Education Letter to the Editor

The ‘STEM’ Effort

April 07, 2008 3 min read

To the Editor:

In response to your Technology Counts 2008 special issue, “STEM: The Push to Improve Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics” (March 27, 2008):

This new acronym “STEM” is only as effective as the words that lie within it, and few words are more misunderstood than those two in the middle. We have a good grasp on what “science” and “math” mean. But “technology”? And “engineering”? We’re all mixed up on these.

“Technology” has its roots at the earliest level of recorded history, and it deserves much more respect than it’s given today. “Tek” is the ancient phoneme for the sound of two stones “tekking” together. Without tek, there’d have been no Stone Age, or text. And “log” is just a book where we record what we did: a ship’s log, for example. In the dictionary, “technology” is “the body of knowledge of how a society meets its needs and wants.”

It’s a lot more than computers. It is, one might say, elemental. A bird uses technology to construct a secure nest up in a tree. Schools use technological literacy to choose between central heating and a wood stove.

And engineers? We’re just people who use ingenuity. An engineer is to ingenuity what a farmer is to farming. If the British hadn’t misspelled it from the French “ingeneur,” this connection would be more obvious. It comes from the Latin word for “native intelligence”—used long before these days of special education.

Kids get this! Every kid is an engineer, and you see it every day. Their first overt act is an act of ingenuity. And when you tell them about technology … well, their eyes just light up. Check out the photos in the Technology Counts article “A School Where STEM Is King” and see for yourself. See any computers? How about bright eyes?

The STEM effort isn’t related to how (or how well) people use computers or the Internet, but rather to whether or not students get a permeating awareness of the history and importance of technology, without which we would never have invented the stone ax, the very letters I’m typing at this instant, the clothing on our backs, or the windows that protect against the weather.

The reason for STEM is to make education more relevant to every bright mind. You can teach science and you can teach math, but without anyone discussing “why,” this teaching is like pushing a string. If you get a room full of kids working on an invention, or on a robot, you’ll have to fight them off to keep them from learning. It’s all about relevance.

One intended result of STEM-based education is an increase in our general appreciation of technology and engineering. We had no problem rallying behind the “space race” of the 1950s and ’60s, when our ranks of engineers burgeoned and gave rise to the myriad conveniences we enjoy today. But we’ve become a consumer—rather than an inventor—society, and largely turned our back on manufacturing and product development. We forget there can be no gross national product without a product.

STEM is essential.

Pete Mickelson

Buxton, Maine

To the Editor:

I read with interest your Technology Counts 2008 article “Learning to Teach With Technology,” as I recently spent a day at a technology fair put on by the Alabama Council for Technology in Education, where my students were participating for the first time.

My school is in the inner city and receives Title I funds, and more than 95 percent of our students are eligible for free lunch. Technology is not at the forefront of the curriculum—teaching to the test is. If students do much in the way of learning about technology, it is because of individual teachers’ efforts.

As I saw at the fair what other schools in my city have, the types of technology and equipment their students use, I was amazed. I had trouble trying to find one laptop to take to the fair for my students. Even though I have about 15 computers in my classroom, 13 of them are from 1996 or older. One, my personal computer, is from 2005, and one, provided by the school system, is from 2003. I wonder how we are supposed to keep abreast of all the new technology available.

If we want something new, we have to write grants or ask for donations. I see other schools in our system, just-completed buildings in upper-middle-class areas, and their teachers lack for nothing. Is it because the schools are new and they have all-new equipment, or is it because there are parents with strong support in the school, and a strong PTA? I don’t think there is much equality in schools, and I think much of what schools receive is due to politics.

Barbara Murphy

Huntsville, Ala.

More letters to the editor.

A version of this article appeared in the April 09, 2008 edition of Education Week as The ‘STEM’ Effort