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The Power of Language: How Different STEM Acronyms Can Shape Our Thinking

In June 2023, roughly 54% of jobs filled in Aotearoa New Zealand were in STEM-related fields [1]. This is forecasted to grow, with estimates suggesting 80% of future jobs will require STEM skills, and many of these jobs haven't even been invented yet. In this rapidly evolving landscape, the way we approach STEM education and its acronyms holds significant implications for students, educators, and the workforce.

But what is “STEM”, exactly? In this article, we explore the evolution and impact of STEM acronyms on education and beyond.

The Original Acronym - STEM Education for the Future

STEM, an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, has been a buzzword in education for decades. It emphasises the importance of these core disciplines in a world increasingly driven by science, technology, and innovation. STEM education equips students with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in these fields as well as growing the problem-solving, analytical thinking and science competencies needed to navigate the future.

An artsy "A" broadens STEM horizons

In the early 2000s, STEAM began to gain momentum as an acronym, adding “A” for arts into the mix. STEAM recognizes that STEM education should not only be about technical knowledge, but also fostering creativity and design thinking skills. It promotes the use of “soft” skills, such as teamwork, collaboration, communication, and data visualisation, alongside the technical concepts covered by the ‘STEM’ acronym. Integrating STEM subjects through an artistic lens supports the development of novel ways of learning, problem-solving and knowledge sharing that can be more engaging for many students.

The use of artistic skills is especially important when it comes to science communication, an important part of the scientific method. Without the creative skills that come with the arts, students would struggle to share their research, especially when it comes to data visualisation and storytelling.

At STEM Alliance Aotearoa, we have observed effective uses of art to expand STEM learning through the Curious Minds south Auckland and WeSTEM participatory science programmes. Several early childhood centres (ECE) that are supported by the Sosaiete Aoga Amata Sāmoa i Aotearoa Inc (SAASIA) recently participated in a project that involved transforming their classroom into an astronomical space.

This creative project immersed tamariki in the astronomy context and helped to reinforce learning outcomes. It also created an engaging space for tamariki and kaiako to share with whanau, thereby expanding the visibility of science learning in their community.

The Missing "M" - mātauranga builds knowledge beyond technical skills

A more recent addition to the STEM acronym in Aotearoa New Zealand, has been a second “M”, for mātauranga. Mātauranga represents different knowledge systems and ways of thinking that are brought to the table beyond technical STEM skills.

In the STEM Alliance’s practical guide to STEM community engagement, we introduce the “STEM engagement catalyst model”. This model emphasises that STEM outreach and engagement do not happen in isolation, and that to connect with learners, we must involve the community around them. The overarching principles that allow us to connect with that community include mātauranga.

Different cultures and communities bring unique perspectives, and these should be integrated into STEM learning. To successfully engage someone in the 'technical’ STEM subjects, educators need to build on a student's existing knowledge systems, and the skills and strengths, that they already hold.

This inclusive approach has been found to make STEM subjects more accessible and relevant to a wider range of students. This is particularly true for those from underrepresented backgrounds who do not typically see themselves and their cultures reflected in stereotypical STEM settings or careers.

By incorporating arts and mātauranga in a STEM programme, educators are also allowing space for cultural expression and uplifting indigenous knowledge systems, many of which are recorded orally or visually. For example, knowledge of astronomy and the natural environment in the Pacific Islands have traditionally been passed down through cultural taonga like tapa, tatau and songs rather than written records. Embracing these alternative ways of knowing, storing and building knowledge opens up new ways of learning.

The Acronym That Keeps on Giving

STEM as a standalone acronym can feel exclusionary to some disciplines. Some have proposed adding extra "M"s for fields like Medicine or Manufacturing, sparking debates about overlaps. However, the key message is that STEM is not just an acronym but a transdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning.

In a world where STEM skills are becoming increasingly essential, the way we frame STEM education matters. From the arts to indigenous knowledge, STEM acronyms reflect our evolving understanding of education and the ways in which we can effectively engage students in learning. By embracing creativity, cultural diversity, and different ways of thinking, we can better equip students for the challenges and opportunities of tomorrow's workforce.


[1] Data source: Stats NZ


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