STEM: from harmless acronym to dangerous idea?

This is the (rough) script of a short talk I gave at last week’s T&L Day in DCU 




Before I start I want to mention something about the School of Biotechnology because it has had an impact on a lot of my thinking around STEM. The signature programme of our school is the BSc in Biotechnology. This programme was conceived in the late 1970s with the aim of creating a new ‘breed’ of graduate, one who could integrate the separate disciplines of biology and chemical engineering, thus creating the perfect recruit for the new biology-based industries.

Thirty years later, it’s worth asking if we have succeeded in our aims. Only partly, I think,because rather than achieving full integration we have created a programme that could be described as a biology major with a chemical engineering minor. Truly integrating disciplines is hard for students and, more importantly, it’s hard for us.

So what is STEM (formerly called METS or SMET, neither of which acronym rolls off the tongue)?

Well, STEM used to be just an acronym, coined by Rita Colwell who was the Director of NSF in the mid-1990s. It was just a handy way of talking about that group of disciplines that policy makers felt would be crucial to the future success of the American economy.


But at some time in the past – and I’m not sure when – STEM began to take on a life of its own. It became a ‘thing’, a sort of ‘super-discipline’. Now people are writing books about teaching STEM – although in this case, it’s a marketing ploy I suspect because this book is really about teaching chemical engineering. It doesn’t span the disciplines, from biology to theoretical physics via mechanical engineering.


Even our education policy-makers see STEM as a ‘thing’ and last year the Irish government commissioned a report  on the promotion and teaching of STEM in Ireland. This report is not divided up into sections devoted to individual disciplines (biology, chemistry etc.) and it makes mainly generic recommendations about how to promote and teach ‘STEM’, including a strong recommendation for more inquiry based learning to be employed in schools


Twitter is always a good place to go if you want to get a feel for which way the wind is blowing. Now when you look at Twitter, you see that STEM is not just a thing, it’s a particular type of thing. There are some recurring themes…


You’ll find an emphasis on construction and maybe references to ‘design thinking’


You’ll see lots of references to robots, especially Lego ones. Lots and lots of robots.


There seems to be a lot of T&E and very little S&M. And it’s hard not to get the sense that STEM is seen as business opportunity for corporations. It’s good for companies if what was previously seen as play can now be seen as education. New markets are opened up by education.


There seems to be a lot of instances of students doing ‘sciencey’ stuff, puzzles for example, with a very strong emphasis on group work and collaboration.


Generic ‘Problem solving’ seems to be at the core of the STEM concept.


So if you summarise the ‘keywords’ of STEM 2017, you find that STEM is now seen as a particular type of collaborative, hands-on process rather than a collection of disciplines with distinct pedagogies and epistemologies.


This sense of STEM as a sort of super-discipline, taught in a certain way, is reflected in academic thinking about STEM as this quote shows. Note the very explicit mention of the economic purpose of STEM.


So what is my problem? Surely all of this is good. Aren’t we in a new world, the 21st century where we’re all connected, the pace of change is increasing and we’re preparing students for jobs that don’t exist – allegedly. Isn’t a revolution in education required? Surely the old models are obsolete?


Well I have two problems, one philosophical and one pedagogical (albeit with six parts!)


Even though I’m an engineer, I have a problem with the fact that education is increasingly seen as a way of serving economies rather than enhancing lives. The constant use of the term ‘problem solving’ is an example of this. I don’t have time to elaborate on this today but it is something we could, and should discuss, at length. What is education for; even education in the STEM disciplines?

The first of 6 pedagogical problems with STEM was inspired by a late night watching a U2 concert (in which Bono was having a protracted conversation with his younger self) and centres on the idea of integrating disciplines. Integrating disciplines is hard bordering on the impossible for novice learners, as is seeing problems from “multiple perspectives” (multidisciplinarity). I’ve seen this first hand when trying to teach biotechnology. I think we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a youngster grappling with even one discipline. We suffer from the so-called “curse of knowledge”.


