STEM and STEAM: education by acronymisation

I think I bang on quite a bit in lectures about the differences between academic disciplines or fields of study, because I think if you “get” this, it puts everything else you do within a useful context. People don’t like to be told: “That’s interesting and original, but you only get a 50% because it doesn’t really address the question.” or “Your references are from good sources but not really relevant to the field.” The different disciplines, taken to an extreme, represent quite fundamentally different philosophical or ideological ways of seeing and experiencing the world. Perhaps it is no great surprise that there is ongoing and noisy debate about which disciplines should receive the most attention at varying levels of education. Artists are gonna want more arts, scientists are going to want more science.

I am not 100% about the exact origins of the term STEM, but this document points to the 1950s and the space race as a key trigger for increased investment in new fields that were closely aligned with a nations economic and military power.

What does STEM cover today? The National Science Foundation in the US includes the obvious, but I was surprise to see it actually covers social sciences too (anthropology, economics, psychology, sociology) and information technology. Perhaps within this, the social sciences are less critical but it was a surprise to see them called STEM subjects. The excluded fields then are pretty much anything in the humanities and arts (presumably law, finance, politics, history and so on too). Medical science is excluded too (so, nursing, pharmacology too etc) – if I had to guess I would assume this is not so much these fields aren’t “science-y” enough, more that they are funded and arranged in a substantially different way. It’s more applied than theoretical I guess.

When a group of people give themselves a snappy acronym and start campaigning together under one banner for something, it is unsurprising that another group; not included in the acronym start campaigning to either wedge themselves in or to set up up their own acronym. So what do we have now? Pinching from Wikipedia:

eSTEM (Environmental STEM), MINT (Maths, IT, Natural science and Technology), STREM (the R is for Robotics), STEMM (the extra M is for Medicine) STREAM (which adds Religion and Arts) and two different versions of STEAM (one of which adds Arts, the other one changes Mathematics to Applied Mathematics)

The noisiest of these debates seems to be STEM vs STEAM eg, adding Arts into the mix (or not). I think the underlying sentiment is okay, of course a well-rounded education is important (or is it) but it still leaves a lot of questions:

– Why Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths all get individual focus whereas Arts only get one. Surely there is as much of a difference between Design and Fine Art as there is between Science and Engineering? Or the difference between History and Politics? It makes a nice acronym/buzzword but the overwhelming focus is still on STEM. Either that or the arts are brought in as a nice extra bonus (eg listening to music makes your language skills better) rather than as something legitimately worthwhile in its own right.

– Does this mean that artists (or presumably other humanities) should be well versed in STEM topics too, or are they just end users of the tools that STEM subjects create? Does a 3D artist need to know how 3DS Max is programmed? Or what the physics calculations behind their simulations are? Or how the semiconductors in their laptops work? Overall it seems the emphasis in the debate from STEAM advocates is that it is the scientists and technologists who are the ones who need to learn from the arts – you don’t hear quite so much the other way around.

– Arguably STEM is already way too broad a church, I am reminded of the ‘Purity’ XKCD comic. “Physics is to maths what sex is to masturbation.” This pokes fun at the idea of purity – taken to the extreme, why not ask if maths is applied philosophy? I suppose it’s a legitimate question but outside of undergraduate stoner conversations, who the hell cares? What difference does it make? Are you going to allow philosophy students in to play around with the magnetron now? I think the arts can be overly paranoid about what “the point is” when really much of pure science comes up against the same question: “why do it?” “why strive to understand the universe?”.

– I thought increasing specialization was the point? Is it such a bad thing to be an amazing Mathematician who can’t play the flute? Most people would agree earlier years should be more general, or that lifelong learning is a good thing, or that you should occasionally step outside of your comfort zone. It’s a fact of late capitalism – you need to specialize… although the arts are perhaps less resistant to this: arguably its easier for an engineer to get into a gallery, or write for a newspaper than it is for an artist to do structural calculations or design a circuit.

