Sciency Words: STEM vs. STEAM, Part Two

In last week’s episode of Sciency Words, I told you about STEAM education, a variation of STEM education, but with an A added to represent the arts.  There’s a passionate and sometimes vitriolic fight happening in the education world about this.  If I had to pick sides, I guess I’d be on team STEAM; but I hate picking sides in something like this because this whole STEM vs. STEAM fight amounts to what I like to call a “failure of language.”

What I mean by that is that the whole STEM vs. STEAM thing is all about words.  Words, words, words.  Nothing more.  Every time we invent a new word, we create a sort of mental box.  To define our new word, we put certain things in the box, and we keep other things out.  To some extent, we have to do this; otherwise, language wouldn’t work.

But when we start sorting concepts into different mental boxes, we may inadvertently start erecting mental barriers as well.  As a child growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, I never heard about STEM or STEAM.  Those terms hadn’t been invented yet.  Even so, young me came to understand that the arts and sciences were absolutely different from each other.  There were hard barriers between them.  I worry that an unintended consequence of STEM has been to make those kinds of barriers harder and taller, and I’d like to believe that STEAM might help break those barriers down.

As a matter of education policy and the allocation of grant money, maybe STEM is the more useful word to be using.  When we can take a bunch of big concepts (like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, along with all the interdisciplinary challenges that come with those subjects) and put them together in the same mental box, we suddenly have the ability to communicate complex ideas in simple ways.  STEM education is important.  The fact that this term exists and we all more-or-less understand what it means is a huge success of language.

But what I’ve seen of this STEM vs. STEAM debate strikes me as a case study of how a success of language can start to look like a failure.  I can think of other examples as well. Any time we start insisting that things (or worse, people) belong in separate boxes, we’re allowing mere words to create real divisions, and we’re making the communication of ideas between the two sides more difficult.

This may not qualify as a scientific term, or even as a linguistics term, but it’s a term I’m using more and more in all the seemingly pointless arguments our society keeps getting into these days:


Okay, I’m going to get off my philosophy of language soapbox.  Now it’s your turn.  What do you think of STEM, STEAM, and the ways language succeeds and/or fails us?

6 thoughts on “Sciency Words: STEM vs. STEAM, Part Two

  1. Well said. I have a chemist friend who gets furious when people call certain vegetables ‘organic’ because to his science, vegetables cannot be inorganic. Amazing how words can invoke such passion when we hold to them too rigidly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have to admit I used to be the same way about the word organic. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned doing these Sciency Words posts, it’s that lots of words have different definitions in different fields. What’s organic to a chemist is not the same as what’s organic to a nutritionist, and that’s okay.


  2. I’m usually pretty forgiving of word usage. Usually the only time I get pedantic about it is when I perceive someone’s incorrect usage is paired with actual meaningful confusion.

    I’m not familiar with the STEM vs STEAM fight. I do know that the humanities have felt under siege in recent years as STEM seems to get all the attention, and funding.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s sort of my impression too, that the humanities are having a tough time. Well, a tougher time than they used to. But I’m not involved in the education system enough to say for sure.

      Originally I just wanted to write a post about STEAM, because it seemed like a my kind of thing. Then I read a few articles that had this very exclusionary tone, and I saw some comment threads that got real nasty real quick. Maybe that’s just the Internet being the Internet, but still… I wanted to say something about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I always thought that STEM became a thing to encourage more girls to consider science-y careers, since the gender balance was (is? idk) pretty off. Like, my mom is a computer engineer, but when she was in college she was practically the only woman in a lot of her classes and she had to work harder than her peers to get into the “boys club” career she wanted.

    The arts do come under fire in schools because they’re not considered as serious. But I always liked doing sketches in biology — on my own time of course, it wasn’t part of the course — because it helped me remember what stuff looked like. One Valentine’s Day I made cards with anatomically correct human hearts on the front, in watercolor, and that’s probably the nerdiest thing I’ve ever done.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those cards sound awesome!

      When I skimmed through some of the original National Science Foundation reports that proposed STEM, I don’t remember seeing anything specifically about girls. Those reports would have been from around 2004, I think.

      But getting girls involved in STEM has become a big part of the story since then. I’ve met a lot of young girls who seem to be very interested in sciency stuff, so anecdotally I feel like progress is being made. But I guess we might have to wait a generation or two to really see how well our education system has done there.

      Liked by 1 person

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