What do you mean by ‘STEM’?

stem-symbolsIt’s been about 20 years since the term STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) was first introduced by the National Science Foundation. The original goal was to consolidate and promote the concerns of various interest groups all seeking better technical education and literacy.

Today, STEM programs are everywhere, but their definitions and goals have morphed and their impacts have been difficult to assess.

For one, STEM is defined differently by different groups across a wide gamut. Does it include blue-collar manufacturing work, just science research work or somewhere in between?

By the broadest definitions, a bewildering 20 percent of U.S. jobs (from plumbers to nuclear engineers) are classified as requiring a high level of knowledge in at least one STEM field. By the narrowest measure, this figure is around 5 percent.

Has there been growth in STEM employment over time? It depends what’s being measured. The 5 percent and 20 percent employment figures have changed little over the last 25 years, and stood at 3 percent and 10 percent 175 years ago.

Then, as now, they reflect the fact that our society requires a certain level of discovery, innovation and manufacturing — of things like railways, electricity and telegraphs in the mid-1800s, and computers, health care and engineering today.

Is there a shortage of STEM workers today? The fact is that the vast majority of STEM jobs being created in our country involve computer science and certain types of engineering. The number of job applicants who specialize in every other STEM area — from physics to chemistry to biology — exceeds the number of job openings.

Another difficult-to-interpret area is STEM education. The science and math test scores of American students have remained mostly unchanged since the advent of STEM, save for some narrowing of the achievement gaps between gender and demographic groups.

The newest guidelines call for STEM education to be tied to data-driven, real-world learning, and for science and engineering to be taught in an integrated fashion. But there is little research showing that this approach would work any better than the previous approach, or is even needed. Science and engineering aren’t the same disciplines, and not all science is real-world or data-driven.

Also, a growing body of evidence suggests that math education doesn’t really benefit or get the reform focus it needs by being attached to STEM. Math reform is needed because for a great many students math is a barrier to science.

Still, our interest in emphasizing STEM is understandable. Our country goes through periodic panic cycles about STEM readiness, spurred on by Russian satellites in the 1950s, Japanese autos in the 1980s, and most recently by global competitiveness reports.

Our interest is warranted. It’s impossible to overestimate the impact of STEM 150 years ago or today. It clearly affects everything, most often in ways we can’t imagine, including economic multiplier effects and the benefits of having a citizenry that can think critically.

At the same time, it’s important to realize that despite our concern, relatively few students have the interest and ability to make it all the way through a STEM degree program. For the vast majority of other students, it’s important not to discount everything non-STEM that society needs to flourish or to stretch the bounds of STEM too far. STEM may touch everything, but it doesn’t encompass everything.

So what should we do?

We need STEM. But, as a society we must resolve to support science for its own sake: truth, discovery, opportunity and the promise of a better future.

We should make smaller sub-tents so that every STEM discipline gets the attention it needs. And we should help science succeed in other ways: more investment, more jobs, more transparency and better communication.

In short, we should embrace the idea and promise of STEM, but at the same time stop developing STEM policies to conform to an acronym.

This April 21, 2014 Seattle Times op-ed piece has been reprinted with permission from the author, Glenn Hampson

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