Not All STEM is Equal

A close up of a 12 year old boy holding tow beakers of liquid as he compares them.
A close up of a 12 year old boy holding tow beakers of liquid as he compares them.

As engineering and other STEM degrees become more fashionable due to the benefits they provide - good jobs and starting salaries - more colleges and universities find themselves developing programs to serve this need.

The reason is simple economics - students want to leave college with jobs, and STEM majors--science, technology, engineering and mathematics--continue to be in demand. Colleges want to build pipelines of students. Students, however, shouldn't be misled. Not all STEM is equal.

Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, is a STEM school with a lot of STEAM. The "A" means we infuse our curriculum with arts and social sciences important for developing a well-rounded STEM graduate. Many are surprised to learn that our humanities and social sciences department is the largest on campus. We've always incorporated the arts and humanities into STEM education, and take a lot of pride that students have the opportunity to minor in music, sociology or even theatre. They take leading roles in theatre productions, pledge fraternities and sororities, and fill out the rosters of 20 varsity sports and two dozen intramurals. And they leave here as well-rounded professionals with a STEM degree.

There is a difference between a STEM curriculum and a college that "now offers an engineering degree." So what tend to be the differences?


STEM institutions focus on delivering a world-class educational experience in STEM fields. It is, to use a cliché, the bread and butter of the institution. These institutions pride themselves on providing students with a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education that will serve a student for years to come. The luxury of a STEM school is that it is focused on developing those skills along with the soft skills that students need for the working world. Other schools that add STEM to a liberal arts curriculum cannot offer the breadth of experience--especially the opportunity for students to work in multidisciplinary technical teams. At STEM schools, for example, an electrical engineering student is likely to be working on a project with students studying mechanical and software engineering. That's the way it is in the real world.

Practice Makes Perfect

Students interested in majoring in STEM fields need to walk through campus. At STEM schools, you'll find lots of spaces for tinkering and hands-on work. At the school I lead, we call ours "The BIC"--Branam Innovation Center. It is here that students build human-powered vehicles, robots, and even concrete canoes. The BIC is more than 16,000 square feet of space where students have the opportunity to experiment, collaborate, and learn. There is no substitution for this kind of space. Majoring in a STEM field is messy; it requires collaboration and room to make mistakes. It involves using resources outside of the traditional classroom. I would argue that if a university is not built for this kind of operation, it cannot do justice to STEM education. STEM schools further have a cache of STEM alumni, who are a great resource for each new generation of STEM students, representing a wide swath of industry sectors from biomedical to aerospace, software engineering, additive manufacturing, Wall Street and cybersecurity, to name a few.

Making a Difference

Many of our students are interested in STEM careers because scientists and engineers improve lives around the world. And, a STEM education sets students up for further learning along the way. While this case is made from various small colleges around the country - "we teach students how to learn" - I believe that the nation's STEM colleges go a step further in teaching students how to solve problems and create value for their organizations and communities.

I reject the notion that STEM schools can't infuse their curricula with humanities, social science and the arts. If anything, I think STEM schools can integrate these areas more effectively for students in concert with development of tangible, highly marketable skills. My institution has been doing this successfully since our founding. Humanities and social sciences are taught in the context of a STEM education.

The nation's STEM colleges and universities provide more than job training for those who want to get into tech fields. We provide a solid, broad-based education that is applicable to everyone. Students considering STEM careers should understand the differences between colleges and universities offering new majors to get your tuition dollars and institutions founded upon the support of an industry.