STEM: What’s in a Name?

I get why STEM is especially important now, when technology is invading every part of our work lives and home lives. I get why we want today’s students to be well educated in science, engineering, and math so that they can fill good jobs in these arenas in the world of work, so that they as individuals and we as a country can compete internationally, and so that progress can continue to be made on so many fronts. The public high school that I helped to co-found was an Early College career and technical education school focused on engineering, architecture, and technology (two out of three isn’t bad). So, I get it.

STEM: What's in a Name? by Regina Paul at Policy Studies in Education.

But, being a fine arts enthusiast, I have enjoyed commentaries over the past couple of years from educators wanting to add an “A” to STEM—to make it, of course, STEAM (actually a bit old-fashioned sounding, but their hearts are in the right place). I imagined that the proposed “A” was for “arts” (that is, “the arts” plural—visual art, music, dance, and theater), and I was happy about that. Recently, I read the following intriguing explanation in the 2014 Annual Report I received from my graduate school alma mater, Teachers College (TC), Columbia University:

…we stand apart in preparing teachers in the arts and other fields to interweave digital tools and materials into teaching that is playful, collaborative, entrepreneurial and multi- and cross-disciplinary. Professors Burton and Richard Jochum, together with doctoral candidate and Instructor Sean Justice, are fashioning a new concentration in Creative Technologies within our Art & Art Education master’s and doctoral programs. Their vision is that art is about agency and that artists are creative entrepreneurs who fashion practical approaches to realize opportunities—valuable skills in every profession and every area of life. In broadening the nation’s teaching focus from STEM to STEAM—that is, by adding ‘art’ to ‘science, technology, engineering and math’—they seek to inspire teachers and students alike to apply a very wide range of imaginative approaches to the solution of everyday questions and problems. (page 5)

While that reasoning is not entirely clear to me, it certainly sounds promising. So, I am going to continue to assume that the “A” includes all of the arts, because I like to think that those of us who are dancers (and I did take a great dance course when I was at TC) can “apply a wide range of imaginative approaches to the solution of everyday questions and problems” as well as visual artists can.

But what about my colleagues in the social sciences and in history? I truly believe that they can “fashion practical approaches to realize opportunities” and that they can use technology in cross-disciplinary research and teaching and real-life problem solving. So, could we add, say, “SSH” for social sciences and history? It works pretty well at the end of the word—STEAMSSH. Or, if you prefer “HSS,” you could have STEAMHSS, which is almost onomatopoetic, like the hiss of escaping steam.

Who’s still missing? Well, the English language and literature crowd. If we could make them settle for an “R” for reading, you can easily see how STEAMSSH could become STREAMSSH. And you can still pronounce it.

While I haven’t solved the inclusion of some other academic fields in my new acronym—especially all other languages, which I feel bad about—I believe that we have just about everybody else in the boat. Just as we should. Because having all the attention on STEM misses a lot of what makes an education great. Maybe that’s what I learned at TC after all.