What is STEM?

classroom-488375_960_720Unless you’ve been living on some remote island in the tropics totally cut off from the world (mmm, that does sound kind of good!) you probably already know about the current push for students to be involved in STEM education right from the time they start school. STEM is an acronym for “Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics”, and in our increasingly technology-driven world our children are going to need scientific literacy, information literacy and computer literacy just as much as the traditional forms of numeracy and language literacy in order to navigate and be successful participants in the world around them. We can hardly begin to imagine what kinds of jobs will be out there for our children when they grow up, but what we can do is arm them with the kinds of problem solving and critical thinking skills they’ll need to tackle them successfully. Tele-surgeon? AI designer? Galactic architect? It’s closer than it might seem.

There are a number of variants on the STEM acronym, such as STEAM which includes the Arts and STEMSEL which incorporates “Social Enterprise Learning”. The arguments for these latter acronyms are that Arts is key to creativity, and that we should apply our knowledge in STEM to areas likely to benefit the world and people around us. For me, it goes without saying that in order to be successful in STEM you need to think outside the box and be hugely creative. The assumption that our mathematicians, engineers, computer programmers and scientists are somehow rigid and uncreative is just crazy and one of my major pet peeves! I’ve come across it time and time again when I tell people that I’m a computer programmer, but that I also really enjoy doing hands-on crafty and creative things in my spare time – people seem surprised that those two go together. In my mind, it’s a natural fit! Our STEM professionals are the people who solve the world’s big problems, come up with innovative solutions, invent, discover, generate new ideas, and they manage to do it all within the confines of the laws of the natural world – how could they possibly not be creative? And of course, what’s the point of STEM if we’re not applying it to the world around us?

The major motivation for most STEM professionals I’ve met is to make a positive change to the world, be it through developing a new product, improving an existing system, or whatever it might be! In today’s world, STEM professionals work in an inherently multidisciplinary and socially-conscious area. An engineer doesn’t design a new structure without taking into account the environmental impact, how it fits in the local area, the economic impact, the people that will be using it. A computer programmer doesn’t write software just for the sake of it, they write it for a purpose – perhaps educational, medical, business or entertainment. A good programmer considers the end-user first and foremost – how can the software meet their needs, be easy to use, protect their privacy and security, help them connect to other people. Scientists are out there trying to save our environment, improve our health and lifestyle and discover how the world around us works.

For me, STEM is by nature creative and inherently connected to the world around us and the people in it, so for simplicity’s sake I’m just sticking with STEM 😉