The lack of transparency of our new electronic gadgets, Ludwik Kowalski wrote, is an advantage in efficiency, but it also carries potential harm. While I agree, I suggest that the harm could largely be avoided by novel teaching methods and new ways of writing high school textbooks.

What can we do to raise our technological gadgets above the level of black boxes—or black holes that swallow any student involvement? To appropriately connect modern technological tools to the important principles and laws of nature, we need to teach science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) as a whole, based on unifying principles. That approach should not only remedy some of the problems that Kowalski mentions but also help us to resolve the lingering problems of STEM education altogether. In fact, if I were asked to formulate the educational problems of STEM in one sentence, I would say, “It’s the textbooks.”

I was confronted with the problems of STEM education in 2007, when I was serving on the National Science Board. A memorandum from the chair of the board highlighted “a national action plan for addressing the critical needs of the U.S. science, technology, engineering, and math education system.” The action plan stated, among other things, that vertical integration was a key component for STEM learning. For me, that not only meant an integrated approach to K–12 and higher STEM education but also the integration of important historical knowledge, modern developments, and today’s hot topics. I attempted to summarize the essentials in a tome smaller than the usual, ponderous textbooks that have frustrated students in the past. After several years, I finished Working Knowledge: STEM Essentials for the 21st Century (Springer, 2012). Key to the book’s quantitative teaching and reasonable size (340 pages) is the use of mathematics, including apps from the developers of Mathematica. The book also provides references to additional online resources.

In my opinion, we simply need to provide more concise, focused, and engaging textbooks and internet tutorials. STEM texts need to treat the broad field as a whole and not as a collection of different subjects. Teachers need to individualize that knowledge for students and connect it to such important topics as global warming, renewable energy, the understanding of DNA, and the marvelous tools of our information age. Not building radios in schools is a small price to pay to accomplish that.