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.



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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2 Responses to STEM: from harmless acronym to dangerous idea?

  1. john kelly says:

    Great and thoughtful essay Greg, but is anyone listening ?

    I recall once, the shock and horror of our UCD President, Tom Murphy,

    when some one in our UCD Science Faculty was awarded a large research grant for his

    project looking at the sex life of the Tanzanian butterfly – yes seriously — that was in

    the context of my setting up the UIC, the University Industry Centre, in Belfield, which

    he applauded. Whilst in general agreement with you Greg, I am not sure that our tax payers

    cash should be used to look at those butterflies in far off Africa. Do you ?

    Tóg go bog é trasna annsin san DCU.


  2. Greg Foley says:

    No, Tanzanian butterflies is a bit of a stretch alright! I think though that we have drifted away from the core idea of education having an intrinsic value other than as a preparation in the workplace. Even then, some of the most capable admin people I work with in DCU have backgrounds in social science, philosophy and classics.

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