Special Report
Mathematics

Where’s the ‘T’ in STEM?

By Sean Cavanagh & Andrew Trotter — March 21, 2008 3 min read

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.

Feature Stories
States Heeding Calls to Strengthen STEM

Federal Projects’ Impact on STEM Remains Unclear

Where’s the ‘T’ in STEM?

A School Where STEM Is King
Learning to Teach With Technology
Cultivating a Diversity of Talent
Competing for Competence
State Data Analysis
Executive Summary
Table of Contents

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.

30stemtech c1s

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.”

Let us know what you think!

We’re looking for feedback on our new site to make sure we continue to provide you the best experience.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Future of Work Webinar
Digital Literacy Strategies to Promote Equity
Our new world has only increased our students’ dependence on technology. This makes digital literacy no longer a “nice to have” but a “need to have.” How do we ensure that every student can navigate
Content provided by Learning.com
Mathematics Online Summit Teaching Math in a Pandemic
Attend this online summit to ask questions about how COVID-19 has affected achievement, instruction, assessment, and engagement in math.
School & District Management Webinar Examining the Evidence: Catching Kids Up at a Distance
As districts, schools, and families navigate a new normal following the abrupt end of in-person schooling this spring, students’ learning opportunities vary enormously across the nation. Access to devices and broadband internet and a secure

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Data Analyst
New York, NY, US
New Visions for Public Schools
Project Manager
United States
K12 Inc.
High School Permanent Substitute Teacher
Woolwich Township, NJ, US
Kingsway Regional School District
MS STEM Teacher
Woolwich Township, NJ, US
Kingsway Regional School District

Read Next

Mathematics Opinion Twelve Ways to Make Math More Culturally Responsive
Four educators share ideas for using culturally responsive teaching in math class, including by helping students make community connections.
14 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Mathematics The Problem With Giving Math Tests Online and How Teachers Are Solving It
With students working remotely, there’s no point in administering assessments that ask them to give a single answer; it’s too easy to cheat.
8 min read
Image shows a laptop, virual teacher, virual classroom, and coronavirus symbols.
Mathisworks/DigitalVision Vectors
Mathematics Digital Math Games and Apps: What Works and What Doesn't?
Teachers are using a variety of games, videos, and apps to supplement online math instruction—but not all of them are created equal.
7 min read
v40 15SR MATH APPS B
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Getty
Mathematics Kids Are Behind in Math Because of COVID-19. Here’s What Research Says Could Help
Previous studies can provide a window into why math learning is taking a big hit during the pandemic, and what educators can do about it.
9 min read
Image shows research desk space and math symbols
elenab/iStock/Getty