Steamed About STEM Turned into STEAM

By Tamara Wilhite

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. This represents the fields in which the United States realizes it has an edge and needs a lot more people trained so that we retain the lead. These fields are also important because we’ve seen a disproportionate number of foreigners in college programs earning degrees, while we need in domestic supply.
The stable but high wages for these jobs are proof of ongoing demand. (The HB-1 visa program may have started to fill these positions, but as Disney and California Edison have demonstrated, the so-called shortage now is prefaced with a silent “at the price we want to pay”.) So there aren’t millions of STEM jobs going begging, but the sector is still in serious demand in a high tech world.

I’ve made a conscious decision to engage my daughter in STEM. I’ve taken her and her troop to the local college engineering day, taught engineering badge lessons for several groups, was the only engineer (much less female engineer) many kids have seen at career day.

When my daughter’s friend said they had STEAM day at school, I was eager to learn what they’d learned. “STEM or STEAM?” I asked. She confirmed, yes, there’s an A. “What is that for? Architecture?”
“No, it means art.”
“Art has no place in STEM.”
“But art is a necessity!” she announced. “It is essential to design and civilization!”
“Honey, cavemen had art on the walls long before they had electricity, running water and civilization. Art is a luxury. Science and engineering are a necessity to have houses, antibiotics and everything else that makes life nice enough to think that art is a necessity.”
We debated what art was and its relationship to engineering. As an engineer, I can tell you that it is much more important for something to work and work well than look elegant. The generator, the wastewater treatment facility, the hospital need to serve their purpose first and foremost. Looking good while doing so is a luxury, and the cost of making it look nice is detraction from paying for medicine, buying chemicals to process more waste and do more good over the long run.
Her teacher’s decision to let artists invade the logical subjects of STEM and inject art is an emotional one, a reflection of a decision to be inclusive, but it violates the entire purpose of the event. After all, you can make art even in the ruins of a bombed city, but it is the STEM graduates who build, invent and drive the future.

I gave my daughter’s friend a print out of the JavaScript lessons on Khan Academy, an introduction to the programming language that can be used to make games and animations. Whether she decides to program robots, build an app or make videos is her decision. Both those making the decisions on system design should always remember to make how pretty it looks a much lower priority to functionality, performance and reliability.

  What do you think?

1 Comment so far

  1. Joe W.

    A few years ago the “A” in STEAM stood for agriculture.

    What is sad, is the “S” is over-inflated as well, because not all Sciences are as relevant to the current workplace need. Basically, “E” and “M” are driving the engine and everyone else wants to jump on for the ride so they don’t feel left out.

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