After 30 years of STEM, it is time to move on

Privileging one set of subjects with a catchy acronym may once have served a purpose, but that has long since been outlived, says Andy Miah 

January 4, 2022
Gloved hand clipping a rose illustrating an opinion article about STEM
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This year is the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the concept of STEM. Since this acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (and sometimes medicine) was coined by US-based engineer Charles Vela, it has become ubiquitous within the educational sector worldwide. But while catchy acronyms are handy and addictive, they can also be dangerous.

The popularity of the STEM concept derives principally from the educational and political desire to forge a unified strategic approach to knowledge and skills acquisition, in pursuit of nation states distinguished by their capacity to produce world-leading research and innovation. Investing in STEM is seen as a route to global prominence through discovery and invention, the accumulation of intellectual property and the transfer of that IP into novel products and services.

The trouble is that the STEM movement has also had the effect of establishing a new form of intellectual colonialism and elitism, which is now interwoven within the bureaucratic machinery of the knowledge industries. It privileges certain forms of knowledge over others, as a consequence of which some academic subjects have lost prominence within the educational system and, more seriously, within society.

This has led to pushback from within those excluded subjects – and something of an acronym war. Critics from within the arts have called for a shift from STEM to STEAM, introducing the arts into the mix of subjects that deserve critical investments – and with which, furthermore, STEM subjects and those who study them would benefit from closer connections.

Critics of STEM have also advanced the idea that what really matters in today’s digital economy is MESH: media literacy, ethics, sociology and history. Hence, the argument goes, there is little sense in churning out STEM experts who can make a more efficient world but who are less engaged with what matters and what direction the world ought to be going in.

Most recently, the British Academy and the London School of Economics have come up with SHAPE as a memorable new acronym (much better than “HASS”) for the “social sciences, humanities and the arts for people and the economy/environment” – the latter phrase underlining the subjects’ own economic relevance. While its principal advocates are careful not to advance them as a competitor to STEM, they assert the need for equal prominence in discussions about how we prioritise education across a student’s lifetime.

As societies, we work to our own detriment when we establish knowledge-based alliances that minimise the importance of some subjects in comparison to others. Anxieties about the effects of STEM in a moral and historical vacuum are particularly acute in the areas of artificial intelligence, advanced robotics and even social media – particularly Facebook and its recently unveiled plans to monopolise online life via its “metaverse” platform.

The STEM movement may have been an effective way to encourage people into subjects where skills were lacking, and even to reveal which populations were previously absent from pathways into such subjects. Yet the world has changed considerably since the STEM concept was first championed, and educationalists need to move on too.

The consequences of the tunnel vision of STEM strategies are also evident, for instance, in the recent calls to decolonise the curriculum; if only science education had developed with a sense of the importance of interrogating history, we would have already attended more adequately to matters of inclusivity, justice and social impact.

In addition, singling out STEM as a higher-value category of knowledge fails to recognise that far from being static, subjects constantly evolve around new concepts, definitions and contexts. Indeed, we see such transformations occurring before our eyes as some STEM subjects look outside their communities for guidance in matters of value and meaning.

We cannot engineer effectively without paying due attention to ethical and moral considerations, particularly the impact of our creations on the natural world. We cannot make equitable medical advances without considering their potential impacts on different types of communities. And we cannot develop the STEM subjects effectively without also addressing the histories of these disciplines and taking account of who has been excluded from their records.

This is why the acronym wars are misguided. We should not look towards new forms of subject alliance, which will have the same effects as STEM of excluding or deprioritising other forms of knowledge. Instead, we need to create integrated knowledge pathways and programmes of work that celebrate networked intelligence across subjects.

To fail to consider the need to learn across the spectrum of knowledge is to fail to appreciate why we established universities as places where all knowledge is equal. There is no greater priority than understanding how to recapture our sense of intellectual community when the world faces so many challenges.

We must take stock of all our educational programmes and identify the gaps in knowledge and perspective. If we don’t, we will establish further distance between what we are doing and what we should be doing as responsible and credible teachers.

Andy Miah is chair in science communication and future media at the University of Salford.


Print headline: STEM has had its day

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Reader's comments (1)

Duh, that's why the 'A' is in STEAM.