Welcome to The STEM Sessions Podcast. I am Jarl Cody, your host and narrator.
What I’m about to say is going to sound hypocritical given what I named this podcast, but I’ll say it anyway. I think the acronym STEM is given too much reverence. It’s become a buzzword word used to make whatever is being discussed sound more important than it is. As if linking the topic to STEM gives it extra weight and priority.
A primary reason I started The STEM Sessions is to de-sensationalize STEM; to rescue it from the ivory towers it’s been placed on. I want to show that we, the everyday people, are capable of researching and discussing STEM without guidance and influence from the so-called experts on TV.
And I think a good first step towards de-sensationalizing STEM is showing it’s really nothing more than a governmental acronym used in legislature and curriculums.
This is The STEM Sessions Podcast – Episode Four. Make STEM, Not STEAM
Most everyone knows the acronym STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. It’s thrown about in a wide range of topics such as education, the economy, and politics; even professional sports teams grab a piece of the action by hosting STEM outreach events with their local elementary schools.
STEM pops up so frequently these days, I think many of us assume it’s always been a mature concept, when in fact, it’s a relatively new term, having been created between 20 and 30 years ago.
Exactly who created the acronym, and when, depends on the source you’re referencing, but the quick overview is this. In the 1990s, education councils began updating standards and guidelines to improve math and science curriculums, and their teaching methods, in elementary and high schools. Documentation at this time typically used the acronym SMET (or Science, Math, Engineering, and Technology).
One of these councils sometimes specifically credited as introducing the STEM acronym is the Center for the Advancement of Hispanics in Science and Engineering Education (CAHSEE). Located in Washington, DC, this organization created a summer program for talented under-represented students and called it the STEM Institute.
Other sources attribute the acronym to Judith A. Ramaley, the assistant director for education and human resources at the National Science Foundation (NSF). In 2001, Ramaley replaced SMET in NSF documentation with STEM, because she believed STEM sounded better when said out loud. Charles Vela, the founder and director of CAHSEE, served on several NSF and Congressional panels around the same time, which is likely why there is conflicting conclusions regarding the true origin of the acronym.
Regardless of who or which group created the concept and acronym, it first officially appeared in US Congressional documents in 2005, when Rep. Vernon Ehlers, a Republican from Michigan, and Rep. Mark Udall, a Democrat from Colorado, established the STEM Caucus.
In the United States, STEM became a focus when educators and government officials recognized their students’ proficiency in STEM disciplines was beginning to lag behind that of other countries. They decided direct action was needed to ensure the U.S. remain the global leader in increasingly competitive markets. Thus, new legislature and policies were created in an effort to improve the way STEM was taught in schools.
This urgent focus on STEM at a national level was also in response to increasing numbers of elementary school teachers with non-STEM degrees. Policy makers believed no matter how strong the curriculum, many teachers lacked the experience and knowledge to implement it. Therefore, federal funding was budgeted to train elementary school teachers in STEM. They set a goal to train 100,000 new STEM teachers by 2019, and as of 2016, about 50% of the goal had been reached.
Improving STEM proficiency in the U.S. was also connected national security and immigration policy. Tech companies began requesting more and more work visas for non-U.S. citizens, citing the domestic workforce lacked the necessary STEM skills. However, there is very little concrete data supporting this claim, and it’s more likely the increase in visa requests had as much, if not more, to do with wages.
Taking all of this into account, and speaking as someone in works in STEM and frequently talks to students and teachers, I don’t believe the U.S. actually fell behind in our STEM proficiency. It’s certainly possible our average scores may have begun to lag, but we never fell behind when comparing the top percentages.
For much of the history of education in the United States, science and math were taught in isolation of each other. You would go to math class, then go to science class, and of course nearly zero K-12 curriculums had classes specific to engineering or technology. The studies performed in the 1990s and 2000s, identified this dissociation of subjects as a critical deficiency in the education system.
The improved method, according to those same studies, was to teach the subjects as an integrated curriculum. Hence the creation and proliferation of STEM as a buzzword.
