Deconstructing STEM

Retort by Harry Keller with a distilling retort on the left

In K-12 education these days, you’ll see frequent use of the acronym, STEM. This word stands for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.” This term is so widespread that no one even seems to question its use. Yet, the inclusion of these four subjects and the exclusion of any other is actually rather arbitrary and tends to mislead the general public about the nature of these subjects and how to teach them. Possibly, it’s the push from industry for more employees trained in these areas that has resulted in this emphasis.

Many people, even in education, do not have a full understanding of the essential differences between these four subjects. Science teachers may present them to students as being essentially the same. Funding agencies are proposing lots of money for STEM education. What are they proposing to fund? Even if you know all about STEM, please take a moment to read the analysis below and comment on anything that’s incorrect or incomplete.

To begin with, why exclude other subjects? For example, physical education uses science, technology, engineering, and mathematics extensively. If the use of one subject by another is reason enough for inclusion in a grouping, then physical education certainly should be added to form something like STEPEM. You can make a case for inclusion of some other subjects as well. Roping off four subjects from everything else makes no real sense for education.

However, it’s the lumping together of these four that makes the least sense. Why not HELASSAWL, grouping history, English language arts, social science, arts, and world languages? Yeah, it’s a mouthful compared to STEM, but logically, it makes as much sense. To understand why, take a look at each of the four STEM subjects.

Mathematics began centuries ago as a means to an end. It was used to regulate trade (arithmetic) and to deal with land (geometry). Then, Euclid came along and made logical, step-by-step proofs the bedrock of geometry. Mathematics hasn’t been the same since. Instead of being just a means to an end, mathematics now stands by itself in pure abstraction with its proof-based system of functioning.

Something that hasn’t been proved in mathematics is merely a conjecture. Mathematicians don’t have to relate their work to anything going on in science, technology, or engineering. They start with axioms and build a tower of theorems, corollaries, and lemmas. Doing mathematics requires a special way of thinking and extensive training.

In total contrast to mathematics, science is all about disproof. Science doesn’t stand apart from the real world in abstractions. Science involves inquiry, exploration, and discovery within the context of reality. It’s a voyage into the world of ideas that develop into explanations of the universe. Scientific theories mean nothing unless they can be compared with real data.

Scientists know that they can never prove their theories. That’s one reason that they’re called theories. New data tomorrow could overturn or at least modify today’s favorite theory. Examples abound. The geocentric view of the universe was overturned (probably more than once) by the heliocentric theory, which itself was modified when all stars were found to be rotating around a galactic center.

Mathematics plays an important role in every branch of science. The eponymous Lord Kelvin, immortalized as a temperature scale, said, “When you measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it.” Mathematics then allows processing of those numbers. Whether physicists are doing quantum mechanics or biologists are making statistical analyses of experimental results, mathematics permeates science. Nevertheless, mathematics is not science. Doing science requires a special, nonintuitive way of thinking and extensive training.

Engineering is all about making things. Engineers use the knowledge they have of how things work to create new physical entities. Much of this knowledge comes from other engineers who have tried numerous approaches and found which work best, and the data used are empirical. Other knowledge comes from the discoveries of scientists.

Engineers design, build, and test. They create skyscrapers and highways, toasters and microwave ovens, automobiles and racing bicycles. Scientists discover; engineers create. These two acts, discovery and creation, seem to be wired into our brains so that we consider them to be very pleasurable. There’s little other connection between these two disciplines, except that they seem to require each other. The discoveries of science help to fuel new engineering, and the new stuff that engineers create often provides devices that scientists use in their research such as telescopes, microscopes, spectrophotometers, and so on. Engineers require extensive training.

Technology is the stuff that mankind creates. It comes originally from engineers and inventors.

Technology is the stuff that mankind creates. It comes originally from engineers and inventors. Building a fire and crafting a spear were early examples of using technology. Today, it’s hard to take a step without involving technology, for example, the technology represented by your shoes. Because technologies are closely tied with scientific discoveries and with engineering designs and creations, people may readily confuse these.

A course on technology, by itself, will be a rare occurrence in elementary and secondary schools. Instead, you find technology woven into K-12 science courses along with engineering (e.g., robotics). Technology makes our lives easier, delivers better health, and allows us to explore places previously inaccessible. It also complicates our lives, pollutes our environment in numerous ways, and requires us to extract our planet’s resources to feed it.

