[S]purious ca[T]egories that hide vast diff[E]rences in pheno[M]ena

One of the best branding efforts of the past thirty years, aside from Apple calling all of its products the iThing, is the National Science Foundation inventing STEM, for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. (STEM was originally SMET… good call on that change.) Policymakers might not be able to slow down enough to listen to a careful explanation, but “we need more STEM funding or we’ll fall behind the [Soviets/Japanese/Chinese/etc.]” is an elevator pitch that you can deliver even before the doors slide closed.

One of the signs that an idea has stuck is when others try to borrow it. So the arts want some attention, and they invent STEAM (or STREAM, if you like robotics). Add invention and entrepreneurship to your stem, and you get STEMIE, which sounds like a character on Family Guy.

But let’s take the simple version, the STEM we’re all familiar with. The problem is that those four terms aren’t strongly related. Mathematics is the logic and symbolic system that science works with. Science is the underlying principles and phenomena that engineers and technologists exploit. In academic terms, science and mathematics have always been part of the liberal arts [the exercise of judgment and investigation worthy of free citizens], whereas engineering and technology are vocational, ways for the rest of us to get jobs. They all offer problem sets with right answers at the end, but that’s nearly as far as the similarities go. In a way, they’re like the grandparent, parent, and child of the quantitative world: the careful and often ignored work of earlier generations enabling the pace and success of the later. Science and mathematics are speculative and risky fields of exploration. Engineering and technology offer knowable, nameable skills to sell on the job market.

We can see this in looking at the rise and fall of college majors. The National Center for Education Statistics shows the T&E components of STEM (computer/information sciences, engineering, engineering technology, and health professions) rising from 9.8% of all bachelor’s degrees in 1970 to over 20% in 2016, while the S&M (biological sciences, physical sciences, and math/statistics) has dropped slightly from about 10% to below 9%. Take the slight rise in biology out of that group, and we see that math alone has dropped from 3.0% to 1.2% of college degrees; physical sciences from 2.5% to 1.6%.

The public relations triumph of STEM without a paired understanding that we’re orphaning its science and math components represents the full victory of the vocational model of higher education. It’s the answer to “What are you gonna do with a degree in THAT?”

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