STEM: An Advocacy Position, Not a Content Area

  • Shaughnessy by NCTM President J. Michael Shaughnessy
    NCTM Summing Up, February 2, 2012

    More and more these days, in educational meetings, conferences, and policy arenas, the talk is that “it’s all about STEM.” STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and it has rapidly become a driving force in educational policy and funding decisions in the United States. I find both strengths and problems with the current STEM discussions across our professional communities.

    The Strength of STEM

    At the national level in the United States, STEM has become a prominent advocacy position for investing resources in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology education, for the purpose of keeping America globally competitive and scientifically and technologically innovative. (Notice that if the fields are listed in this order, the acronym becomes SMET—a previous generation acronym among funding agencies). Recently the Department of Education (ED) released its draft strategic plan for the next few years and solicited public comment. Sprinkled throughout the strategic plan are numerous references to and anticipated actions centered on STEM education. Among ED’s most prominent goals for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are the following: (1) to increase access to and excellence in STEM fields for all students and to prepare the next generation for careers in STEM-related fields, and (2) to increase degree and certificate completion rates and job placements in STEM areas, particularly among underrepresented populations.

    The STEM Education Coalition, an alliance of more than 500 business, professional, and education organizations, works to raise awareness in Congress, the administration, and other organizations about the critical role that STEM education plays in enabling the United States to remain the economic and technological leader in the global marketplace of the 21st century. NCTM is a member of the STEM Education Coalition, and we have lobbied in support of STEM initiatives to (1) support federal funding for programs dedicated to STEM education, making it a national priority to inspire students to pursue the fields of mathematics, science, technology, and engineering; (2) recruit and retain highly qualified teachers with a strong knowledge of content and pedagogy in the STEM disciplines; and (3) increase the number of students interested in and educated for careers in STEM fields, and educate a more scientifically literate citizenry.

    As a political advocacy position, STEM—that is, STEM funding and STEM initiatives—is of critical importance to the health of the mathematics and science education communities. In this arena, STEM makes perfect sense. It is when the term “STEM” filters down to states, districts, schools, and pre-K–12 teaching that the waters can become muddled.

    The Problem with STEM

    The translation from national policy to the rhetoric of state and local politics can give rise to generalist discussions about STEM programs and STEM schools, which in turn can lead to the dilution of important mathematics content. Terms such as “STEM program,” “STEM school,” and “STEM curriculum” are proliferating in our educational jargon. The acronym is shifting from a noun that represents four crucial content areas to an adjective that is used to describe just about anything and everything that anyone is doing related to science or mathematics. STEM is becoming the word du jour, because that’s where the funding lies. One can almost hear the cry in the halls of state departments of education, school district offices, principals’ offices, and school corridors: “We do STEM!” But what exactly does that mean? What are the specific innovations in the teaching and learning of mathematics and science that states, districts, and schools are implementing when they refer to themselves as “STEM intensive” or as having “a STEM program?” We should ask our leaders exactly what they mean when they use the word “STEM.” We deserve more than a generalist blanket response that represents a grouping for funding without specific content or pedagogical substance.

    There can be no STEM programs, STEM schools, or STEM curricula without concrete, identifiable, innovative content accompanied by specific teaching goals and implementation plans. The actual mathematics and science content and teaching in any STEM program, or within a so-called STEM-intensive school, should be transparent. Recently, the directors of all the Math-Science Partnership grants—MSP grants from the National Science Foundation—gathered to share their work at a conference in Washington D.C. Each of the MSP projects is engaged in developing and supporting teachers and students in a focused content area within a scientific, mathematical, technological, or engineering discipline. Among the MSP projects one finds focused efforts that address important issues such as deepening student’s mathematical discourse by promoting justification and generalization; developing learning progressions in astronomy for middle school students; promoting effective algebra teaching at all levels; creating opportunities for students to carry out investigations in nano-biotechnology; and creating an engineering-enhanced mathematics experience for grades 3–6. The MSP projects focus on a particular topic or issue within a STEM discipline, or on a topic that cuts across several STEM disciplines. The MSP projects do not attempt to teach STEM in general, and neither should we. STEM is an amalgamation of very complex and intertwined scientific disciplines. STEM is not a content area in and of itself, and we should not talk about it as if it were.

    Those who are implementing any STEM program should be able to identify the specific mathematical foci of the program. With all due respect to our colleagues in the other disciplines, we assert that the letters in STEM are not all of equal importance in the pre-K–12 education of our students. Mathematics is paramount, mathematics is primal, mathematics is the most important STEM discipline. The other three disciplines are fundamentally dependent on the strong mathematical preparation of our students. As president of NCTM, I find myself in the position of speaking as a strong advocate for “steM.” In our rush to secure much needed funding for our states and schools, let us keep in mind that STEM is an advocacy position, and not a content area in and of itself. As we develop plans for STEM education initiatives, we must maintain a clear vision for the role and importance of mathematics in the education of our students. It is critical that we preserve the mathematical meat when faced with the salad bowl of STEM, lest we make a MEST of it all!