Is The "T" In STEM Supposed To Be Silent?

One thing is certain in higher education--we love a good acronym. Our college campuses are absolutely littered with them. It seems like the name of every department, degree, course, and building are shortened to a convenient set of letters, making up a secret code our students must learn to decipher. So it is not strange at all that the STEM acronym was so easily incorporated into the educational environment of truncated vernacular.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. This popular instructional emphasis first emerged in the 1990s. The National Science Foundation originally called it SMET and later changed the abbreviation to STEM in 2001. You have to admit, as far as acronyms go, STEM really is much catchier than SMET, so the new name stuck.

Several published reports in the early 2000s brought attention to the need for U.S. students to increase their proficiency in STEM disciplines. Most notably, a 2005 report from the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine called Rise Above the Gathering Storm stated that U.S. student proficiency in STEM disciplines was trailing behind other countries, and if we were to succeed as a global leader, our future workforce would need to be better prepared in these areas.

This type of reporting created a national public outcry for more robust STEM education. Classrooms across the country began to adopt STEM initiatives of all varieties. College-bound students, with greater frequency, were being advised into STEM programs. There was an intensive push to create career pathways for students to go into STEM related fields. It seemed like anything branded "STEM" was automatically assumed to be a more substantive educational alternative.

Aside from being another clever educational catchphrase, STEM became seriously recognized as curriculum based on the idea of educating students in the four specific disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The problem, though, was that "technology" was never considered an academic discipline, and we have no agreed upon definition of "technology" as it relates to education. We have little difficulty defining science, engineering, and math, but the "T" in STEM is an enigma to us. In our rush to find solutions to a national dilemma, it appears as though some curricular ambiguities still remain.

On any major university campus, without difficulty, you will find a science department, an engineering department, and a mathematics department. Students interested in a STEM education can easily enroll in courses in each of these departments or choose to major in a degree offered by any one of these disciplines. No ambiguity here, but what about the "T" in STEM. You will not commonly find a technology department identified on a college campus. So, how are students interested in STEM to identify technology courses or technology degrees? Is the "T" in STEM really supposed to be silent?

When first introduced, STEM seemed a way to direct students into more substantive and weighty college majors that would lead to employment in fields necessary to regain our nation's standing as a world leader in industry as well as in higher education. But now, I'm not so sure. I fear STEM has become cliché--more a marketing device and less an instructional imperative.

There is little debate that our universities are doing (and have always done) a remarkable job teaching science, engineering, and mathematics. But most colleges have never elevated technology to the status of being a true academic discipline, and the national focus on the merits of STEM education has not motivated them to do so.

Technology in higher education circles is commonly viewed as how you teach rather than what you teach. If a classroom utilizes modern instructional technology, they conclude, it must be a technology course. But smart boards and tablets are no substitute for simulators and corporate trainers when it comes to workforce preparation. Unfortunately, it is the attitude on many college campuses that technical training is not their responsibility. They hold that workforce preparation is the responsibility of business and industry and not the obligation of higher education.

Until some of these attitudes begin to change in higher education, I fear the "T" in STEM will remain silent. Until we begin to see more technical training on college campuses related to the specific needs of the modern workforce, the ambitious goals of the national STEM initiative will never be fully realized.

Traditional college level instruction is frankly not keeping up with the ever-changing needs of industry in the United States. The technological advances in most industries have long ago outpaced the capabilities and offerings of most college campuses. Consequently, college graduates today are ill-equipped to work with the sophisticated equipment and machinery found in most industries. Students are not being exposed to the advanced technology found in most middle-skills jobs and even in some entry-level positions.

We need an academic disciplinary definition for "technology" as it relates to industry needs and modern workforce preparation. We need to put the "T" back into STEM.