Scientists discovered the ideas that made today’s flat panel televisions possible. Engineers turned these ideas along with engineering principles into televisions. The technology consists of the televisions, all of their pieces and parts, and the means to capture and send the images and sound to the individual televisions. In all of these activities, the scientists and engineers use lots of mathematics, but mathematicians play no role in creating televisions. A technologically literate person will know much about the technologies involved in delivering the television experience to living rooms but may not be familiar with the engineering principles involved in the design. This same person may not understand the nature of science either.

Interestingly, the California Institute of Technology provides bachelor’s degrees in mathematics, many branches of science, and several disciplines of engineering. However, there’s no degree in technology.

This conflation of four terms into STEM, an artificial thing that we’re supposed to be excited about teaching to K-12 students, makes little sense. Science and mathematics departments like it because it elevates them somewhat in the din of the discussion of how to improve education. Here’s what’s actually happening on the ground in many school districts. The districts receive some federal money for improving education. The various departments put in their proposals for a piece of this funding. ELA (English language arts) and mathematics ask for more, in total, than is available and receive all of the money. The science and history departments, not to mention music, arts, physical education, and others, get nothing.

The push for improved reading and mathematics scores trumps everything else and shortchanges the places where real learning takes place. But that’s material for another column.

[Note: The paragraphs on technology were revised by the author after initial publication. 1.15.10]

6 Responses

  1. An article appeared in eSchoolNews today: “Obama launches new STEM initiatives.” The article begins with the following paragraph.

    “Under a new initiative called “Educate to Innovate,” President Barack Obama on Nov. 23 announced the launch of several nationwide programs that aim to inspire students to excel in science, technology, en- gineering, and math, including a grassroots effort called “National Lab Day” and a White House science fair.”

    So, STEM has even made it into the White House vernacular.

    • STEM started out as SMET in 1985. They changed the title, but it still did not stick. What probably made it stick as STEM was the many discussions from the Convocation on the Gathering Storm, and the Innovation Proclamation
      and the 18 other meetings and national science review boards that thrust forward this title.

      What makes it difficult to go forward is the lack of content knowledge in K-12 and the separate in some teacher college curriculum into tracks that are specialized.

      What makes it difificult for teachers to employ it was NCLB. In many states one half hour per week was the legal amount of science being taught as it was not tested.

      The deal on math is even more pointed to the test. Deep math, problemsolving and computational math
      was selected , skill and drill. Even on the national math panel there was very scant informed discussion of
      problem based, algebraic, or computational math.
      When I asked the head of the National Math Panel about the lack of inclusion, he said he did not know what computational math is. So maybe I bought the wrong term to him.

      There are some examples of computational tools that incorporate STEM at and the information is free.

      Speeking of free, how free are teachers to teach STEM.
      Engineering week has great projects, project based initiatives, and the National Academy of Engineering had workshops , which have not at this time drifted down to the lower levels of education ( K-8)

      People seem to know Project Lead the Way but below it the knowledge is not being distributed, in my opinion.

      The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) will provide states with more than $58 billion in education funding before spring 2010. The PLTW curriculum meets all necessary requirements for funding. The NAF staff can assist a schools/district in preparing an application for ARRA funding. A lot of the engineering programs are in academies.
      STEM projects, so as not to reinvent the wheel

      There is this project as well from ITEST.
      One hundred grade 8-12 students in St. Paul, MN engage in engineering and design experiences through creative, open-ended projects that are connected to the interests of youth and needs in their communities

      Analysis of middle and high school student learning of science, mathematics and engineering concepts through a Lego underwater robotics design challenge.

      Presentation at 2009 American Society of Engineering Education: The Build IT project is a university-school collaboration to increase precollege student interest and achievement in engineering, science, mathematics, and information technology through a novel underwater robotics project that utilizes LEGO Mindstorms kits, the NXT programmable brick, and related equipment. The project is being implemented in 36 socio-economically and academically diverse schools for students in Grades 7-12.