The second of my six pedagogical problems with STEM 2017 concerns the issue of ‘relevance’ and ‘real world problems’. I don’t believe that ‘relevance and ‘authenticity’ are necessary for ‘engagement’, and in my defense I give you dinosaurs! Who isn’t fascinated by dinosaurs or the planets or strange and fierce creatures that we will never see? Dinosaurs are utterly irrelevant – you won’t meet on out on Collins Avenue – bu they are fascinating. Whatever happened to education being about broadening our minds and expanding our horizons? Why bring science down to the level of the mundane as the new Junior Cycle does – in my view!


The third of my six pedagogy-related problems centres on the idea that while engagement is a necessary condition for learning, it is not a sufficient one. (This has become a something of an education cliche at this stage but it is worth repeating.) So when we focus on engagement are we really asking hard questions as to whether this engagement is accompanied by real learning? I’m not sure we are. Do kids really learn anything of substance when building that tower out of marshmallows and spaghetti, even though lots of fun is had?


The fourth of my problems centres on the idea that skills can be acquired in a generic sort of way and that generically-acquired skills will transfer to other domains. If I spend my day making a Lego robot, one thing I can be sure of is that I will get better at building Lego robots. But what else? Will what I have learned transfer to other areas?


The fifth of my problems centres on inquiry-based learning and the side-lining of the teacher. We need to tread very carefully when advocating inquiry-led approaches. Yes, there are problems with PISA but can it be ignored? We need to ask when inquiry based methods are likely to work. We know they work with PhD students; PISA suggests they’re not great for 15 year-olds, so when does the reversal effect occur? Caution is required.


The last of my concerns with STEM focuses on our increasing emphasis on collaboration and imposing the collaboration/group/extrovert culture on our students. Yes, some work places involve collaboration and teamwork but should the learning environment mimic the world of work even if we see preparation for work as the primary purpose of education? It’s a question worth asking and the world of sport (where training and match play are often very different) would suggest that we need to think hard about this. Maybe we should be thinking more about creating an environment where all personality types, including the quiet thinker, can flourish.




We need to ask why we educate. Is it just for the workplace? Is it really just about creating ‘problem-solvers’? Or is it about helping people to have more fulfilling lives because they are better ‘educated’, to use an old-fashioned term?


Education, at all levels, is highly dependent on skills of the teacher/lecturer. There is an x-factor to education and we need to figure out ways for us all to learn from the very best practitioners. We’re too hung up on pedagogical innovation and not the qualities that the best teachers/lecturers have.


We need to stop obsessing about the 21st century and claiming that it’s different. It’s not. Look at what we achieved in the 20th century. Don’t discard what has worked in the past unless you have very good reason to do so, not just the predictions of a futurologist or ‘education consultant’.


Disciplines exist for a reason: learning is hard and dividing it into disciplines makes it easier. There is no such thing as STEM, there is no such things as a STEM skills shortage and there is no such things as a lack of women in STEM. You will never achieve gender parity in physics, for example, unless you identify what it is about physics that makes it less attractive to girls than biology or chemistry. It’s not a STEM thing.


Don’t side-line the quiet thinker and don’t enforce an overly participative/extrovert culture on all students. Flipped classrooms and the like will not suit many students, especially introverts. Give students time and space to think if they need it.


We leave in the ‘innovation’ age. Innovation is seen as an end it itself. But as Carlo Rovelli points out in this wonderful book, even Darwin and Einstein hesitated – they were humble. As Rovelli says, “genius hesitates”. In education, we should tread softly or we’ll tread on our students’ dreams.


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Are the universities being “hollowed out”?

This letter to the Irish Times from a Trinity academic paints a pretty bleak picture of the culture in Irish Universities. There’s a lot in the letter, some of which I agree with (e.g. the sad fact that university education is increasingly seen solely as a form of training for the workplace), but I think the letter fails to acknowledge that the changes that have occurred in the university sector, changes that some academics find frustrating, are an inevitable consequence of initiatives that have been well-intentioned and made in the interests of students.

