Let’s stop E and T from becoming alien concepts

12th August 2016 at 01:00
As Stem grows as a key priority for Scottish government, science should step back from the leading role to give technology and engineering their time to shine

Science, technology, engineering and maths appears ever higher on governmental agendas. The Scottish government identifies it as a key priority for success in Curriculum for Excellence. It is enjoying a growth in popularity thanks to its ability to address skills gaps, economic well-being and future competitive advantage.

Yet, I have stopped counting the number of talks, reports, discussions and publications that I have heard or read where Stem features prominently in the opening statements, only to be followed by an extensive discussion of science, rather than the other contributors to this modish acronym.

The Scottish government, for example, gave its own response to one Stem report – on SEEAG, the Science and Engineering Education Advisory Group – as a series of priorities for supporting and developing science teachers. Now, I do not want to suggest that science education is not critically important. Quite the contrary, I am arguing that greater parity among all four subjects is required for Stem to add value.

The idea of Stem as a subject group is not new, but it remains both fascinating and complex. The subjects present a prima facie case of “sensible bedfellows” yet, at the same time, they are very different to one another. Though a vast range of definitions exist (symptomatic, I suppose, of said complexity), I will say that science is concerned with developing our understanding of the workings of the natural world and the universe at large. Mathematics, however, centres on abstract representations and the seeking of logical proof; in doing so, it cultivates a powerful symbolic language that can be applied endlessly.

Creativity plays a significant role in both these fields but, as curricular subjects, they are necessarily shaped by fixed rules, laws and relationships that give rise to a fairly well-structured and constant body of knowledge. Even the most rebellious of departments could not choose to remove addition from the curriculum in favour of something else. It is essential for them, just as it is for departments worldwide where people use or learn maths.

For me, on one level, this stirs a sense of comfort and familiarity which probably doesn’t extend so easily to the “E” and – even more so – the “T” of Stem. Here, things can sometimes appear a little hazier. What is technology education and how is technology different to engineering? These questions are harder to answer, yes, but arguably critical to effectively realising Stem. So, in this spirit of parity, I am going drop three interrelated and pervasive myths of technology education into the Stem mixing pot.

The first is that technology education is about using computers. Computers are indeed one example of “high technology” that may well have a place in some aspects of technological activity, but they are not the same as technology in its fuller sense. This myth views technology as a product or tool, but accounts for a comparatively small part of technology’s bigger picture.

Most definitions actually view technology as the means by which we modify aspects of the natural environment to meet our needs and wants or to enhance our own capabilities. Educationally, this suggests that it may actually be more of a process than a product; enabling pupils to engage with and learn how to modify the natural environment would be a laudable aim of any technology course.

More than ‘just making stuff’

I guess this feeds well into my second myth: that technology is “applied science”. Although science is a critical partner, it is surprising just how limited the application of scientific knowledge is in technological developments. In his analysis of aircraft development, Walter Vincenti – the Stanford University emeritus professor of aeronautics and astronautics – demonstrates innovation and development that happens as part of practice, without the application of any scientific knowledge.

Further back in time, similar things can be observed with the tools created by early man: though they can mutually benefit each other, few technological innovations begin with a wish to apply some science (and when they are used, I would argue that they are translated rather than applied). Scientific laws can rarely, if ever, simply be applied such that a product or solution pops out. The second myth overlooks the bulk of the intellectual activity that this actually requires.

Such activity is characterised by design thinking, synthesis and development processes that move it notably beyond the notion of “just making stuff” – my third myth of technology education. Many would suggest this aforementioned missing activity is the largely the preserve of the “T” and “E” in Stem.

Ultimately, it is unhelpful when Stem is implicitly used as an acronym for science – or any of the other three subjects for that matter. To be truly effective, we have to think more acutely and move beyond this narrow thinking. By definition, effective interdisciplinary learning cannot take place without a strong understanding, recognition and use of the constituent disciplines.

One such approach can be found in the “integrative Stem” movement, which has been developed in the US. Here, the “T” and the “E” provide a problem-based context for purposefully learning about science and maths. Technology accounts for the human (or social) and production dimensions and an engineering design process ties science and mathematics into solution development.

I am not suggesting that this is the only or best approach – but it does set learning within a context that makes more considered use of Stem’s four constituent subjects.

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