STEM, science and engineering

It’s that time of year when we’re all in marketing mode. Open Days are taking place, it’s Science Week, and for many it’s a case of STEM, STEM, STEM. As a lifelong science nerd who, during the deep recession of early 1980s Ireland, chose to study chemical engineering (the most molecular of the engineering disciplines) I’m always interested in the relationship between these two disciplines and especially in how we promote them to school-leavers. This interest has been exaggerated by the fact that I’ve spent all my career working within a department in which scientists have been in the majority

While science and engineering share much in common, both epistemologically and pedagogically, I think there are some very important differences. Engineering is essentially a problem-solving discipline and while many scientific endeavours can be so described, a lot of science, especially basic research, is much more driven by a search for knowledge, and often knowledge for its own sake.

Furthermore, the engineering career path is often quite different from the science one. As the data below shows (HEA: What do Graduates Do, 2014), far more science graduates go on to further study than do engineering and ICT graduates. Of course we all know this because to become a research scientist (as opposed to someone working in a QC lab in industry, for example) you simply have to do a PhD. But not many school-leavers appreciate this. At least that’s been my impression from talking to them at the Higher Options careers fair.


CAO data would suggest that school-leavers see a difference between science and engineering. As the data below shows, the percentage of school-leavers who are choosing science is actually declining as the economy improves while the numbers choosing engineering and technology is rising rapidly. Therefore, while science and engineering fall within the STEM umbrella, they are clearly perceived differently by school-leavers.


In an ideal world, I would ditch the STEM acronym but that isn’t going to happen. Nonetheless, those of us who are in the business of attracting school-leavers to our institutions need to be clear and open about the complexity that is hidden within the term STEM. We want students in our science and engineering courses who are making informed choices and who are aware of the long term consequences of those choices. Most importantly, we want students in our programmes who are actually interested in what they are studying and who are sufficiently motivated to put in the hard yards to reach their ultimate career goals.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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