In some variations of the concept, technology is used to connect everything. In other concepts, the focus is relating what students learn in the classroom to what’s going on in the outside world, and emphasizes critical thinking, collaboration, and problem-solving. The idea being that applying the principles of STEM to other aspects of one’s education and life will benefit those areas as well. Some educators even believe students should study everything through a STEM lens, applying math, science, and engineering skills to diverse projects.
But implementation hasn’t always measured up to this ideal. In some schools, the education reform resulted in an increase in rigorous math and science courses isolated from each other even further than before. Students often become overwhelmed with STEM classes at the expense of individual interests and a well rounded education. And this has produced minimal improvement in average test scores and student engagement. Even with mixed results, the new STEM curriculums have been widely accepted and applauded by educators, policy makers, and the public.
But like all good ideas, STEM has been hijacked by various interest groups looking for a piece of it’s publicity and funding. Some groups want to make versions of STEM more specific to their subject matter. Examples are environmental STEM (eSTEM), or STEM with a double M where the second M stands for medicine. I guess the point is to create specialized programs, but it defeats the purpose of integrating the four subjects in the first place. STEM is already all encompassing. Why do we need to include sub-genres?
Other groups change the acronym in an attempt to make STEM more accessible to specific demographics of students. An example is GEMS, which stands for Girls in Engineering, Math, and Science (I guess technology was dropped because GEMST doesn’t roll off the tongue).
And yet other groups want to inject unrelated subjects into STEM. There’s STEMLE where the LE stands for law and economics. There’s AMSEE, which stands for Applied Math, Science, Engineering and Entrepreneurship. There’s STEMS^2, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, Social Sciences and Sense of Place.
And then there’s STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math. The argument behind including art is it improves creativity and innovation. According to proponents, STEAM teaches using hands-on projects with a variety of tools so students learn by doing instead of by lecture, thus gaining the ability to think outside of the box.
But why not make it SHTEAM by throwing in history, or SHTEAMP by including physical education? Then you’ve got the full school day covered.
I understand subjects like art and music face their own funding issues, and I have nothing against art being taught in school – in fact, I think the interaction between STEM and the arts and social sciences and ethics and philosophy is critical to implementing a well-rounded education.
My undergraduate degree in engineering is from a school whose mission statement is to produce scientists, engineers, and mathematicians who are all well versed in humanities and social sciences. One-third of my curriculum was humanities and social sciences. I took philosophy, creative writing, music theory, American literature, several 19th Century history classes, modern anthropology, and medieval history. And those are just the ones I can quickly recall.
So not only am I aware of how a well-rounded education benefits those pursuing careers in STEM, I’m anecdotal proof of its effectiveness. I attribute much of my career success to this education.
That said, I don’t believe it is art specifically that fosters creativity and innovation and out of the box thinking in students. It’s hands on learning, and that can be done in STEM without turning it into STEAM. It’s called science labs, where you follow and design experiments and see results materialize in front of you. Learning theory is necessary, but so is getting your hands dirty and trial and error.
So let’s fund STEM. Let’s fund the arts, and history and economics. Treat them as equals, but don’t lump them together and call it a revolutionary concept. That’s just what a well-rounded education is supposed to be.
Thank you for listening to this episode of The STEM Sessions podcast. I do my best to always provide accurate information, but, unfortunately, I’m fallible like everyone else. So I encourage you to do your own research on the topic we discussed. Corrections and new information are always welcome.
Shownotes, contact information, and details of our other activities such as meetups can be found on our website www.thestemsessions.com
If you received value from this episode, and wish to give some back, please visit www.thestemsessions.com/valueforvalue for ways to support the podcast.
And most importantly, please remember that STEM is not the exclusive property of experts, policy makers, or talking heads. Every presenter is susceptible to bias, unconsciously or deliberately, so always verify what you read and what you’re told.
Do your own research. Satisfy your curiosity. And keep learning.
IEEE Spectrum June 2019
Why Companies Need Engineers with an Artistic Bent