Defining STEM – Critical, but Not As Easy As You Might Think


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This is a guest blog post by Angela Hemingway, Executive Director, Idaho STEM Action Center 

As the term STEM has become more widely used, people can recite the words associated with the acronym: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. However, beyond this seemingly simple definition, various stakeholders often have significantly different conceptions of what STEM actually means in application. To some it’s a very single-subject, segregated expression of disciplines, such as chemistry or biology or engineering. Others describe STEM as the integration of two or more disciplines, such as math and engineering. Still others focus on the need for STEM to mirror professional practices, which often include not only integration of two or more of the STEM fields, but also critical thinking and the ability to solve real-world issues.

However, if one of the goals of STEM education is to prepare young people for careers in STEM occupations, it is absolutely essential that states adopt a definition of STEM on which all stakeholders can agree, and that the definition corresponds with how STEM knowledge and skills are applied in the world of work.

To ensure consistency throughout the state when discussing STEM, the Idaho STEM Action Center has adopted a broad, integrated definition of STEM that aligns with the definition used by the Idaho Department of Labor. When educators apply this integrated approach in their classroom, students will ultimately benefit by entering the workforce with the frame of mind and skills they need for success.

Relatively few states, though, have set out to adopt a statewide definition of STEM that is shared by the diverse STEM stakeholders. What led Idaho to embark on this process? Quite simply, after four meetings of the Idaho STEM Action Center Board, it occurred to me that the definitions of “STEM” that our industry and education representatives were using were very different. That is, the education definition was more the “siloed” vision of the STEM disciplines – students study math, or physics, or biology, not necessarily an integration of these subjects. Alternatively, many industries assumed integration of disciplines. In other words, most students taking advanced math in college do not necessarily pursue careers as mathematicians, but as engineers, physicists, etc. who use advanced math to do their jobs. I realized that if our Board’s education and labor representatives were defining “STEM” in different ways, ultimately it would be difficult for us to determine the end goal of our efforts.

I decided to see what research had been done on defining STEM. I reviewed a variety of sources, from education and economics (i.e., jobs and labor reports), from both academic journals and government reports. I knew that doing so would help ensure the Idaho STEM Action Center defined STEM in a way that was not only true to the needs of labor (an integrated STEM approach), but also would differentiated the Center’s work from that of the Idaho Department of Education, which is very focused on specific subjects.

Based on this research, the definition of STEM presented to and approved by the Idaho STEM Action Center board is that STEM is “an integration of two (or more) STEM fields” and that the definition is “broad,” encompassing not only the traditional STEM fields, but also health care and social sciences. This integrative and broad definition mirrors the occupations defined as STEM by Idaho Department of Labor and the requests from employers that STEM graduates integrate STEM disciplines in the workplace and possess the soft skills to succeed.

Having a clear definition of STEM will allow the Center to systematically focus on projects and programs that are truly integrative while also tracking outcomes related to all STEM jobs.

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