Another dot in the blogosphere?

The roots of STEM

Posted on: December 6, 2014

This article in The Atlantic provides some insights into the much maligned and overused buzzword STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

A “botanical” native of the USA in 2001, its seeds and saplings have been transported elsewhere (Singapore included) with little thought of its context and purpose.

The article outlines at least three contextual clues that I will summarize as three Es: economy, equity, (academic) excellence.

There was a realization among policymakers in the USA that workers were moving towards servicing customers instead of manufacturing. What the article did not point out, but might be obvious, is that it was and still is cheaper to outsource production elsewhere (e.g., China). However, when service was also outsourced (e.g., to India, the Philippines), the USA stands to lose a competitive edge.

The second element was the need to create equitable access to the learning of STEM subjects in the face of “discrimination and discouragement faced by students who do try to pursue further education in these fields”. We might relate to this given the generally more stringent university entry requirements in areas like engineering.

The third, and perhaps the most pressing, was the USA’s relatively mediocre performance in PISA test scores in Math and Science. However, it is a long stretch to connect test scores with economic competitiveness. In fact, there is research that shows a lack of correlation. Innovativeness and entrepreneurship are not direct functions of PISA test scores.


There is learning STEM subjects and there is learning about STEM. The article focuses on the latter, the origins and the whys of STEM in the USA. This is important if we are to align ourselves with the context and problems there.

But there persists a common layperson’s question: Are we not already teaching and learning these subjects AND doing well in international tests? In other words, what is the new fuss?

What some do not understand is that learning science does not necessarily make you scientifically literate. If tests focus on the regurgitation of facts and even higher order problem solving, this does not guarantee a broader, more critical thinker.

Our students are pragmatic. Given the demands of imbibing more decontextualized and unmeaningful information than one should handle, they resort to the GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) approach for their exams. Teachers invariably find that their students retain very little.

The root of the problem lies in our focus to learn ABOUT science, technology, engineering, or mathematics instead of shifting the emphasis to learning to BE a some sort of scientist, technologist, engineer, or a mathematician.

The problem is compounded by the fact that these subjects are more often than not taught in isolation. Some will argue that each silo of content is so complex that isolated teaching and learning is a necessary evil. If they do, they lose the point of STEM. It is about making connections between these subjects and other subjects as well.

Mathematics and mathematical logic are the fundamental language and process upon which STE rest. Taught and learnt well, particularly by drilling or other traditional methods, students stand to do well in tests.

But if these students are to lead the charge in solving world problems, making real the Internet of Things, or creating new niches, they must be shown how STEM subjects interconnect with each other and with other subjects.

For example, take a water or energy problem in the first world or the third world. There must be knowledge of local factors geographical, ecological, social, and political first. Actual scientific, technological, and engineering solutions need to factor those primary concerns while combining theoretical principles with hardware design and software coding.

STEM is not just about finding the nexus of theory and application in these subjects. It is about being literate enough to do simple things like critiquing myths perpetuated by popular media or informal conversations. It is about being agile enough to transfer knowledge to new circumstances and learn from the unexpected. It is about living in the overlaps of the STEM subjects (and other subjects) so as to innovate and solve problems.

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