Does STEM Education Have a Branding Problem?

The acronym "STEM" may be confusing to many people not involved in science education. But does it really matter?

Does the term "STEM" make you think of a certain type of cell or maybe a plant structure or stopping the flow of something? How about science, technology, engineering, and math education? If you didn't answer the last option, then you may agree with the column Natalie Angier wrote this week in The New York Times.

Angier despises the STEM acronym, which she argues is "didactic and jargony," confusing, and far too granular (why bother calling out "technology" and "engineering," specifically?). She isn't alone. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, who is active in the movement of bringing science education to a new generation of students, primarily girls, is in full agreement, arguing that it's too wonky for the general public.

It's true, it absolutely is wonky—and no kid is going to be to enthused about a STEM curriculum, if it ends up being marketed to them that way. But, at this moment, STEM, much like Race to the Top or other government spearheaded education efforts, is primarily happening at the policy and funding level—a place where annoying acronyms are the norm.

As Angier herself reports, one of the advantages of mentioning each of the four disciplines separately is that it encourages corporations, especially those from the tech and energy sector, to reach into their deep pockets on behalf of initiatives that galvanize interest in science and technology-related fields and study. It's probably just the sort of term that IBM glommed onto to create its new high school in partnership with CUNY. It was probably on nearly every PowerPoint slide that led to the creation of the Change the Equation organization, which Ride cofounded with the CEOs of Intel and Time Warner Cable, among others.

To grow the next generation of American scientists is going to take resources, exciting new programs, and a clear path to a company or industry that has a long future of innovation ahead of it. These are practical fields that will undergird the future of American life, and the companies are investing, in one sense, in their own survival by training a workforce that's capable of keeping them in business.

Provided that the word "STEM" doesn't make it into the classroom itself—but, rather, arrives in the form of new labs and eye-opening curriculums—I think we can suffer its over-itemization, it's possible propensity to confuse, and its inelegance. Practically speaking, if it's getting the powers that be—from corporations to the Obama administration—interested, it's doing its job.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user skeggy.

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