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]