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The STEM fallacy

Drew University President Robert Weisbuch once wrote:

Our disciplines are islands. . . wonderful and in fact essential as retreats for recuperation.  But in the pastoral poems of an earlier Renaissance, the over-busy poet rediscovers his soul in a leafy seclusion but then returns, renewed and renewing, to the city.  It is time for us to leave our islands.  We are equipped.

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is supposed to call islanders who are "equipped" to participate in an undertaking with high stakes for the nation as well as for the profession from whence they come. For the acronym "STEM" was created to designate a set of disciplines with common characteristics.  To demarcate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics from other disciplines seems like a reasonable -- even an astute -- idea.  The problem is that STEM as a "marker" has lost its heuristic value.  It has become a label of inclusion (and exclusion), but not a guide to accessing the characteristics, challenges, and progress shared by the identified disciplines.

So while scholars refer to STEM, they focus on their own discipline, its problems, frameworks, and methodologies, ignoring what other STEM disciplines have learned about the issues in question.  This strikes me as decidedly unscholarly.  It might be called the "stovepipe" model—a kind of myopia that reinforces disciplinary distinctiveness at the expense of scholarly, and perhaps behavioral, enrichment.  It implies that what happens in, say, mathematics education and careers is unlike what happens in chemistry, mechanical engineering, or perhaps statistics.  So the commonalities are ignored and the differences accentuated. 

This contradicts useful constructs like the "R&D budget."  No such budget exists, of course, but the process of proposing, negotiating, and appropriating dollars is an accounting mechanism that aligns interests housed in a collection of federal departments and agencies.  This budget fiction nonetheless becomes a rallying point.  It yields a "big" number that can be associated with federal investments in Research & Development.

There is risk in embracing a stovepipe model.  For while STEM as a construct is intuitively appealing and politically convenient, these disciplines expect to be treated differently by policymakers and in the federal budget.  By abandoning the cover of STEM, it's every science and engineering discipline for itself.  Suddenly, grouping of departments in a college of the university or by directorate of the National Science Foundation seems whimsical—an organizational convenience instead of an affinity based on common purpose. Dispensing with a piece is easier than dismantling a large, diverse, and interconnected entity.    

Retreating to disciplinary islands has its practical perils.  Among them is exposing the STEM fallacy.

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