In the late ’90s and early 2000s, multiple studies showed that students in the United States were falling behind in the sciences and math, while students in other countries excelled. A 2006 study by PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) ranked U.S. student performance in math and science 21st out of the 30 countries in the study. Since more and more jobs are expected to be tied in some way to technology, it is important for students to be capable in these subject areas in order to compete in the global economy. The National Science Foundation therefore created the acronym STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) in 2001 to help boost the visibility of these math-based subjects and link them together in a meaningful way for classrooms and students to focus on.[i]
STEM has now become a common term. You can find it attached to numerous lessons, books, toys, conferences, TED talks, and podcasts. As the familiarity and popularity of STEM has increased (along with STEM funding), many people have been tempted to add other subject areas to the STEM curriculum. It is important to note that few of these suggested new acronyms have been created by scientists or mathematicians themselves, as it seems it is not the STEM community looking to expand its horizons so much as it is the people on the outside looking in at STEM’s success.
STEAM, STREAM, and More
A Masters of Education graduate student coined the acronym STEAM in 2008 by adding art to STEM in an academic paper[ii]. A political science professor added medicine to STEM to create STEMM as early as 2010[iii], while a 2018 article in Science argued that in addition to medicine, HACD (humanities, arts, crafts, design)[iv] should be added to STEM. A 2011 article in Psychology Today created the acronym STREAM by adding arts and writing to STEM[v]. In 2014, Catholic schools claimed the acronym STREAM for their STEM, arts, and religion curriculum[vi]. The “R” in STREAM also frequently refers to robotics[vii], as can be seen in the logo below.
Meanwhile, the company Pathways to Science[viii] offers STREAMS, a program in which the “R” stands for robotics, “A” for arts, and the second “S” stands for SCUBA (which is itself an acronym). A Master of Arts graduate student and a psychology professor even upended the standard “STEM” term with the acronym METALS (math, engineering, technology, art, logic, science)[ix] as the “logical extension of STEAM” sometime before 2015.
Should We Add to STEM?
It is easy to see the appeal—there are so many subjects that people want their children to learn during the school day, and only so much time and funding. Additionally, some people may think that combining a subject with science and math lends legitimacy to the other subject, suspecting that taxpayers and donors may be less willing to spend time and resources on subjects that do not lead to a clearly defined career.
But more importantly, the combination of these fields is not wrong. Science touches everything in life, from the textiles used in fashion design, to the computers used to write fiction, to the realistic movements of characters and objects in video games. Science and math can therefore be linked to every other subject area.
An argument could be made, for instance, for combining history with STEM, since STEM students learn about the historical discoveries that have led to our modern understanding of STEM subjects. Combining gym with STEM might attract proponents as well, since physiology, physics, and food chemistry affect the outcome of sports. A case could also be made for combining languages and STEM, since many foundational STEM observations and discoveries were recorded in other languages in far-away countries and ancient times.
The trouble with combining other subjects with STEM is that the focus of both subjects can be lost. The purpose of coining the term STEM was to attract focus to the areas where the U.S. was failing its students, which might be expected to lead to the U.S.’s inability to compete globally in the future. Adding other subjects lessens this focus, and the lessons inevitably become about creating an art project or learning to read or scuba dive rather than about science, technology, engineering, and math. For example, one STEAM activity promoted by a popular teaching website has students making imaginary bugs out of clay but lists research into different types of insects as “optional” for the activity.
This not only goes against the entire purpose of STEM, but it also lessens the importance of the other subjects. Saying that the arts are only important when they can be linked to STEM suggests that the arts have no intrinsic value; art becomes the plus-one on the party invitation. This is as great a disservice to subjects like art as it is to science. Art should be taught in classes because art helps students express themselves as well as understand themselves, their peers, other cultures, and other times in a way that subjects like science, math, and history cannot. The arts will always be an important part of STEM (where would engineering be without design, or research without reading comprehension?) in the same way that the arts are important to learning history, languages, and woodshop. However, each subject deserves its own class period.
During a meaningful STEM lesson students should be focused on learning STEM, and during arts lessons students should be focused on learning the arts. While students will read, research, design, and create in these classes, the focus of the lessons should be on the topic at hand. This way students learn the intrinsic value of each subject and see how the different subject areas are linked.
The debate about adding other subjects to STEM will undoubtedly continue, but perhaps the question we should really be concerned with is why all subjects are not seen as valuable in their own right.
Here at Victory, we spend time researching STEM, its goals, and its desired outcomes. Let us know what you think. Preview our Science Critical Thinking lesson here: https://victoryprd.com/the-critical-thinking-tool-ctt/.
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