Why we need to get rid of STEM

On the surface, ‘STEM’ is a harmless acronym, a handy and catchy way of promoting disciplines that, let’s face it, are pretty important in this technological age.

But, to an engineer like me who has worked in a science faculty for my whole career, the idea of lumping science and engineering together, along with maths and ‘technology’, seems a bit…simplistic. In my experience, engineering is quite different from science; it’s pragmatic, solution-oriented and a bit of a black art at times. Pure science is essentially an evidence-informed search for ‘truth’, although it has to be said that in between the extremes of pure science and engineering, there is a large and diffuse grey area filled with applied science, translational science and even ‘engineering science’.

Just as importantly, the individual STEM disciplines have their own signature pedagogies. Engineering is learned largely by practice – what is often referred to as ‘doing the problems’. Biology typically requires students to assimilate large amounts of information and, being largely an experimental science, it requires students to understand and be proficient at a bewildering array of experimental techniques. No doubt, mathematicians, physicists, chemists and computer scientists can say what their signature pedagogies are.

But I could live with all of this; STEM is just an acronym after all and if it masks real differences between disciplines, just like the term ‘humanities’ does, then so what?

The problem for me is that many educators, especially primary and secondary school teachers seem to have decided to interpret ‘STEM’ as being some sort of integrated, super-discipline that must be taught using a hands-on, discovery learning approach.

The Twitter hastag, #STEM, is instructive in this regard. The vast majority of tweets seem to refer to teams of students simply making things. There seems to be an almost obsessive emphasis on Lego, Minecraft, Scratch, 3D-printing, virtual reality, automation and robots of all kinds. At times, it all looks a bit like science meets Art Attack, and STEM seems to have become a byword for building ‘sciencey’ contraptions. It seems to be mainly ‘T’ and very little ‘S’.

On one level I’ve no problem with any of this especially if it’s part of an extra-curricular approach to promoting science and engineering. However, if our curriculum designers become so fixated on promoting STEM as a super-discipline, and then fill the science curriculum with it, pupils will never acquire enough of the essential scientific knowledge that they will need if they are to aspire to  actual STEM careers, or more importantly, to be able to make sense of the world around them. Every hour spent building a bridge out of ice-pop sticks is an hour lost to learning about the natural world. And, no, Google is no substitute for being taught.

Yet, it seems to be full-steam ahead with the ‘hands-on’ approach despite the fact that discovery or project-based learning is inherently inefficient. More importantly, the discovery approach does not work very well with novice learners. Even the OECD, when issuing their 2015 PISA report, has admitted:

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.

The key problem here is that educators, even eminent ones, are making the classic mistake of confusing engagement with learning. Sure, pupils might be highly ‘engaged’ by all of this construction and robot-building, but the real question we need to ask is this: are they really learning anything of substance even after spending hours at the workbench. And by learning we mean “making a permanent change to their long term memory” – to use Daniel Willingham’s words.

The problem is that we are in an era when the dominant ideology (and it is an ideology) insists that the way to encourage a love of ‘STEM’ is to get students to behave like mini scientists and engineers, while attempting to solve (collaboratively – it must be collaboratively) so-called real-world problems. Relevance and ‘authenticity’ are seen as key ingredients of an ‘engaging’ education and ‘engaging’ is equated with ‘effective’.

For me, this is all so misconceived. When I see tweets about kids doing projects making rockets out of plastic bottles and fizzy water, I think of my time in secondary school when the physics teacher turned the lights out, flicked a switch and a beam of ‘light’ darted from a source on one side of a glass tube to another, where it produced a bright fluorescent spot. When he brought a magnet close to the tube, the beam bent and fluorescent spot moved: this ‘light’ seemed to be affected by that most mysterious of forces, magnetism. In fact, the teacher was demonstrating Thomson’s famous experiment to measure the charge-to-mass ratio of the electron. As 15-year olds we were witnessing, up close, the behaviour of one of the building blocks of the universe and doing so in a way that connected each of us to one of the great experiments of history. I don’t know about you, but that’s a lot more inspiring to me than building a Lego robot.

If we want to inspire students, we need to make them witnesses to the great science of the past. We need to tell them of the great experiments, the great rivalries, the petty jealousies, the dramatic successes, the embarrassing failures, the predictions that never came true. We need to bring science alive and good teachers can do this, especially if we give them time to think and plan, and laboratories that are well equipped with real scientific equipment. We don’t need to ‘transform’ science teaching, dragging science down to our own mundane level. The best science is removed from our day-to-day experience and that’s what makes it so fascinating and so challenging. It engages our imagination because we will never ‘see’ a proton or a gene or an electromagnetic wave or billions of simple gas molecules buzzing around a closed container, colliding with each other, sometimes conspiring to form new, more complex, molecules. And we certainly won’t ever see a dinosaur. And we all know about kids and dinosaurs.


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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4 Responses to Why we need to get rid of STEM

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Why we need to get rid of STEM

  2. Pingback: Why we need to get rid of STEM — educationandstuff | Echo Chamber Ireland

  3. PC says:

    Great post! I fully agree, I love experiments but went through secondary school loving science and doing well in it with relatively little exposure to “hands-on” work. That is probably not ideal but I did not feel it as a handicap; it was the great synthesis of the big laws that I always found fascinating. This approach served me very well when I later pursued an academic career in the physical sciences. Why should students with greater inclination for the “abstract” aspects be forgotten in the enthusiasm for new hands-on methods?….

  4. Greg Foley says:

    Tks! I have to say I’m a bit biased because I was always hopeless in the lab!

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