The problem with Stem

Anyone who reads this blog regularly probably knows that I have a bit of a problem with the term ‘Stem’. ‘Stem’ covers everything from botany to theoretical physics to mechanical engineering. ‘Stem’ is more than a harmless acronym; it represents an attempt at a unification of the various science and technology disciplines to create a sort of super-discipline, one that is increasingly defined by a set of generic skills like enquiry, problem-solving, creativity etc. But, really, does it make sense to lump electronic engineering in with molecular biology, or financial mathematics in with organic chemistry, or computer science in with microbiology?

One of the problems that science (but not engineering) has is that school-leavers and their parents have only a vague idea as to what science is, and they know very little about the careers that are available to science graduates. It’s the old “but what will I be?” problem. Of course, we know that the careers you might pursue with a science degree are many and we (i.e. academics) see this as a good thing. But in the mind of the school-leaver or their parents, this variety – and uncertainty – is a source of worry. And that is why the number of Level 8 first preferences for science and applied science has increased by only 0.8% since 2012 despite the fact that total number of Level 8 preferences has increased by over 5% in the same period. Meanwhile, the number of first preferences for engineering and technology courses has increased by a whopping 33%. The reasons for this are simple: school-leavers (and their parents) know that at the end of an engineering course, graduates have a very good chance of being employed, as an engineer, in a growing economy; science graduates don’t have that certainty.

So if we want to get more young people to study science, we need to provide them with a lot more specific information about career options. It is not good enough to talk in vague generalities about ‘Stem’; we need to distinguish between biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, ICT, mathematics and talk in very tangible terms about what careers in these separate disciplines look like.

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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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