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STEM Is Not an Acronym

By Josh Sneideman

Dear Fellow Educators – STEM is not an acronym! For far too long, people have talked about STEM education as “S period T period E period M period,” standing for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. When I ask a student what STEM means, I certainly don’t want to hear that it means science, technology, engineering and mathematics. As more and more schools are developing their STEM programs, too many of them still rely on this simple viewpoint.

I would rather hear students and teachers say that STEM is a way of looking at the interconnectedness of the world and realizing that all academic skills come together into a beautiful harmony of understanding designed to help me become a better problem solver. STEM is a way of recognizing the interconnectedness of life spans across disciplinary silos.  STEM is about future opportunity. STEM is about high demand, high wage jobs. Most importantly, STEM is about providing students authentic, real-world problem-solving opportunities. It is an opportunity to engage with the world around us and develop a clear understanding of one’s own ability to have a positive impact. As many are aware and have argued vociferously for over a decade, art is part of STEM. Music, too, is critical to the STEM experience. But English class is also part of a quality STEM education.

Consider the play “Hamilton” by Lin Manuel Miranda. Is Hamilton STEM? The set was engineered.  The rhymes were carefully constructed over years of laborious effort and RESEARCH, presumably with the aid of technology, searching databases to learn more about the life of Hamilton and his crew. The lighting, the choreography, the sound technology, the Disney movie, the editing, the marketing … the list goes on. Of course, Hamilton is STEM.  

Thinking of STEM as S.T.E.M is entirely too narrow a view.  It is like describing an apple as simply fruit.  An apple is a thing of beauty, a miracle of nature, and apples are as diverse as snowflakes. The apple genome has approximately 57,000 genes, more than the human genome, which has about 25,000 genes. The apple is clearly more than a fruit. For some farmers, it is financial livelihood. For some parents, it is a way to keep the doctor away. For some children, it is a way to help loosen a tooth. No, an apple is not just a fruit, and STEM is not just S.T.E.M. STEM is so much more. This is why the Department of Defense just awarded $31,000,000 to “establish or expand STEM education, outreach, and workforce initiatives for students and educators from early childhood through postsecondary.” Did you catch that? The DoD thinks STEM starts in early childhood! For more info on STEM in early childhood, read my featured article in Natural Start.

Therefore, best practices in STEM involve helping students make connections between the real world they are living in and the impact they have on that world. They have opportunities to look at the world around them, investigate the phenomenon surrounding us all, and provide solutions through daily problem-solving. It is certainly and most emphatically about empowering students to see themselves as change-makers with the skills and abilities to impact society in positive ways through the 6 Cs of STEM: communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, citizenship and computational thinking. 

STEM is beautiful when done well. It is also sloppy. I like to think of STEM education as controlled chaos because great STEM education lets the students lead, requiring letting go of the controlled teacher-centered model. This is why STEM education is hard to deliver well and why it is more than an acronym. It requires a unique approach. You have to give teachers a little bit of room to try new things, think out of the box and open their classroom to authentic STEM engagement. 

About the Author 

Joshua Sneideman is the VP of Learning Blade®, an online STEM and Computer Science Career awareness program utilized around the country to improve students understanding of the career pathways in STEM in grades 5-9. He is also a former Albert Einstein Distinguished Education Fellow and author of numerous STEM education books. Contact Joshua Sneideman at joshua@learningblade.com

 Follow Joshua on Twitter @STEMagogy

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