The STEM Crisis and Bounded Rationality in Education

Failure to think systematically is what system experts call “bounded rationality.” It happens when limited information exists or when we fail to look beyond the bounds of the immediate problem. We have this problem in education when it comes to the shortage of students going into STEM, which goes hand in hand with the lack of STEM teachers.

Think of it this way: You’re driving your old classic car with a partner on your way to work, through a hot, barren desert. The commute is ridiculously long; lately it has stretched to more than an hour each way, in part because the ancient car can go only 40 miles an hour. What’s worse, it lacks an air conditioner. You both roll down the windows, but that barely helps. By the time you get to work each day, you’re dripping with sweat. Your trip back home is even hotter. You could stand it if the breeze were stronger or the commute wasn’t as long.

“We need air conditioning,” your partner says.

Here’s a classic illustration of the failure to think systematically. Systems experts call this flaw “bounded rationality.” It’s what happens when you have limited information, or fail to think beyond the bounds of the immediate problem, or beyond specialties. A NASA electrical engineer can design just about any circuit, but it might be useless if it interfered with the vehicle’s mechanical system, or used too much energy, or took up too much room, or weighed too much, or used rare minerals that ate up the budget.

You see the same problem with your miserable commute. Following your partner’s advice, you put a compressor under the hood and hook a belt up to the engine. This drives the compressor to cool down the car. Woo! Cool air! But now your car goes even slower, and your round trip stretches to four hours. That compressor pulls power out of the engine. Plus, cooling the car’s interior decreases the gas mileage, risking running out of fuel in the middle of the desert. Not a good plan. Instead, let’s look at the problem systematically.

First, with any system, you have to make sure that any solution improves the system’s function. Is the car’s chief purpose to cool you down? Of course not. The car is supposed to get you to work. Second, look to see what parts or interactions are interfering with the system’s function. A systems expert will tell you to look for the best places to intervene. You want to seek the smallest change that would make the most significant difference. This often isn’t as easy as it sounds. As the late Dartmouth Professor  Donella  Meadows  pointed  out,  people  will  “push the change in the wrong direction.” Installing air conditioning, thus slowing the car and risking a breakdown, does exactly the opposite of the car’s function of getting you to work.

When you look at your car as a system, you realize that, with your AC, you’re looking at the wrong part of the vehicle. Maybe it needs a tune-up, or a new carburetor, or a whole new engine. But a systems expert will tell you that you still might not be thinking broadly enough. Your rationality might still be bounded. Sometimes the best solution is not to change a part but to change the system’s function—an act that systems people call a “paradigm shift.” What if the car’s purpose wasn’t to take you across the desert? What if you just asked it to get you ten miles to the grocery store? You and your partner set up a new business out of the home, which has air conditioning.


While this little tale illustrates the trap of narrow thinking, it can also serve as a valid metaphor for America as a system. As with a car, we need to think of our nation as a complex assemblage of interacting parts, within an environment. America’s environment is the world. Within that system are subsystems: education, the economy, international policy, the military. Even the government is just another subsystem, or part, fueled by taxes, fees, and borrowing.

What are the primary functions of America and its government? Here’s where ideology and politics have their say; but not entirely, from a systems standpoint. A system’s function isn’t what a car salesman or politician says. It’s what that system actually does. If the classic car were instead a late-model Cadillac, its function, or purpose, would be more than getting to work. It would be to get to work in luxury.

Look at America’s most notable characteristics, and you’ll find its critical functions. For example, the United States has a dominant military, the largest economy (including international corporations and the most innovative sole proprietorships),  generate the most patents, invented the iPhone and online shopping (and the Internet, for that matter), boasts the most advanced research universities, and make the most popular music and movies. Given these traits, one might say America’s key functions are to be powerful, rich, innovative, and creative.

So what is the function of our federal government? Our politicians’ rhetoric would lead us to believe that the government exists to keep us safe from terrorists, foster job creation, and reduce inequality, depending on which party they represent. These are legitimate political issues, and you could argue that each problem could lower the nation’s performance as the world’s dominant power and economy. But, since we’re looking at the government as a subsystem of a larger system, we need to step back and see whether the politicians are talking about the biggest flaws in the American system, whether those flaws are fixable, whether the fixes are the right ones, and whether they screw up another subsystem.

It’s hard out there for a systems analyst. Or a president, for that matter. Thinking narrowly is far easier, because it makes the solutions seem that much more straightforward. But when our leaders start thinking systematically, everyone will be better off.

To backup this point, we need two more systems terms. They’re not jargon; both are familiar terms, though you don’t usually see politicians use them. The first term is resilience. The second, injection points.

A resilient system bounces back from any shock or threat. A ponderosa forest in the Southwest gets devastated by fire, and within a few years, a sea of green seedlings appear, from pine cones opened up by the heat of the fire. Resilience at its best. In a resilient economy, the fastest growth after a recession burns away the weakest businesses.

Sometimes, though, a system faces a shock so massive that it threatens resilience. A forest fire in a tangle of dead trees and branches accumulated over decades can burn so hot that it destroys the pine cones and seeds. In this case, foresters will intervene, with small controlled burns and logging that removes some of the fuel. (The worst fires out West were caused in part by decades of fire suppression—another case of bounded rationality, or failing to see the forest for the trees.) Some systematic problems fix themselves, while others form feedback loops that spiral out of control. On the other hand, sometimes a relatively small, well-timed, deft intervention at the right injection point will set everything working again. A tune-up, a new carburetor: the right injection at the perfect injection point.


  1. What problems might hold back the chief functions?

  2. Donella  Meadows  pointed  out that people  will  “push the change in the wrong direction.”- How might we be pushing change in the wrong direction in education?

  3. What’s clogging the system from being the world’s most powerful, rich, innovative, and creative?

  4. What injection point could offer the most effective, efficient fix, at the least cost, with the least harm to the other subsystems?