      Project Information
      5 (2007/2008-2010/2011)
      Principal Investigator:
      Rachel Gates
      Co-Principal Investigator(s):
      David Gundale
      Science Museum of Minnesota
      Primary Focus:
      Organization Location City:
      St. Paul
      Organization Location Region/State:
      West North Central
      Minnesota (MN)
      Where project work happens:
      West North Central
      Minnesota (MN)
      Other Area(s) of Focus:
      Computer Science – Programming and Other
      multimedia – audio, video and animation
      web development
      Participant type:
      Black or African American
      Target Area:
      Award Number:
      Overview Section

      The youth-based ITEST proposal, Invention, Design, Engineering and Art Cooperative (IDEA), provides 100 students in grades 8-12 from the East Side of St. Paul, Minnesota with IT experiences in engineering and design. The content focus is mechanical and electrical engineering, such as product design, electronics, and robotics with an emphasis on 21st century job skills, including skills in advanced areas of microcontrollers, sensors, 3-D modeling software, and web software development for sharing iterative engineering product design ideas and maintaining progress on student product development. These technologies are practical and specific to careers in engineering and standards for technological literacy.

      People fuss about the lack of inclusion of art, music an the humanities, David McCauley, with his books and films on building, and other resources point the way for elementary interest, but if science is not being taught that much there may be not enough time allocated.

      Miami Science Museum has RISE
      RISE (Raising Interest in Science & Engineering) is engaging high school girls from four Miami Dade County high schools in Saturday and summer programming, exciting them about the many opportunities associated with careers in engineering, and helping them to acquire related technology and design skills as they learn to create table-top science exhibits.

      The potential for new ways of learning using STEM that are inclusive of the humanities exist, but NCLB still has a grip , and so does testing.

      Not a one trick pony here, there is much more but teachers often do not belong to the organizations that filter down the knowledge , grants and know how.

      Bonnie Bracey Sutton

  2. There seems to be some confusion about the four areas included in STEM and why they should be connected in this way. The perspective presented in this article is engineering-centric, giving the impression that Engineering is the only piece of that equation that is worthwhile. Historically, engineering was labeled as a lofty, god-like profession, with all solutions to the probelsm of the world coming from them. I am not an engineer; I am a technologist and a teacher educator. My students and I (and all of the students and Teachers of Technology Education across the world) are solving the same kinds of problems as engineers supposedly are, but we are also fixing the problems that they create, by not being able to apply those concepts beyond their CADD plans. Technology Education is alive and well, and has been applying math, science and engineering concepts since its inception. The application and real-world connection make the difference.

  3. Wow, this author should visit schools outside of California. Technology should be a discipline of itself. You forgot about the person who has to install, repair, and maintain that TV. Science is the study of the natural world, Technology is the study of the man made world with all of its impacts. In math class, we learn about theories and formulas, but never learn where they are actually used. Technology class is where we use those formulas to learn engineering and actually make something. And we do actually use physical education activities in our class as well….

  4. The problem with STEM is everyone forgets the T and most continue to think that it is educational technology or a nice probe connected to a computer for detecting moisture in wood or soil. Technology is the application of knowledge (Science/Math/SS/Eng, etc.) to satisfy human needs and wants and extend human capabilities; therefore it is a general literacy all students should develop rather than a specific field of Engineering for career purposes. If engineers took the time to learn what Technology Education was all about, they would want it in every school for every child. Instead they want Engineering Ed. in schools for the few that may want to be engineers. Technology Ed. is a great feeder to engineering but it is a basic needed literacy that will improve society and our Nation’s economy. Politicians don’t understand it because they didn’t need it in their prep schools to make money. The world has changed and it is about time education makes the change. Technology Ed. has been around for 25 years. It is a shame that some people added the word technology to their course titles and haven’t changed their content or teaching style. But educated people can figure this out.

  5. Do you think that technology will just go away if we ignore it? We owe it to our children to make sure that when they graduate from high school that they are technologically literate. To be technologically literate means that one has the knowledge base from which to analyze and complete a technology assessment on the use of technology: what are the environmental, ethical, cultural, political, social, and economical impacts. Are there immediate/delayed impacts? Planned/Unplanned? Positive/negative? They need to be able to decide these questions for themselves and to do so in an educated manner. They need to be able to answer other questions such as: How do we deal with the exponential rise of technology? How do we deal with displacement from automation? Where will students learn about all of the factors that technology will bring to their doorsteps, such as pollution, dwindling resources, etc.? Where will they learn to accept that they will have to be life-long learners; out of necessity? Science, Engineering, and Math are partners as well as English, Social Studies, and the Arts. The need for STEM arises for America’s need for a stronger economy and a stronger infrastructure. STEM education can help America rebuild the network and knowledge base of needed scientist, engineers, technologists and mathematicians to make America better; without them the future appears bleak. Look at our infrastructure if you feel so sure that there is no need for new STEM recruits- how many English, Social Studies, PE and Art teachers can provide a city with power, water and trasnportation?

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