STEM Sells

What’s wrong with American education nowadays?

Take your pick. You can lament lack of support for the humanities, or lack of student interest in science.

If you’re concerned about the latter, you have a word for it. An acronym, actually: STEM. It stands for those areas of underinterest to students: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

That acronym makes possible headlines like these:

But it wasn’t always so. Before STEM became widely used, the different fields had to be spelled out:

  • “Effects of Small-Group Learning on Undergraduates in Science, Mathematics, and Technology: A Meta-Analysis” (Review of Educational Research, 1999).
  • “A National Digital Library for Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology” (D-Lib Magazine, October 1998).

Clearly, an acronym would help, not just to make titles shorter but also to foster agreement on the fields to be included. And so at the turn of the millennium SMET was born. One of the first to use that acronym was the Journal of SMET Education: Innovations and Research, which began publication in 2000. It had articles like:

Something was amiss, however. Say “SMET” out loud, in a talk or an interview, and it comes perilously close to “smut.” “We need to make SMET more attractive to young people”? Not so good.

To the rescue came Judith Ramaley of the National Science Foundation. Early in the 2000s she proposed rearranging the letters to spell STEM. Not only was this nicer, she explained, but it was more logical. “STEM works better because the science and math carry as the core their applications of technology and engineering,” she said in a later interview. “So I concluded that on both aesthetic grounds and conceptual grounds, STEM was better.”

Whatever the merit of that reasoning, within a few years everyone had adopted her anagram. So there’s no longer any smutty talk from scientists, technologists, engineers, or mathematicians. You can’t be too careful with acronyms.

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