Let’s look at the increasing teaching-associated administrative burden. There is no doubt that the admin load on academics has increased over the years and it is interesting to see why that has happened.

First up, we have modularisation and semesterisation. The move to the M&S system was made, if I recall correctly, largely to facilitate student mobility. But whatever the original intention, the fact is that students like the M&S system and would strongly resist returning to the old system where all-or-nothing exams covered an entire year’s learning. So although the M&S system means a lot more assessments to design, send to extern, and mark, there is no going back.

Speaking of assessment, there is  increasing pressure (often coming from external examiners, not ‘managers’, in my experience) to incorporate more and more continuous assessment into our modules. CA is seen as good practice, correctly so in many instances. But if you have to teach six modules a year, as I usually do, and incorporate CA into all of them, that amounts to a substantial increase in workload especially if you give timely feedback on students’ work. But it’s workload that academics are mainly imposing on themselves in the interests of students.

Another source of workload is the move to an outcomes-based approach to education. I’m not so keen on the outcomes approach myself but I suspect I am in a minority in taking that view. Learning outcomes make perfect sense to most academics. In any event, the outcomes approach increases workload for all because it means that each and every module must have a detailed module descriptor with a list of outcomes that must align with the overall programme outcomes. Furthermore, every piece of assessment must test specific learning outcomes. Again, if you have six or seven modules and you update your modules regularly and if that involves using yet another piece of software that may or may not be particularly user-friendly, the outcomes approach adds workload. And, it removes an element of spontaneity from teaching.

But probably the biggest cause of increased workloads for academics is the undeniable fact that the student body is far more diverse than it used to be. I’m talking here not about racial or cultural diversity but diversity in academic ability and willingness to engage. Despite the fact that our degree completion rates are very high by international standards, there is a large amount of disengagement and failure in the system that is not captured by completion rates. Unengaged and failing students use up a disproportionate amount of our time especially when that failure is accompanied by requests for extensions and deferrals due to extenuating circumstances of all kinds. Dealing with all of these cases in a fair and transparent manner is time consuming and demands that we have rigorous procedures in place to ensure that each and every case is dealt with in a way that is in the best interests of the student, is fair to other students, and maintains the academic integrity of the programme.

But it’s not just the failing and unengaged students that add to our workload, it’s the student body in general. In my experience, students have become a lot more demanding. They want notes made available on online, preferably in advance of the lecture (in some cases this makes good sense but it is an example of technology adding to our workload), they want rapid and highly personalised feedback, and they can be quite brazen with requests for support especially when the exams are approaching. And the more you do for students, the more they expect and the more you leave yourself open to criticism – in my experience anyway.

I suspect, though, that it is in the area of ‘quality’ that academics feel most resentful. We do an awful lot of time-consuming reviewing in universities and while I think we may be overdoing it, it would be hard to argue that no programme or school/departmental reviews should ever be undertaken.

Finally, an increase in workload has come about due to the fact that institutions want to be seen to value teaching as much as research. In DCU, for example, teaching is given the same weighting (on paper anyway) as research for promotion from lecturer to senior lecturer. But while it is relatively easy to come up with metrics for research quality, it is not so easy when it comes to teaching. So to measure teaching quality we usually have to resort to surrogates and the one we normally use is innovation. So the ambitious academic who wishes to get promoted to senior lecturer has to be seen to be innovative and he/she needs to accumulate a list of initiatives in the area of teaching and learning. The need to be seen to be active and innovative spawns endless pilot studies often in areas like inquiry based learning, problem based learning and blended learning. Being a plain old excellent lecturer just won’t cut it anymore; it doesn’t fill the boxes on your application from.

