the tech post

This blog is about technology, software and social media. It's aimed as much towards 'normal' people as the tech savvy. The author is Tony Gallacher.

STEM with a Silent T (part 1)

STEM Cloud

STEM Cloud

The acronym STEM is a blatant misnomer. It stands for Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics. There are various STEM initiatives in the US, the UK and representing the rest of Europe. Their primary goal is to inspire school pupils to pursue a career in Science.

I’m all for encouraging students to take up Science; I worked in science communication for a number of years. Computer technologies are also important. Their uptake is falling at a terminal velocity.

Yet, according to a recent report for the Royal Society by IBM UK, ‘The T [in STEM] is largely silent, and covers any number of activities that have little or nothing to do with computing.’

Computing can be thought of as technology but also it could be considered Computer Science, so you might expect to find it’s addressed, to a reasonable degree, by STEM organisations’ Science activities. I wish you luck finding evidence of that.

The BCS (British Computer Society) has pointed out that the STEM Programme Report (2006), published by the National STEM Centre in the UK didn’t mention computing at all.

In fact, if you search the report for ICT, you find that 50% of the hits occur, appropriately enough, within the word ‘restrictions.’ The other 2 refer to ICT, not so much in passing as while barely acknowledging its existence.

The Scottish Government supports STEM Scotland. Their tag line is ‘Delivering Science to your Doorstep.’ It seems that, as far as they’re concerned, not only Technology but also Engineering and Mathematics will just have to make their own travel arrangements.

STEM activities are focused on the curriculum. That’s one reason why computing receives so little attention – either where it could be called technology, or where it is Science. STEM activities and, I’d suggest, science communication activities in general, target the traditional branches of Science: Physics, Chemistry, Biology and technology where it specifically facilitates those.

An example of such a facilitating technology would be forensic analysis techniques, like finger printing. Finger printing techniques might involve computing at some stage – the images are stored electronically, for example – but the technology would pertain, substantively, to the analysis technique itself. So, while it is technology, it’s distinct from computing ‘tech,’ such as mobile technology, gadgets, apps or software.

That funding for STEM activities is targeted to support traditional science curriculums is not the only reason that computing is largely ignored, though. After all, ICT is taught in schools throughout the UK and can often be called technology. STEM programmes are developed by science communicators. In my experience they are, almost exclusively, scientists from the traditional disciplines. I’d suggest one of the reasons why computing is woefully underrepresented in their activities is lack of knowledge and interest. It’s simply not what they have set out to promote.

In 2010, the Royal Society issued a call for evidence on the state of computing engagement in UK Schools. One of the questions they posed was:

‘Is there a need for an increased recognition of ICT and computing as part of the T in STEM, through representation in STEM forums and increased funding?’

The answer from respondents representing education, academia and industry was a resounding yes.

But not only was it a leading question, it was the wrong question. It presumes that better computing education in our schools, leading to greater numbers of students pursuing Computing as a career, can be facilitated by STEM programmes. Computing, Information Technology, ICT, Computer Science; whatever you want to call it, it is now far too important to our economy, our society and our daily lives to be a sub-part, of a sub-part of STEM.

Not only is Computing a crucial discipline in its own right, it now underpins every other aspect of both Science and Technology.

In my next post, I’ll explain why I think the slump in students pursuing Computing as a career must be addressed in its own right, rather than as part of a STEM programme and ICT curriculum changes.

If you found this Tech Post article useful, please share it or ‘like’ it using the options below. Many thanks, Tony

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