Making STEM a verb

While most edu folks are familiar with the STEM acronym, it seems to me that few (myself included) have a clear understanding of exactly how to implement STEM.  That is, STEM feels like an adjective to me.  “This is a STEM activity” or “We are a STEM school”.  Does that simply mean that the activity incorporates elements of science, technology, engineering, and math? Does it mean a school only teaches those subjects? STEM has got to be more nuanced than that. As a classroom teacher, I want to know how to STEM. Turn it into a verb for me. William Dugger defines STEM as “integration of [of these subjects] into a new transdisciplinary subject”.  This begs the question(s): What is the difference between inter-, multi-, and trans- disciplinary education? My feeble mind classifies them this way:


Multidisciplinary = within walls; simultaneously; using multiple disciplines at once; typical of pre-scripted project based learning; ex. a one room school house

Interdisciplinary = without walls; siloed disciplines collaborating; can be asynchronous; ex. english + drama / bio + environmental sci / History + health

Transdisciplinary =  begin with overarching complex problem and use disciplines as needed; ad-hoc but anticipates using all core disciplines if problem is chosen correctly.


It seems, then, that most applications of STEM in the US are interdisciplinary in nature where Science and Math courses take the lead with their learning outcomes and use T & E to support relevancy. In this way we might view the acronym as SteM.  It could be argued that “technology” is the broader term where science, math, and engineering are sub-disciplines. At the same time, technology and engineering are closely linked through their philosophical goals. If STEM is best taught in an “integrated and cross-curricular manner” as Dugger suggests, then shouldn’t we lead with a more broad and overarching construct?

In an elementary schools STEM seems to fit nicely due to the one classroom setting. However, in high school it can be harder to meaningfully integrate all four topics when they are each separated by time periods, four walls, and different teachers. Perhaps this is an argument in favor of intentional technology and engineering programs in high schools where the acronym becomes sTEm. What if we led with T & E where math and science was a happy consequence? I don’t intend to devalue science and math, but enhance relevancy by leading with wicked problems in technology & engineering in a transdisciplinary way and asking students to support potential solutions using math and science.


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