Jan 20, 2015

What is #STEM? STEM Defined

image by RWLinder (Robert Linder), via rgbstock.com
New to STEM? These are some frequently asked questions about STEM in schools: 


The simple definition is that STEM is actually an acronym, standing for : Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. But STEM has come to mean different things to different people:
  • Politicians, business, and the media: STEM is the pathway to economic growth and global competitiveness. The United States has been known throughout its history for innovative shipbuilding (e.g. Old Ironsides), weapons development (e.g. the Colt pistol, the Gatling gun), transportation equipment and systems (e.g. the Model T, the airplane), communication devices (e.g. the telegraph and telephone), and electronic devices (e.g. the electric light, the phonograph, and the computer). Each of these became export commodities and relied on science, technology, engineering, mathematics knowledge and skill to be developed and mass-produced. It is easy to see why there is a strong push from these sectors to have more students be versed in STEM. 
  • Schools and educators: "STEM" is being hailed as an opportunity to teach these topics with hands-on projects that put the learning into a meaningful context for the students. Additionally, schools have used this movement to put team-skills into the forefront, and many have connected with local industries and professionals to provide better career guidance for children, especially those from low-income areas who may not have been exposed to these lucrative careers. 


Sadly, too many times, we've seen schools say they are STEM, but in reality, they do Science and Math (S&M)--sometimes the same way as usual--, use Smartboards (and call it technology), and add a craft project to their curriculum (e.g. make a wind turbine or have students invent something), dubbing it engineering. Don't get me wrong; it's a start, but there's more that can be done by integrating the seemingly four distinct disciplines in order to glean the fullest potential of what STEM can give students. See blog post for more details on STEM schools today and in the future.


Integration is key... The focus can be different. In fact, the focus should be different for each school, depending on the student interest, teacher expertise and passion, and community values. Here are some broad-brushed ways to think about building a STEM school in an integrated manner:

Science-focused STEM. Activities at this type of school start with a question (the "research question"). All other activities then support the pursuit of the answer to this question: experience with relevant technology (tools, measuring devices, computer software) to observe or quantify; engineering devices that will constrain the variables and help answer the question; mathematical analysis and logical reasoning to make conclusions about the data. We like to call this the "Jacques Cousteau path": In his pursuit of understanding the world under water, he enlisted the help of Harold "Doc" Edgerton, an Electrical Engineer to develop time lapse underwater photography and side-scan sonar. >> See the MIT Video, Side-scan Sonar Technology video

Engineering-focused STEM. Activities at this type of school usually have a capstone project that starts with a need which students then break down into problems that must be addressed. This goal-oriented approach can be seen in any NASA-based story. Gene Kranz's memoir, Failure Is Not an Option describes how engineers teamed up with scientists, pilots, and ex-military to meet mission goals. At every stage, decisions had to be made based on data, laws of physics, knowledge of technology, systems thinking, and risk management. >> See the challenges Flight Control had to contend with while racing to the moon on The History Channel documentary, Failure Is Not an Option

Technology-focused STEM. Some schools start with a more tech-approach and the formal industrial arts curriculum (drafting, machining, etc). This approach succeeds in developing practical skills by creating existing devices, learning the common practices, and using this experience to make the technology run better, make it easier to maintain, or fix it so it works reliably. But a real STEM transformation to this "make a better mousetrap" approach would motivates students to learn the science needed to understand how the technology works, perfect the mathematics required to run the technology properly and safely, and some engineering design process practices in order to effectively improve the devices. History is filled with examples of how the person who was intimately familiar with the technology was able to bring it to the next level. >> See story of how the steam engine was developed on BBC's Connections - Ep. 6 Thunder in the Skies or this short history from The History Channel which describes some mechanical design considerations

Mathematics-focused STEM. Sadly, this approach hasn't really been developed as much as it could, possibly because so many people see mathematics as either completely theoretical or, as one mathematics professor put it, "a handmaiden to science". In reality, mathematical instincts (that all animals, including humans have) are the first step to using scientific observation to predict events -- for survival as well as entertainment and aesthetics. Engineers would just be tinkerers without mathematics, and technicians wield mathematics to make devices reliable, robust, and safe. I often tell my students that mathematics is like the "one ring to rule them all" and understanding it will help them be more efficient in their pursuits, no matter what they do. My guess, Britain or China will embrace this method first. For some reason, it seems to fit with the way my Hong Kong-educated parents. >> See stories of the power of mathematics in BBC's The Story of Maths

~ Until next time, Yvonne

Yvonne Ng is the founder and chief consultant at Engineer's Playground. Engineer's Playground is often called upon to help schools learn more about integrating STEM into their curriculum, leveraging teachers' strengths and interests and honoring the school's traditions and values. Contact us for more information or professional advice, info@engineersplayground.com