Monday, October 11, 2010

What do we mean when we say "STEM"?

A recent article in the New York Times Science section has been bouncing around the science education blogosphere, and the topic just so happens to be something very close to our hearts. In "STEM Education Has Little to Do With Flowers", Natalie Angier touches on something that science education advocates struggle with constantly: the "branding" of STEM to students, parents, educators, legislators, and funders. Angier argues that the term is "opaque and confusing" to the public, which makes it harder to emphasize its importance to people outside of the field

So what's the problem with "STEM"? On the one hand, it could be seen as overly inclusive--despite stereotypes, not every student interested in science is also fascinated by math, and vice versa. But the term might a little exclusive too--does it leave out specialized but important disciplines like computer science, medicine and health science, media studies, or archaeology? Some advocates argue for the inclusion of art--to make STEM into STEAM--because no science or technology innovation has ever been done without a little creativity. 

And while STEM might be a handy acronym for those of us who work in the field, it might mystify those who need access to science and technology education the most. If you're not involved in the science education field in some way, you might not know what STEM means, and it's rarely explained in the media. The Coalition advocates for afterschool science for all, and it's hard to convince someone that STEM is important when you're not even speaking the same language as them! 

We don't necessarily need to scrap the term altogether, though. As Dr. Elizabeth Stage--Coalition Steering Committee member and Director of the Lawrence Hall of Science--it's a "false distinction" to "silo out" the different disciplines, because they use the same type of analytical and critical thinking. But as the field of science education advocacy grows and changes, there's no doubt that criticisms such as Angier's will continue to be published.

What are your thoughts on the term "STEM"? Let us know in the discussion page at the Coalition for Science After School LinkedIn page.

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