– Buzzworthy terms like creativity and innovation spew forth from every side as though they have a monopoly on the damn things. Academically speaking, I think in either case we mean the ‘generation of new knowledge’, some kind of addition to the sum total of human knowledge. But what form is that supposed to take – practice or theory? Immediately useful or thought provoking? New insights to an old topic or the establishment of a new topic? People get very excited and frothy about terms like multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary… you painted a DNA helix, well done… you took some physicists to a theater show, well done… you got artists to design a GUI for your software, well done… in case you couldn’t tell, I am a little skeptical of these terms despite using them myself occasionally. Can you teach someone thermodynamics via interpretive dance? Can you teach someone about Hamlet using a model of the solar system? I suppose,but be honest: it feels forced, if not totally patronizing. Whichever side it comes from, you end up thinking: “why wouldn’t a chemist like baroque music?” “why wouldn’t an economist want to know about black holes?” and so on.

– Both sides, once you reach the ‘pinnacle’ of specialization, require equivalent levels of dedication and focus. You don’t get to Carnegie Hall with 3 years of Music and 1 of IT – the person who did 4 years of Music does. You don’t get to CERN with 3 years of Physics and 1 of 18th Century Literature – the person who did 4 years of Physics does. (Probably more time in each case but you get my point) Simplification aside, look at the leaders of arts or science and ask yourself; do they piss around and do bits and pieces of everything, or do they do 12 hours a day, 6 days a week for a decade to reach that point?

What can we conclude from this anyway?

People like to think their discipline, their underlying philosophy is the most important, or at least that is how the media like to represent it as a big punch up in the academy. No revelation there. As a bit of a generalist myself, I’m always re-examining and second guessing myself, it’s hard not having a clear identity sometimes. I wish I did better at Maths as a kid. I wish I knew more about electronics. I wish I had more time to play the guitar. I haven’t read Manufacturing Consent yet and it makes me feel like a fraud whenever I talk about the media. Who doesn’t want to learn more, experience more and understand more about the world? Extremely dull people, I imagine. When someone like Malala Yousafzai is getting shot at by the Taliban for promoting education and you can’t be arsed to help your kid with their homework (whatever the topic), well, you just think about that for a bit!

Universities in the UK have certainly had their Arts and Humanities departments kicked in the balls recently and this has caused a lot of concern. Many high profile arts types say things like ‘working class people have no place in the arts anymore’, ‘the arts are being systematically removed form the education system’ and ‘look at all the public school kids in the charts nowadays’. The Arts and Humanities research council is tiny by comparison to funding in other areas. We look to China and panic that our 14 year olds are more likely to be using their iPhones for sexting than scientific calculators. Brain-drain fear probably affects both science and the arts, with the UK having a disproportionately big and well established HE sector – though I could add in the arts it’s not just people leaving the country but leaving the field to find more rewarding (in various senses of the term) work outside of the arts. More politicians have arts degrees that science degrees – and both sides seem to equally despise politicians for not “just dishing out more money” to either – and if that’s the case, perhaps this is where the two cultures should really be putting their combined efforts. (another PHD comic about the scale of all US public national spending compared to research spending)

The way we organise education reflects the role we think education should have in society. Leaving the academy to one side, general citizens potentially use all of these disciplines in their day to day lives – hobby astronomers, citizen science efforts, wiki-style collaborative projects, community historians, social activists,  taking a ph soil sample for gardening, singing or writing or whatever. Sure, they aren’t always writing up papers about it but still they are all using their intellectual skills and curiosity to change the world, one way or the other.

I am all for it being a broad church but just wedging an extra letter into the STEM acronym seems a pretty superficial and inelegant way of addressing the problem. (Depending on what you think THE problem is) The most interesting contradiction in all of this, maybe you could have guessed, but despite the cuts in funding and the challenges facing arts graduates; there are still something like 2.5 arts, humanities and soc. sciences undergraduate entrants for every 1 STEM entrant in the UK… so I would hardly say it is dying out or unpopular at an HE level.

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