What is STEM, Really?

As someone with multiple degrees in Engineering who is now the host and producer of a TV show, I am often asked, "How has it felt to leave STEM?" I find this question fascinating and I think it says a lot about how we think about STEM in our society, so I wanted to explore our definition of this widely used acronym.

STEM is thrown around a lot. We always hear how important STEM education is and how U.S. students are desperately behind in these fields. But what is STEM really? I was recently asked this question on the podcast "Beyond the Microscope." (See minute 19:10)

Of course STEM stands for Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics, but what does it actually encompass? What careers would you consider to be in STEM fields? 

Research scientists, medical doctors, mechanical engineers, computer programmers - these are the obvious ones. But what about a science journalist? Or a YouTuber who creates educational science videos? What about someone without a STEM degree, but whose work requires them to be proficient in a STEM topic?

Would you consider a writer on the Big Bang Theory to be in STEM? Why or why not?

See minute 5:34 for part on politicians leading science committees

These questions may seem trivial and buried in semantics, but I find them important for two reasons.

The first reason is because the way we define STEM affects the way we think about STEM. The way we think about STEM affects whether or not we think it is relevant to our lives and our careers. Perhaps more importantly, it affects whether those with influence, like policymakers, believe it is relevant to their lives. 

All too often, politicians avoid working to understand STEM-related issues by using the excuse, "I'm not a scientist." Even those who chair science committees in Congress, who are responsible for drafting regulatory policies and allocating money to science missions and research, have been known to throw around this excuse. These same scientists are often going against advice and recommendations from scientific experts, most notably on the issue of climate change.

When politicians say ‘I’m not a scientist,’ it is an exasperating evasion. It’s a cowardly way to avoid answering basic and important policy questions.
— David Shiffman, Slate.com

There are certainly politically-fueled reasons why politicians evade these questions, but the public gives them a pass because of the way we think about STEM. If a chairperson of a committee on economic development said "Well, I'm no economist," all the while ignoring basic economic principles, would we give them a pass? If a chairperson of a defense committee said, "Well, I wasn't in the military," and ignored advice from leading experts in the field, would we given them a pass? So why do we do it with those who chair science committees? Isn't that a crucial aspect of their job?

The second reason I think our definition of STEM is important is a personal one. As a host and producer of a TV show, I am often asked how it felt to "leave STEM."

Leave STEM? Did I leave STEM? I have four degrees in Engineering/Technology. For Xploration Outer Space, I curate technical content and interview scientists and engineers about their work. I am constantly researching space-related missions and working to understand the science behind them, the technology they're using, and how they contribute to our understanding of the universe. 

For example, I recently conducted a live interview with the famous physicist, Sean Carroll, about Einstein's Theory of General Relativity. I also, somewhat less recently, knew absolutely nothing about General Relativity. In order to ensure that the interview went smoothly I needed to research this theory: how does this change the way we think about gravity, how does this affect time itself, and does this mean astronauts are aging faster or slower than the rest of us? This all feels very STEM-like to me. I wouldn't be doing my job very well if I had said, "Well, I'm no physicist," and refused to learn about General Relativity.

So when someone tells me that I've left STEM, I find it very interesting. What is STEM...really? For me STEM can be broken down into two things (1) What is, and (2) What can be.

This sounds very philosophical, but hear me out. Science and Math comprise "What is." These enable us to understand the language of the universe and how it works. Engineering and Technology make up "What can be." These are our tools that leverage what we know about Science and Math and enable us to design and build things which change the physical world around us.

In this way, Engineering and Technology would not be possible without Science and Math. And the resources we put into studying Science and Math would be hard to justify without the practical applications of Engineering and Technology (however, some would argue that they don't really need justification).

How does this help us hold politicians in science committees accountable? Well, this brings me back to my TV show. Just as Engineering and Technology would be not be possible without Science and Math, being a (good) producer of a STEM TV show would not be possible without an understanding of STEM. Similarly, being an (effective) policymaker of a science committee would not be possible without an understanding of that particular science. 

A pretty obvious conclusion right? That's the point. If your job is highly dependent on science, then it is impossible for you to do your job effectively without an understanding of said science. This is why Engineers take classes in physics, even though they are not physicists.

Categorizing careers into STEM fields and non-STEM fields is problematic. This strict distinction makes it difficult to hold politicians accountable. If science is a big part of your job, like being a producer of a science TV show, a science journalist, or a chairperson of a science committee, then you are in STEM just as you are in reading and you are in writing. These are the skill sets necessary for you to do your job effectively.

How has it felt, for me, to leave STEM? I would say that I've never left STEM. Perhaps the better question we should be asking is to these politicians, "How has it felt to enter STEM?"