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The HPAT and the Cult of Empathy

The recent media coverage around the HPAT is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, the idea that you should even attempt to test an 18/19-year old’s character for its suitability for a career in medicine before subjecting them to six years of tough undergraduate study followed by a grueling  apprenticeship as a junior doctor, seems daft. (There is a sub-text here, namely the presumption that because a young person gets a clatter of points in the Leaving Cert, they must be some sort of odd ball who will be unable to communicate effectively with patients.)

Secondly, the idea that doctors need to be empathetic is one that deserves to be challenged. As someone with a chronic illness myself, I don’t necessarily want my doctor be able to ‘walk in my shoes’ because if they do, they might be prone to poor decision- making, as I have been on many occasions. No, I’d much rather my doctor to be compassionately detached; someone who will interact with me in a kind and respectful manner but who will ultimately make rational decisions (not emotional ones) about my care.

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Can students write?

This article in the Guardian is pretty scathing about Irish university students’ ability to write, especially essays.

I teach all years of a four-year science degree and my thinking about writing skills is this:

Students arrive in college and they can write reasonably well – slightly childishly but generally ok  from a grammatical point of view.

They then find themselves having to write about subjects that are often quite technical and in areas where they are complete novices. In science, for example, they are required to write very precisely and they are asked to write about material that they might be struggling to understand. And they have to do it on a computer, something that creates many challenges especially in the sciences where equations may be involved.

All of this novelty leads to  cognitive overload and my sense is that students writing skills regress as  a result, only to recover by the time they are in final year when they have a far better understanding of the material they are writing about.

I think we need to be a little less critical of them, and us.


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More Tales from the LIYSF

This is a guest blog written by Fiona Stapleton who is about to start her second year on the BSc in Biotechnology programmes in DCU.


The London International Youth Science Forum (LIYSF) has definitely been one of the best experiences of my life to date. I’ve made lifelong friendships, and had the opportunity to visit places I could have only dreamed of.

The forum not only included inspiring lectures and thrilling debates, but also excursions to world class research institutions and universities, such as Imperial College London, Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and Cardiff University in Wales, as well as many more. I particularly enjoyed the social events that took place, such as the Science Bazaar and the ‘Traditions from Home’ evening which provided great opportunities to relax and meet new people. It is here that I met people from a variety of countries, such as Australia, Israel, Luxembourg, Spain, Sweden, Canada, and New Zealand to name a few. I really enjoyed meeting people from such varied backgrounds, learning about their cultures, food, and school systems. Comparing Ireland’s dismal ‘summer’ to those of Israel and Australia was always a source of comedy.

The diverse range of plenary lectures was really interesting, as I found myself enjoying subjects I never thought I would, my favourites being the lecture from the European Space Agency, and the opening lecture from the amazing Professor Hyat Sindi. The facility to choose specialist lectures and visits, meant that I was constantly learning and visiting institutions that are related to my current degree in Biotechnology, and I will be sure to take this information back with me to Dublin for the start of the new semester.

I was particularly fortunate to have the opportunity to visit the CERN research facility in Geneva, Switzerland, which made headlines in 2012 for the discovery of the Higgs Boson. We visited the home of the ATLAS detector, one of two detection centres credited with the Higgs Boson discovery, as well as the Hadron Collider test facility. At this test facility, we learned about the different components of the Hadron Collider, and how they come together to make the massive structure that stretches 27km around the circumference of Geneva. The trip was a great way to extend the LIYSF experience for a week longer, taking us to both Paris and Geneva.

For me, the forum really broadened my horizons and inspired me to work hard. The general message I took home was that anything is possible, and that with determination you can achieve your dreams. This year’s theme was ‘Science, Making Life Better’, and the past few weeks have definitely inspired me to do just that.

All in all, the forum was an amazing experience that I am grateful to have been a part of. To the LIYSF family, stay in touch!

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Is PISA meaningless? (or Do schools really kill creativity?)

