Acronym in Cheek: STEM, STEAM…

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

[Note: See Bob Hoffmann’s response in “Proposal for a Holistic Emphasis in K-12” (11/24/13). -Editor]

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) has taken over from simple, unadorned “science” as the term describing our science classes. Because most of these classes use technology and mathematics already, the major change is the addition of engineering. Many science classes already had some sort of engineering-oriented activities they call projects. The NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards) has increased the emphasis on engineering.

STEM, as a moniker, has had such success that it has resulted in some copycat acronyms. Preeminent among these is STEAM, which adds art to the list. I have absolutely nothing against inserting art into science classes and even support the idea. However, the creeping growth of an acronym does bother me as does the omission of equally important areas of learning for students in science classes.

I also happen to think that that putting technology into the acronym is superfluous. I’d much prefer, for example, thinking as the T in STEM if you have that letter at all.

I have read many spirited discussions about STEAM replacing STEM, and they all seem to originate from teachers of traditional art classes where drawing, painting, and sculpting is taught. What about performance arts? What about music? I have not seen anyone agitating to add those to science classes. Why not?

There’s also the crucial role of history and social science in general to learning. There certainly is much history in science, both the history of science and the historical context. Our children can learn much from this analysis, possibly more than memorizing the names of U.S. Presidents or of the Kings of England along with dates. Why do we not see agitation for SHTEM or HEMST? Not a clever enough acronym? That’s hardly a sufficient excuse. 

Where are our ELA friends in all of this discussion. I have read many science teachers complaining that their students haven’t a clue about technical writing. But, ELA goes far beyond mere words and should include all sorts of communication. We absolutely must teach good communication skills in our schools, and that includes science classes. ELA courses ought to add on creation of videos, building static imagery, and making animations plus musical backgrounds and narration. All right. Now, you can have SCHTEM if you’re of a Germanic frame of mind or MECHTS otherwise. It you were to add arts, you could even have THE MASC.

I have left out physical education. That’s hardly fair because a sound mind should have a sound body. Besides, there’s the “active physics” promoted by Arthur Eisenkraft with help from an NSF grant. And, science has been applied extensively to sports. We’re talking some real acronym creativity now. How about SPAM-TECH?

Seriously, our arts teachers should get a life and stop pushing for yet another dumb acronym (YADA, as in yada yada yada). Any science teacher who ignores the use of artistic ability in learning science is missing a great learning opportunity and should not require a special acronym to include it. Science teachers should also have projects (engineering) and use technology appropriately both in learning and as examples of science. Mathematics is almost inescapable in science, but science should be used more often to motivate the value of learning mathematics.

Ignoring the historical context of science makes the course almost one-dimensional. The personalities involved in the history of science are often fascinating too. Then, there’s communication. What good is science if scientists are unable to communicate what they do?

As a scientist, I think that science does not have to have lots of other fields tacked onto it in order to be a great field of study, engaging and exciting. No one has to change its name to STEM in order to improve education. It certainly does not have to become STEAM.

Let’s not forget thinking: science for critical thinking, engineering projects for creative thinking, and solid mathematics for rational thinking. Thinking is what we must be teaching, more so in our highly technological and communication-oriented society today.

In my view, science should be taught with real-world interactions, with real-world data collected by students themselves, with inquiry, exploration, and discovery built in, with students communicating in a variety of media what they’ve found out, with the history of science included along with the philosophy of science, with physically active learning, with quiet learning, with group learning, with solitary learning, with the focus more on thinking than memorizing, with an eye to learning innovation, and more.

In short, variety is the spice of science education as well as life.

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