Sunday, September 10, 2017

I Hate STEM Education!

You might think it strange that I hate STEM education since I spend my life encouraging people to study chemistry. It's not the education part I hate, it's the acronym "STEM" and what it stands for.

I recently read an article by Bryan Scaf, "STEM - We know what it stands for, but what does it mean?" (
Which started me wondering if we really do have  a shared understanding of the meaning of STEM.
What STEM means depends on who you are talking to.

If you ask a scientist, they will probably tell you that STEM stands for a Scanning Transition Electron Microscope and the first STEM was built in 1938.
If you try asking people in the street, they are most likely to think it has something to do with biology, plant stems or stem cells for example.
Towards the end of the twentieth century, STEM started being used as an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), superseding the previous (and possibly slightly  less ambiguous) SMET acronym. STEM education has come to mean an integrated approach to the teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics using an inquiry-based learning model.
So the question arises of whether we  do indeed know what STEM stands for.
In case you are not convinced that "STEM" is ambiguous, head on over to and read through their list of 19 uses of the acronym STEM.
The first reason why I hate STEM is that the term is ambiguous.

STEM (as science, technology, engineering and maths) is a huge area. It encompasses observable, concrete entities as big as the entire cosmos and as small as elementary particles, and, that's just the STE part!  The "M" part is quite nebulous (yes, groan, groan, another bad pun).  Maths is based on numbers, shapes and other abstract entities. So when we lump abstract maths and concrete science (including the applied fields of engineering and technology) together we've pretty much covered everything, making STEM so large and all-encompassing that is a useless concept. You can't teach "STEM", but you can attempt to teach a few scientific concepts which can be applied to problems in engineering and/or technology. You can try the same with mathematics, except that you land yourself in the middle of another problem ....

And this next HUGE problem is the way most (non-mathematical) people think about mathematics, the big "M" in "STEM". Science (including engineering and technology) uses maths (small "m") like a tool, an aid to defining and solving problems and to build models. But this isn't really Maths (big "M"). Maths is based on logical reasoning, but there are differences between scientific reasoning and mathematical reasoning.
The scientific method is, broadly speaking, a form of deductive reasoning. A mathematical proof, the essence of maths, is largely based on inductive reasoning. The way "science" views the world is different to the way "maths" views the world. So why on earth do we lump "M" in with the "STE" ?
If I were a Maths teacher, I would be very concerned that lumping maths in with science, engineering and technology makes it look like maths is just a tool to be used rather than an elegant, logical, reasoning process.

I would make a similar argument for Science (S). Lumping science in with engineering and technology makes it look like science is just a tool to be used to solve engineering and technology problems. Science can be used this way, just like mathematics can be used as a tool, but this is not the most important aspect of science. Science is the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of "the world". Scientific study may lead to a theory or a model which can be used to make predictions, which can be tested, lending support to the theory or suggesting modifications to the theory, etc. It is the results of "science", the theory or model, that can be applied to problems (engineering and technology), but teaching/learning science should not be primarily about the application of results, it should be about understanding scientific concepts.

Let me just add that even within the science (S) part of STEM there are huge differences and difficulties. Chemists are primarily interested in understanding and making patterns with "atoms". Physicists are more interested in the interaction of energy and forces. A Chemist might analyse a rubbery material, then think about how atoms could be pushed around in the lab to make a similar material, or a different material with enhanced stretchiness compared to the original, or with less stretchiness, or the same stretchiness but a different colour, or different melting point, etc. A Physicist might look at the same material and be fascinated by the forces required to stretch the material, how far it can be stretched before it deforms or breaks, or whether its stretchiness depends on how fast or slow it is stretched or on how hot or cold it is, etc. Now you might be thinking that this would form a great basis for a STEM education (inquiry-based learning) activity, but I beg to differ. Indeed, students could probably competently and safely investigate stretchiness of a suitable material and think about how the material might be used (engineering/technology) but what have they learnt by doing this? They will have investigated one example (or maybe a few), and drawn a few conclusions about a specific material(s). But what is the point? Will they actually have any understanding of the chemistry and physics principles underlying their observations, because it is the scientific principles that are really useful, not the results of an isolated experiment or two.
In order to have an understanding of the material they need to understand how Chemists might analyse it, and they need to understand how structure and bonding effect properties. If they want to make a new material based on the structure of the original, then they are going to have to come to an understanding of reaction mechanisms. This in itself constitutes a lot of concepts before we even begin on the physics concepts they would need to understand stretchiness.

The problem with STEM education is that it over-emphasizes concrete application and under-emphasizes abstract reasoning. Mathematics and science are so much more than just "tools" to be applied to solve engineering and technology problems.
Mathematics (M) is based on logical reasoning.
Science (S) is based on logical reasoning.
What is engineering (E) based on? Engineering is the application of science and maths.
So what is technology (T) ? Technology is also the application of science.
So, STEM stands for Science (S), Mathematics (M) and their application (TE or should that be TA?).
I think a better acronym would therefore be S&M. I think students might find that more entertaining than STEM.

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