STEM is about engaging collaboratively, thinking creatively, across disciplines. And, in education and business, its fast becoming the way of the world.
STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. And, at its simplest, that’s what STEM programs provide: an intensive focus on the hard sciences.
In practice, however, it’s much more than that. The best STEM programs are ones that not only stress the academic areas, but do so in an interdisciplinary way; they are programs where the sciences aren’t siloed—learning math in one classroom and chemistry in another—but integrated so that students not only perceive the connections between them, but also apprehend their mutual application.
STEM programs achieve that, largely, through problem-based learning, with each of the elements providing tools for discovery, creative problem solving, and communication:
- Science: questioning, observing, predicting
- Technology: applying analytic tools, putting ideas into practice, being inventive
- Engineering: building, understanding material properties, designing effective solutions
- Math: identifying patterns, making connections, communicating results
That’s what distinguishes STEM programs from the science classes that we knew when we were in grade school and high school. Physics, for example, was the class that we took, and little if any effort was made to relate it to the other science disciplines or, all too often, practical application. STEM programs, in contrast, are curiosity driven, applied to real world problems, ranging across disciplines, and conducted in collaboration with others. Physics isn’t so much a thing unto itself, but rather a set of ideas, principles and tools that can be used to help answer questions and solve problems. Yes, there are still bricks and inclined planes, but they’re a starting point, rather than an end point of study.
STEM in schools
The goal of STEM programs is to get beyond the prejudices that we might have about the sciences, including, say, the difficulty of physics or the nerdiness of computer coding. Those things are less in evidence today than they once were, but STEM programs take that even further and work to make the sciences inviting, approachable, and inspiring.
If there is a dark side to STEM, it’s the awareness that women continue to be underrepresented in industry, something that can be a catalyst for the adoption of a STEM approach. “Now more than ever it’s important to see strong female leadership in the tech industry,” says Reshma Saujani, CEO & Founder of Girls Who Code, one of the most visible STEM programs out there today. She’s right of course, and in all kinds of ways. Girls want to be involved in tech, but often there remain hurdles to involvement. That’s coupled with an awareness that industry benefits from a proliferation of voices, perspectives, and approaches. It’s about parity in the workplace, as well as making sure that talent is encouraged and applied to the best advantage for all.
The introduction of STEM-specific programming is a bit of a rising tide in the private school market across the country. St. Margaret’s School in Victoria, BC, was an early adopter. There, and elsewhere, the adoption of STEM is aligned with gender parity. In 2016 the Coalition of Single Sex Schools of Toronto (COSSOT) devoted its annual conference to the intersection of gender and the sciences, and was titled STEMinism (a neologism of STEM and feminism). Keynote speakers included Dr. Shohini Ghose, director of physics and computer science at Wilfrid Laurier University, and Dr. Renee Hlozek, professor of astrophysics at the University of Toronto.
The association of STEM and gender is absolutely valuable, and the benefits are readily apparent. That said, it’s important to note that, at its core, STEM isn’t about gender specifically but rather about how schools approach the delivery of science and technology curricula. It’s about how we frame questions, as well as growing awareness of the how questions are best asked and the tools available for answering them.
A new relationship to science
STEM programs seek to reorient students’ relationship to science, namely through working collaboratively. Especially in the past, scientists were thought of as lone geniuses. Einstein, for example, devising the theory of relativity while riding a bicycle through the countryside, Newton sitting beneath a tree, Pythagoras cogitating in his cave, or Darwin scribbling away in his berth on the Beagle.
There is some truth to those ideas, and in the past many people did actually work in isolation. Einstein very famously did. So did Gregor Mendel and Marie Curie. Many, however, didn’t, and Thomas Edison is a great example of that. The oft-repeated idea that he invented the lightbulb, for example, reflects a desire to see inspiration and lone genius at the core of scientific discovery and technological advancement. But Edison would better be celebrated as one of the first in the world of technology who saw what the tech fields would in time become, i.e., collaborative. Menlo Park was perhaps his greatest invention, a facility bringing hundreds of people together, along with their talents, and applying them to solving real-world problems. For the light bulb Edison built a team of people to help find the right filament, and they experimented with hundreds of materials, from carbonized banana peels and beard hair, to, ultimately, tungsten. (Robert Friedel and Paul Israel in their book Edison’s Electric Light: A Biography of an Invention note 22 inventors who created incandescent lamps prior to Edison—he wasn’t the inventor so much as the director of the lab that was first to produce a commercially viable prototype.)
STEM programs adopt and promote that idea, namely that science and technology isn’t a field dominated by lone geniuses squirreled away ruminating on problems. Rather, it’s a celebration of the community of people around the world that, working together, will solve the problems that we face and, together, make the greatest advances.