Banish STEM

The STEM acronym—it stands for "science, technology, engineering, and mathematics"—has become ubiquitous in our language and culture. There are gobs of government and private reports calling for enhanced STEM education to attract more people to STEM fields, accompanied by virtuous claims that STEM underlies job creation and the economy.

The acronym probably originated at the National Science Foundation in the 1990s as a way to demarcate the agency’s bailiwick. NSF officials likely never anticipated any staying power for the word and I suspect I am not alone in growing weary of its stubbornly persistent presence.

First, STEM is un-poetic. It’s not a beautiful word capable of evoking images of powerful or noble deeds. It does however ignite unintended associations, like the tall, thin part of a plant where leaves and flowers attach. Or the segment of a wine glass you hold if you are an oenophile. Complicating the matter, STEM is associated with stem cells, a subfield full of both scientific promise and cultural strife. And certain specialists would be certain that STEM primarily stands for "scanning transmission electron microscopy."

Nobody even knows for sure what is included or excluded in STEM. Various lists can be found on the websites of funding agencies, with little congruence among them. It’s largely a matter of opinion rather than precise definition. Some think the "E" stands for education rather than engineering. Others have suggested adding "A" for arts, to make STEAM. There is even a call for another "M" for medicine, yielding the even more ungainly STEMM.

My vote is to eradicate STEM and simply go with the word "science." It’s broader and includes all the parts: technology, engineering, mathematics, medicine. I’d even let it encompass the social sciences. I am not unaware, though, of an oft quoted dictum: a good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that anything that calls itself `science' probably isn't. Political science surely springs to mind.

Coordinating Science Education [Periodic Tabloid]
Geek Chic [Distillations]
STAMPER not STEM for Public Education Reform [Seattle Post-Intelliegncer]

Posted In: Education

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