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STEM Education and Training TIG Week: Defining STEM Within Education and Training by Wesley D. Thompson and Andreas C. Thompson

Greetings. We are Wesley D. Thompson, Project Manager and Director of Exhibits at Haremco and Andreas C. Thompson, Graduate Student in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. We have collaborated on the development and assessment of informal STEM learning opportunities for gifted students. 

There is ongoing discussion surrounding the importance of STEM education, training, and workforce development for the success of individuals as well as the United States and other countries. However, while most can easily name the words that make up this acronym­­—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics—there is incomplete consensus as to the defining characteristics of what constitutes STEM.  Even within the specific components of STEM, there is not agreement as to what the individual terms mean. For example, some long accepted “Science” fields include Chemistry, Biology, and Physics as well as many of their subdomains such as Biochemistry, Astrochemistry, Neuroscience, Botany, Thermodynamics, and Quantum Mechanics. However, there is less consensus as to whether fields such as Psychology, Kinesiology, Public Health, and the Social Sciences such as Sociology and Anthropology should be included within the S of STEM. Similarly, despite the fact that Computer Science draws upon many of the same skills and processes, there is incomplete consensus as to where Computer Science fits within STEM (is it part of Science? Or part of Technology?) or if it even fits in at all leading to the acronym STEM+C.  Perhaps more to the point of this discussion, once we can settle on the individual S’s, T’s, E’s and M’s, what does it mean when we bring them all together to consider understanding STEM?

Lessons Learned

When considering the definition of STEM, there should be an understanding that STEM must include more than one letter of the acronym, and ideally the program should not simply be multidisciplinary with various components siloed.  In our experience, institutions often describe a program as being a STEM program when it may only involve a single STEM discipline or perhaps multiple sub-disciplines such as a program that combines Chemistry with Biology.  People may use the term STEM indiscriminately rather than intentionally considering what it means to combine S-T-E- and M.  Perhaps this practice has come about because many funding opportunities within STEM education and training allow for projects to focus on one or more STEM fields. However, components should be integrated or interdisciplinary in nature such that the various components are connected, allowing for the exploration of more complex topics or real-life problems.  Some programs go further and fully integrate the STEM components to become transdisciplinary meaning that they focus more on the problem being studied and less on the distinctions between the fields.

In addition to evaluating gains in content knowledge or practices within specific disciplines, and integrated content knowledge or practices, it could be important in the evaluation of a STEM project to ascertain if the project fulfilled the implementation of the program at the level of integration proposed as well as to assess what best practices/processes facilitated this integration and helped alleviate siloing of disciplines. Since interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches to STEM education and training focus less on the specific disciplines and more on complex problem solving or other aspects of STEM practices such as innovation or design, evaluation should also address gains in these areas.  Additionally, evaluation might measure changes in participant interest in (and knowledge of) such things as a broad range of STEM careers; additional factors such as socio-scientific issues, or potential ethical implications of the work; and economic ramifications of project implementation as well as economic ramification of the areas under study. 

The American Evaluation Association is hosting STEM Education and Training TIG Week with our colleagues in the STEM Education and Training Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from our STEM TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this AEA365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the AEA365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an AEA365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to AEA365@eval.org. AEA365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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