T.E.M. Labs or increasing their course offerings in these areas. Count on the trend to continue. Just as important: this is happening worldwide, winning support on every continent.

Does resetting our direction like this make sense? Look at it this way: all of us who use a phone or log on to a computer for work or fun or check a weather forecast or use a credit card or drive a car or calculate whether we’ve got enough money to do XYZ or expect a bridge to stay in place at least until we’ve crossed it or apply for insurance or see a doctor about some symptom -- that is, every one of us -- rely on scientists and techies and engineers and math experts every second of every day. The future of that dependence grows ever more mind-boggling.

So schools support the common good as well as help individual students achieve personal success whenever they focus on S.T.E.M. subjects.


But life, some say, is more than what makes it work. Some colleges and universities, for example, are turning S.T.E.M. into S.T.E.A.M – the extra letter representing Arts, whether “fine arts” (music, dramatic arts, visual arts like painting, sculpture and photography) or “Liberal Arts,” encompassing language and literature, geography and history, philosophy, logic and ethics.

Many institutions – Catholic schools certainly plus other nonpublic schools as well as the educational arm of faith communities – further enlarge the program as they fold “R” into the mix. You guessed it: the added category is Religion. At least an understanding of religion if not a full faith commitment, they maintain, is essential to a well-rounded life. So the password becomes a S.T.R.E.A.M.

Can you bear with me a moment longer? Let’s import another “S” enlarging the term to get S.T.R.E.AM.S. If one S stands for Science, let it be balanced by Service. Though off the radar to many, service may, in fact, be the most visibly growing dimension of what we broadly call education today. It may even prompt us to rethink what we mean by that other S-word: success.  Let’s take a closer look.


The idea of serving others has not been a top priority as people prepare for their careers. It may seem to fit the “helping professions” such as social work, the clergy and child or elder care, but more marginal to the resume of persons seeking work as business managers, investment advisors, cashiers, cartoonists, athletes, pharmacists, singers or bus drivers.  

That’s why those who break that mold are worth our attention.

Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio illustrates the point. Its Center for Community Engagement received the Carnegie Community Service Classification in 2015. It has been honored by the White House every year since 2006 with the President's Higher Education Community Service Award “with distinction.”

Key elements in such success may be identified:

  • Service is moving from the margins to a central place
  • The school officially recognizes significant service, even granting a separate diploma at graduation
  • The program achieves high levels of voluntary student participation
  • It has solid staff and faculty support  
  • The quality and range of service provided to the community and the world meets exacting standards.

Otterbein, founded in 1847, firmly rooted in a faith vision and now related to the United Methodist Church, may be seen as drawing from the strong link between living-by-faith and living-by-service. But it could have followed a different trajectory: in a time of tight budgets and tough competition for grants, enrollment and prestige, it might have opted for quick fixes. Since service to needy persons never endows new buildings, wouldn’t it be tempting to concentrate on pay-off potential, always asking, “What’s in it for us?” To the credit of its decision makers and all its participating students, it chose the high road.

For more on Otterbein’s story, go to


Otterbein’s story, while special, is not unique. The trend is strong. Thus in Ontario, Canada’s largest province, every high school student must complete 40 hours of supervised community service in order to graduate. No service, no diploma; it’s as simple as that.

In a more global context, the Nobel Prizes represent outstanding achievement in Physics, Chemistry and Physiology/Medicine. Since 1972 another award, the Templeton Prize, has hailed contributions of outstanding value in the field of religion and service to humanity. The parallel is worth noting: not just the “hard sciences” – S.T.E.M. concerns — but the lofty values of service to the Power-beyond-us and to the people-around-us, count. It’s a “both-and” approach.


A quick response might be: while good, this has nothing to do with maps. In my opinion, that would be a superficial answer. My take, spelled out in How Maps Change Things as well as in other publications, interviews and lectures, is that maps both reveal and shape our worldview. That worldview may be self-centered or service-oriented. Our lives may be imprisoned, limited by the lines on a map or by the less visible, very real boundaries separating “us” – always “the good guys” -- from “them” -- the people to avoid, reject, use, despise, keep out, kill or otherwise disrespect. That’s why, to pick the clearest example, the Mercator and similar maps contribute to the human problem of our time while size-accurate maps such as the Peters and the Hobo-Dyer are making a difference for good, not just among professional cartographers but in schools and across the general public. The close connection between maps, science, religious faith and humanitarian service is well established.

From S.T.E.M.

to S.T.E.A.M.

to S.T.R.E.A.M.

to S.T.R.E.A.M.S.

represents both the foundations and the development of insight, hope and meaningful collaboration. It won’t solve all our problems, but it’s a giant step in the right direction. I, for one, am ready to shout Hurray! Will you join me?