What is STEM?

If you’re an educator, you probably know what the letters stand for.1 But what does that acronym actually mean? In terms of student learning. And how it affects the curriculum.

In the January issue of Wired Magazine, an “ideas contributor” has some thoughts on the matter.

The acronym, coined in the early 1990s, is pedagogical vapor. It Pasteur-pipettes into a flask all kinds of clashing and differently scaled fields of study, with no shared methodology or pedagogical tradition. Then STEM Bunsen-burns this brew to ashes and calls the precipitate “progress,” “rigor,” a “competitive edge,” and “gross domestic product.” And now, as parents of school-age kids have been told at least since 2001, STEM requires our reverence and our investment.

Well, OK, show me where to donate to the rambunctiously merry STEM events—STEMStars, STEMlympics. But first just tell me what STEM is. Above all, I want to know how science, a byword for all knowledge, and mathematics, the great harmonies of the universe—two august disciplines that have defined education since antiquity—yoked themselves to the vocational field of engineering and, worst of all, to “technology,” which could mean almost anything from space mirrors to VSCO girls. Technology is conceptually chaotic, even if the chaos can be glorious. See: WIRED magazine.

That term, “pedagogical vapor”, is quite appropriate, both for STEM and much of the acronym stew in which education seems to swim.

Anyway, she has more to say about the lack of coherence when it comes STEM, but I think that pull quote pretty well covers it.

Beyond the lack of a clear definition for STEM, we also the question of how this concept actually fits into the K12 curriculum used in the US. Or whether it fits at all.

As the writer notes, math and science have been part of the K12 program of studies for longer than there’s been a K12. We also have a very clear description of the topics students will study, even if that map is in need of a major revision.

However, for most students, the E part of STEM is not part of their regular studies. And where technology fits in the school picture has always been even more uncertain.

Activities involving the TE half are often set up as after-school programs, electives usually reserved for those kids we know will pass the standardized tests, or rewards activities done after the “regular” work is completed. That’s the case even in schools around the DC area that have declared themselves “STEM schools”.

If STEM is the “future of education” as a conference keynote speaker once told us, and if there really is a “critical relationship between STEM education and national prosperity and power,” as stated in a 2012 Congressional study, why aren’t we revising the standard curriculum to make these topics the core? Why is STEM usually regarded as an extra for certain kids?

Of course, we could also ask the same of the “maker” movement. Or project-based learning. Or coding. Or any of the other collections of pedagogical vapor we seem to invent every few years and declare to be the next educational revolution.

Maybe instead we need to take a step back to look at the larger picture: Why do we have school in the first place and what should kids learn during their time there?

The graphic is used as the header for the original article in Wired. It seems appropriate to the topic that some screws are still missing from the final assembly.

1. Some people, of course, wedge an A (for arts) in there to get STEAM. Even though the arts are even less compatible with the rest of the alphabet stew.