The belief that the teacher (at any level) should be a guide on the side (GOTS) rather than a sage on the stage (SOTS) is widespread and it forms part of what seems to be the dominant philosophy (constructivism) of education these days.

I find it puzzling that so many science and engineering educators, most of whom have been educated using the traditional teacher-led approach, should be so convinced that the GOTS approach represents the future of education.

Because, anytime I ask my colleagues what motivated them to become scientists or engineers, they mention an inspirational teacher or teachers. They never mention pedagogy. As my colleague, Enda McGlynn (Prof, physics) said recently:

The biggest lucky break of my life in science was that I had 3 wonderful teachers for physics (Seamus O’Miochain), maths (Brian Finn) and chemistry (Fr. Declan Timmons). They were very different characters but all had in common a real love for their subjects and great depth of knowledge, which allowed them to show how all the pieces fit together, beyond the textbook syllabus. I only realise in hindsight how incredibly lucky I was to have 3 teachers of this calibre

So what is driving this move towards so-called ‘student-centred’ learning? Why do those who clearly benefited from the traditional SOTS form of teaching feel that a very different approach is now required? Do they feel that they were outliers – mavericks – who had the talent and the enthusiasm to overcome the limitations of the traditional model? Or is it a simple case of wanting to improve upon an already effective approach? Or does it reflect something of an air of desperation, a belief that the modern student will only learn if sufficiently engaged by ‘authentic’ experiences, even if that means acquiring far less actual knowledge? Or is it the belief that the 21st century is somehow different and requires a different approach to learning?

You see, I can’t help but think about this quote from the PISA 2015 report:

PISA results show that when teachers frequently explain and demonstrate scientific ideas, and discuss students’ questions (known collectively as teacher-directed instruction), students score higher in science, they have stronger beliefs in the value of scientific enquiry and are more likely to expect to work in a science-related occupation later on. Adapting to students’ needs, such as by providing individual help to struggling students or changing the structure of a lesson on a topic that most students find difficult to understand is also related to higher scores in science and stronger epistemic beliefs.

Perhaps surprisingly, in almost no education system do students who reported that they are frequently exposed to hands-on enquiry-based instruction score higher in science. After accounting for students’ and schools’ socio-economic profiles, in 56 economies and countries, greater exposure to enquiry-based instruction is associated with lower scores in science.

Of course, the argument is bound to be made that PISA only measures a narrow range of attributes and we should not get too hung up on scores and rankings. Maybe PISA scores are not a good indicator of creativity or innovation, for example? Maybe PISA scores even correlate negatively with innovation?

Well, it doesn’t look like it because 15 of the top 25 most innovative countries have average PISA scores that are at or above the OECD average. The exceptions are the US, Luxembourg, Iceland, Czech Republic and  Israel (see table below)

So while nobody would be so naïve as to suggest that PISA score is a good predictor of innovation ranking (innovation is probably strongly correlated with GDP per capita and all sorts of social and cultural issues), it would also be very wrong to suggest that traditional teacher-led education (which leads to high PISA scores) somehow kills creativity, as Ken Robinson would claim. The evidence just isn’t there.

Innovation League Table Average PISA Score* (OECD average = 492)
Switzerland 506
Sweden 496
Netherlands 508
US 488
UK 500
Denmark 504
Singapore 552
Finland 523
Germany 508
Ireland 509
South Korea 519
Luxembourg 483
Iceland 481
Japan 529
France 496
Hong Kong 533
Israel 472
Canada 524
Norway 504
Austria 492
New Zealand 506
China 514
Australia 502
Czech Republic 491
Estonia 524


*Average of maths, science and reading.

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CAO Points and the Premier League

In the 1981/82 season, the old First Division moved from 2 points for a win to three points for a win. The previous season Aston Villa had won the title with a total of 60 pts.

Last year Chelsea won the Premiership with a total of 93 points.

If you were to follow the logic of much of the discussion about the CAO offers in the media today, then you’d have to conclude that it is much harder to win the title these days because you need more points!

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