Date: Oct 5, 2010 11:33 AM
Author: Bishop, Wayne
One of my pet peeves... Taught what at the graduate level?
"Elizabeth Stage is Director of the Lawrence Hall
of Science, University of California at
Berkeley. A former middle school mathematics and
science teacher who has also taught at the
graduate level, she has conducted research,
program evaluation, and curriculum development;
led professional development programs; and worked
on state and national standards and assessments
in mathematics and science. Throughout these
activities, she has been guided by a vision of
high quality mathematics and science education for all students."
The New York Times
October 4, 2010
STEM Education Has Little to Do With Flowers
If you want to talk about bolstering science and
math education in this country, Ill gladly break
out my virtual pompoms and go rah. Who wouldnt?
Our nations economy, global allure and future
tense all depend on the strength of its scientific spine.
But mention the odious and increasingly pervasive
term STEM education, and instead of
cheerleading gear, I reach for my ... pistil. In
my disgruntlement, I am not alone.
For readers who heretofore have been spared
exposure to this little concatenation of capital
letters, or who have, quite understandably,
misconstrued its meaning, STEM stands for
Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics,
supposedly the major food groups of a comprehensive science education.
Aficionados pronounce STEM exactly as youd
imagine like the plant part, like the cell
type, like what you do to a tide and I wish I
could do to this trend, but its probably too
late. Go to any convention, Congressional hearing
or science foundation bagel chat on the ever
ominous theme of Science in the Classroom, and
why cant our students be more like Singapores
when they take international tests anyway? and
youll hear little about how to teach
trigonometry or afford all those Popsicle sticks
needed for the eighth-grade bridge-building
competition, but youll be pelted by references to STEM.
new report from the Presidents Council of
Advisors on Science and Technology offers many
worthy ideas for improving science education,
like creating a master corps of the nations
finest science teachers who would in turn train
others; but the STEM word keeps thudding up its
pages like so many gristle nubs in a turkey
burger. Its greasy-peasy: collapse down
education, and youve got a buzz phrase to rival phys ed.
As even those who use the term admit, it is
deeply, serio-comically flawed. For starters, it
is opaque and confusing. Everybody who knows
what it means knows what it means, and everybody
else doesnt, said Eric Lander, co-chairman of
the presidents advisory council and head of the
Broad Institute of the
Institute of Technology and
University. When he first heard the term, he
figured it was a too-cute reference to botany. I
thought, stem education? What about flower education? he said.
These days, given the publics fixation on
cells progenitor cells that give rise to all
the different tissues of the body the potential
for confusion is even worse. People hear about
STEM education, and they think some harm has come
to an embryo in the process, Dr. Lander said.
The term also sounds didactic and jargony, which
is why Sally Ride, the former astronaut who now
travels the country promoting the glories of
science education to girls and other interested
parties, said she consciously avoids it.
heritage, Im perfectly capable of speaking
entirely in acronyms, including the verbs, she
said. But this is not very helpful when talking to the public.
Dr. Rides instincts are well grounded. According
to survey results released last month by the
Industries Council, when some 5,000 participants
were asked whether they understood the term STEM
education, 86 percent said no. They said it
made them think of stem cells, branches, leaves
and broccoli stems, said Brian Dyak, the groups
president. I have no clue on that last one.
Clearly, he added, we have a branding issue here.
But is it a brand worth pitching? Some critics
argue that the term is unnecessary and
potentially self-defeating. Whats wrong with a
simple science education, or if need be, science
and math education? Whats with all the
discipline call-outs that demanded the invention of an acronym?
A program officer from a foundation recently
asked me, Is the work youre doing STEM
education or science education? said Elizabeth
Stage, the director of the Lawrence Hall of
Science at the
of California, Berkeley. I drew him a Venn
diagram, showing him whats central about science
and how that overlaps with technology, engineering and math.
Dr. Stage, a mathematician by training, thinks
its a false distinction to silo out the
different disciplines, and would much prefer to
focus on what the fields have in common, like
problem-solving, arguing from evidence and
reconciling conflicting views. Thats what we
should have in the bulls-eye of our target, she said.
The decision to include engineering and
technology in the education messaging dates
roughly to the 1990s, when the
Science Foundation and other government agencies
began trying to draw up national standards for
science education, specifying what students in
kindergarten through 12th grade should know by the end of every school year.
I remember it being made explicit that science
encompassed more than straight-up science, and
you started hearing requests to include mention
of math, technology and engineering, Dr. Stage said.
Pragmatism and economics are also part of the
equation. As government has turned ever more
avidly to industry to help pay for expensive
improvements in the science classroom, the need
to emphasize the link between a well-rounded
science education and tomorrows techie work
force has grown accordingly. A lot of
corporations are now talking to each other about
what theyre doing in STEM education, said Dr.
Stage, and those corporations include engineering
and computer heavyweights like Exxon Mobil, Intel and Hewlett-Packard.
Dr. Lander argues that that there is a basic
rightness to the itemizing spirit behind STEM.
Science is discovering the laws of the natural
world, and mathematics isnt that, its logical,
deductive truth, and its experiments dont have
error bars, he said. And when you get to
technology and engineering, its the constructed
world, and thats different than the discovered
one. Hed like a better term than the current
one, but said hes tried all four factorial
permutations of the letters, and the
alternatives are either unpronounceable or
already claimed by a baseball team. Dr. Ride
points out that an earlier version of the
official acronym was, in fact, SMET, and
thankfully weve moved away from that, she said.
Yet others dont frame the word science so
narrowly, as the province of the given rather
than of the forged. Science has always
encompassed the applied and the basic, and the
impulses to explore and to invent have always
built a telescope and then trained it on the sky.
Advances in technology illuminate realms beyond
our born senses, and those insights in turn yield
better scientific toys. Engineers use math and
physics and the scientific mind-set in everything
they design; and those who dont, please let us
know, so we can fly someone elses airplane and
not cross your bridge when we come to it.
Whatever happened to the need for
interdisciplinary thinking? Why promote a brand that codifies atomization?
Besides, acronyms encourage rampant me-tooism.
Mr. Dyak said that some have lobbied for the
addition of medicine to the scholastic program,
complete with a second M. Its called STEM
squared, he said. Even the arts are hankering
for an orthographic position, he added.
STEAM education: great books, labs and
motherboards, and free rug cleaning, too.