STEM education has become a hot topic over the last decade. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Just by inspecting each word in the acronym, the realisation of the broadness of the interdisciplinary field becomes apparent. Within this broad field, scientists tend to focus on differences rather than on similarities. Which needs to change if STEM initiatives are going to be propelled forward into the future to centre stage.
I am a chemist, not a biologist!
In the pursuit of elevating STEM initiatives throughout the K-12 education along with the university setting, major differences in technique are starting to arise – which is of concern for the future. For university professors, my colleagues are reporting that differences in starting to appear across a discipline like chemistry. Typically, the area of Chem Ed covers all of chemistry. Recently, our department hired a ‘Chem Ed’ faculty member for a tenure-track position. She has been with the department for an entire year so far getting her research group up and going.
Recently, she returned from a conference for ‘Chem Ed’ specialists. She is a biochemist by education with an emphasis in ‘Chem Ed’ — meaning the bulk of her PhD research was concerned with ‘Chem Ed’. For those not aware of what the field (or sub-discipline) of ‘Chem Ed’ is, the emphasis is on researching different methods to improve the curriculum of chemistry in general which results in better retention rates (graduation), higher student engagement in classes, and overall student success throughout the undergraduate journey. Basically, to improve education methods in the sciences — ‘best practices’ in teaching. This is an exploding field at the moment.
The conference she recently attended was called ‘Biennial Conference Chemical Education. Each year the conference is held in different locations. If you are interested in reading the history of the conference series, click here to find out more about its origins. Upon her return, I was speaking with her about the wide variety of presentations which were offered. Later that same day, I was at an outreach event at a local park, when I ran across a biology professor from our same university who is deeply interested in STEM initiatives. Without thinking more deeply about my question, I asked him the following question: “Did you attend BCCE?”
He responded “What conference?”
I followed with “Li from our department went to BCCE at Notre Dame?”
With that, he asked “Isn’t that for chemists?… Why would I go, I am a biologist?”
At that point, I was thinking to myself that he is correct and why would I ask such a question to someone in a completely different discipline?
Although, with time, I started to consider the question “Do best practices in Bio Ed translate over to Chem Ed and vice versa? Just out of curiosity. Why are professors at the same institution attending conferences in completely different disciplines about improving best teaching practices? Especially, when all of us are working together to elevate STEM initiatives? This stumped me, so I asked the question on Twitter (social media).
I did a few interesting responses, but the response that most resonated with my curiosity was the following: “Professors do not talk with one another Mike.” This was from a biologist who has years of experience and is at our university. With time, I reasoned that initiatives like “Faculty Development” on campus bring together professors from a wide variety of disciplines to tackle these matters. Further, that during these sessions, each discipline could share ‘best teaching practices’. Case closed right? Wrong…
Chemists do not talk to each other?
I let a couple of weeks pass and then one day, my wife (Kayla) who is a professor of chemistry and is involved in Faculty Development was debriefing me about her day. I was semi interested to here about the pre-semester chatter in our department with classes starting. I decided to engage and listen. She said that during the particular afternoon, she visited the offices of new professors (in our department) just to find out what ‘best practices’ they were engaged in if any or trying new teaching techniques in the coming semester. Which has since started (yesterday). The results were astounding to say the least.
After talking with four professors, she realised that there had been a large amount of data collected over the last 2 years (already considering they were new) collectively. Further, that a few of the techniques were ‘redundant’ in practice and could have been avoided. Of course, for the redundancy to have been avoided, this would required professors sharing ‘best practices’ with one another. This left me astounded after hearing the reality. How can professors who work in the same building not share ‘best practices’ in teaching? This left me disappointed and confused (still to this day).
Such a waste of energy. This needs to change if there is going to be forward momentum. To cap all of this off, my colleague (Li) who just returned from the conference – BCCE – said that the field of Chem Ed is headed for further splitting into sub-disciplines? What? Which means that the will be a corresponding ‘Ed’ component to the following sub-disciplines in chemistry: Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Inorganic Chemistry, Physical Chemistry, Analytical Chemistry, Biochemistry.
Why is this occurring? This seems to be moving progress in the opposite direction rather than forward!
Why are people searching for differences rather than similarities? After all, the goal is to improve on educational practices while elevating the fields – which span a wide variety of interests – in the eye of the public. According to the ‘Wikipedia’ page for STEM, there are more variations of STEM shown below:
– STM (Scientific, Technical, and Mathematics; or Science, Technology, and Medicine; or Scientific, Technical, and Medical)
– eSTEM (environmental STEM) 
– iSTEM (invigorating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics); identifies new ways to teach STEM-related fields.
– STEMLE (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, Law and Economics); identifies subjects focused on fields such as applied social sciences and anthropology, regulation, cybernetics, machine learning, social systems, computational economics and computational social sciences.
– STEMS^2 (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, Social Sciences and Sense of Place); integrates STEM with social sciences and sense of place.
– METALS (STEAM + Logic), introduced by Su Su at Teachers College, Columbia University.
– STREM (Science, Technology, Robotics, Engineering, and Mathematics); adds robotics as a field.
– STREM (Science, Technology, Robotics, Engineering, and Multimedia); adds robotics as a field and replaces mathematics with media.
– STREAM (Science, Technology, Robotics, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics); adds robotics and arts as fields.
– STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics)
– STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Applied Mathematics); more focus on applied mathematics
– GEMS (Girls in Engineering, Math, and Science); used for programs to encourage women to enter these fields.
– STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine)
– AMSEE (Applied Math, Science, Engineering, and Entrepreneurship)
– THAMES (Technology, Hands-On, Art, Mathematics, Engineering, Science)
What? Again, look at what has transpired over time to find differences rather than similarities. Why are professionals looking for differences rather than similarities? To me, this makes little sense. This is not to say that ‘Best Practices’ in biology translate over directly to chemistry. Although, I would argue that each discipline could stand to learn from listening to the successes and failures of each discipline. Further, this reduces the possibility of redundant efforts and saves time overall.
What is the point of a university? Besides education and research, why does a university exist? One answer is that a university brings together a large number of very intelligent professors in the same geographical zone. Further, to bring together bright minds together to provide a ‘well-rounded’ educational experience with the possibility of research experience too. Aside from this mission, is the university a place to exchange ideas? Yes, I believe so.
In light of these questions and possibly answers, why then are professionals searching for differences rather than similarities. University officials should be trying to bring together professors to share their best and worst teaching experiences. Included in this sharing should be the best and worst practices of research too. Additionally, research which focuses on elevating the percentage of a different culture, ethnicity’s, and genders who pursue STEM field for a profession. Research such as this highlight the need to bring different people together into STEM disciplines rather than find differences. Coordinating a collective amount of diverse opinions and results from various academic teaching pursuits provides a rich and meaningful way to push a diverse field in need forward. Let’s work on similarities and avoid finding differences.
This article originally appeared here.