[FAQ] What is STEM?

In its most literal sense the commonly used acronym “STEM” refers to “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.”  Within the traditional framework of disciplinary coursework, STEM thus encompasseses an institution’s collection of courses offered in each of these four disparate content areas.  Courses like “Biology” or “Algebra II” or “Computer Programming.”  Things which we invariably give defining (limiting?) titles with capital letters.  In other instructional frameworks, these distinct fields are purposefully interwoven and directed to the solution of an “interdisciplinary” problem or question.  Often such frameworks still involve defining which “kind of science” is being “covered” (Chemistry or Physics?) using what “kind of math” (Geometry or Pre-Calculus?) and thus become a coursework smoregasboard with a little serving of this and a little serving of that, just consumed at the same time.

Frankly, neither of these conceptions captures what the team means when we say “STEM.”    For the team, the term “STEM” refers to a cohesive discipline – an interconnected and inseparable series of approaches, processes, and tools that can be used to make sense of our world and our place in it, and which can be applied to identify, evaluate, and develop solutions to real world problems.  Ultimately, the term “interdisciplinary” is grossly inaccurate, and even utterly meaningless, as it implies the belief that the “disciplines” can truly be practiced and exist independent of one another – a view that the team does not hold.

In the real world, STEM practitioners confront problems – problems like cancer and natural resource management and high rise apartment building design – and then draw from a wide ranging skill set to address these problems and design solutions.  When I was a “scientist” out in the “real world,” I could never satisfactorily assign a label to my work for precisely this reason.  When asked “what I did,” depending upon the conversation, the target audience, or what I had been doing in the lab on a given day, I might have said I was an embryologist, a geneticist, a microbiologist, a molecular biologist, a developmental biologist, a biochemist, or any of a number of other labels.  Meanwhile every day I had to complete calculations (mathematician?) in order to make necessary solutions (chemist?), figure out how to fix a temperamental centrifuge or spectrophotometer (engineer? or physicist?), and then perform data entry and database analysis to record my results and figure out what it all meant (computer programmer?).  STEM is a whole, the practice of which involves a constant shifting of focus from one skill or idea to another.  Within STEM, individual practitioners develop areas of subspecialty that become identifying monikers.  Nonetheless, those subspecialties are mutually co-dependent as they are part of a unitary whole.

STEM instruction within the new school initiative will reflect this reality.  Furthermore, the team’s conception of STEM education is based upon the philosophy that STEM teaching and STEM doing should look, feel, and function the same.  That STEM should be taught and learned the way STEM is actually done.

Looking back to Brian’s earlier post on what a typical school day at the new school might look like, consider Sarah and Jack’s project addressing the essential question: “How do size and scale impact the function of a system?” by examining modern railways and transportation logistics.  As a true “STEM” endeavor, the group might begin with a statistical analysis of railroad and/or subway maintenance costs and expenditures versus delay times and accident reports as related to system size (ridership and/or miles of track) in order to provide budget advice for a given transportation system.  The group might also analyze data on system component design, function, wear and costs to provide engineering design and implementation recommendations (answers to questions like: which version of a nut or bolt or switch is the longest lasting, most cost effective, and why?).  In addition, the group might perform an experiment to biologically model a given rail system using a slime mold biofilm.  When grown on a substrate that recapitulates population density and resource availability of the community, the slime mold will grow in a pattern and organization that best maximizes resource transfer within the system, and thus is an outstanding model by which to plan a community’s transportation system.  Using these results, the students might propose lines of a system to be added, altered or deleted.  Finally, the students might design and code a computer program to monitor system performance and calculate best case scenario train schedules that vary by ridership and rail traffic as it fluctuates throughout a given time period (day, week, month, or year).

Note that this project logically necessitates, includes, and promotes a seamless combination of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to address a real world problem in a manner that allows students to pursue subspecialties of particular interest.

Now that’s STEM!


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One Response to [FAQ] What is STEM?

  1. Pingback: Weekly Wrap-up (7.25.14) | A New School at Greenwich High School

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