Special Report
Mathematics

Where’s the ‘T’ in STEM?

By Sean Cavanagh & Andrew Trotter — March 21, 2008 3 min read
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In education and business circles, STEM is more than popular jargon—it’s a rallying cry.

The call to improve education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics echoes throughout heavyweight sectors across the American economy, from high-tech companies to defense contractors to major manufacturers, who often say upgrades are critical to spurring innovation.

Yet if STEM’s appeal seems universal, its definition is not.

Many educators and advocates frankly acknowledge that the STEM movement today, at least at the K-12 level, is focused largely on improving performance in math and science, two established subjects in the school curriculum, as a way to prepare students to compete for highly skilled jobs.

Others, meanwhile, see the T and E in STEM education as vital, though often overlooked, pieces of the academic puzzle, even at the K-12 level.

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Proponents of technology and engineering studies say those subjects help students acquire valuable interdisciplinary and applied skills in real-world situations, and attract students who are not otherwise drawn to traditional math and science.

“The debate is being driven by people who talk about learning in the science and math disciplines, rather than looking at students who learn in context,” says Raymond V. “Buzz” Bartlett, a former executive for the Lockheed Martin Corp., a leading defense contractor. “We’re convinced that it’s a minority of students who respond to learning by discipline. Most respond to contextual learning.”

Bartlett now helps direct Strategies in Engineering Education K-16, or SEEK-16, a working group of school, college, and business officials who believe the applied and problem-solving skills of studying engineering can attract more students to STEM-related courses and fields.

The organization is looking at ways to promote that study in school and in independent projects, as well as to standardize how engineering is taught in middle and high schools.

Technology—not simply as a tool, but as an area of interdisciplinary study—should also play a part in preparing students for the future economy, advocates say. And many educators see the study of technology as an opportunity to teach students how knowledge, tools, and skills in math and science can be applied to solve practical problems and extend human capabilities.

“For a lot of kids, it’s a lot clearer, with technology, how the science and math come together,” says Shirley M. Malcom, the head of education and human resources for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a worldwide society with headquarters in Washington.

Technology education should include an effort by schools to introduce students to the history and influence of technology in society, Malcom says.

Filling Stem Positions

About two-thirds of public schools with teacher vacancies in biology, physical sciences, or mathematics reported difficulty in filling those posts. Only 41 percent of schools experienced difficulty filling English/language arts positions.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: EPE Research Center analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Schools and Staffing Survey, 2003-04

Eleven states, to date, have decided that those benefits are important enough to make completion of a technology education course a requirement for high school graduation.

A number of educators credit Judith A. Ramaley, a former director of the National Science Foundation’s education and human-resources division, with being the first person to brand science- and math-related subjects as STEM.

Before Ramaley took that job in 2001, the more widespread label was SMET, which was used at conferences and in grant proposals by the NSF, a federal agency based in Arlington, Va.

“I always thought it was terrible,” says Ramaley of the SMET initials. “It made me think of many things, but none of them had to do with science and technology.”

While phonetically appealing, the change was made as part of a more significant shift in philosophy at the agency, Ramaley says. The NSF was seeking to devote more resources to promoting science, technology, engineering, and math study among the entire student population—and in society at large—as opposed to simply among a student elite, she says.

Ramaley, who is now the president of Winona State University, in Minnesota, is encouraged by policymakers’ revived interest in STEM-related topics, which she sees as “an opportunity to invest in people and places, rather than a problem to be corrected.”

“STEM may be stitched across the banner,” she says, “but what’s important is what’s occurring under the banner.”

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