VIEW: What is STEM anyway?

A guest post by Donna “The Astronomer” Burton Associate Lecturer at University of Southern Queensland and Astronomer in Charge Milroy Observatory Coonabarabran

What is STEM anyway? We hear the term and are told we need to get more students to undertake these studies. Yet STEM is a pervasive part of our every day lives. So do we need to address a lack of interest in students undertaking ongoing education in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics? 

For some, the term conjures the idea of correcting an imbalance between the number of young women and men in these often neglected areas. But STEM education is much more than just sticking those subject areas together. It is the philosophy of education that embraces teaching skills and subjects in a way that resembles real life. STEM education is what creates critical thinkers. While it increases science literacy, it encourages and enables the next generation of innovators, and this leads to the development of new products and processes that sustain and build our economies.

STEM may be a new term over the last decades or so, but it is not new – it is just a different way of understanding and therefore applying an integrated form of learning which more approximates real life. Instead of teaching mathematics separate from science, teach them together to show that both are complementary and supportive of each other. Traditionally, subjects are taught as individual and non-related disciplines. To integrate STEM into all areas of learning, lessons need to be more project and inquiry-based. By focusing on interdisciplinary learning, a child’s natural curiousity is encouraged, and they unconsciously can develop the skills of critical thinking and wonder, “What if?”.

STEM should align with the way we grow, solve problems and live our lives in the real world. So it becomes a powerful way of instructing and learning. Our young people are taught skills in the way they are used not only in the workforce but in all aspects of their life in the real world.

Rarely do we need just one skill in our jobs – I have always struggled with having to study English – I learnt Shakespeare and Chaucer and hated it all. I also studied Maths, Science, Computing and electrical engineering along the way. Yet today, the ability to write has probably been the skill I have needed most of all. As a postgraduate student in Astronomy, it was the areas I struggled with most, and you only need to read much of the documentation in technical manuals to realise this is true across many disciplines.

Creativity and STEM are not counter to each other. From researching new vaccines and methods for dealing with the current pandemic to creating and developing technologies that simplify our daily routines and create virtual reality devices, there are people right around our world using STEM to improve our lives in creative new ways.

STEM jobs are not just about working alone doing coding, boring and stuffy work in a laboratory for long hours alone and unnoticed. It can be incredibly fulfilling, exciting and important work. It is not just about being a scientist, engineer or programmer.

An architect, for example, uses science, math, technology and engineering to do their job. These subjects can no longer be considered on their own but instead, need to be integrated with practical and seamless ways that allow them to design a complex building. Yet they still need the communication skills to explain their designs, plans and ideas to their clients. They need creativity to think outside the box to design new and innovative ideas.

Another area where, in the past, there has been a stigma attached to STEM relates to careers in agriculture. A farmer has the image of being too rural and boring while STEM has been considered to be too technical and only for geeks. Yet to have a sustainable, profitable and productive business making the best use of their natural resources in an ever-changing world, these days agriculture utilises the world of satellites, high tech sensors and understanding of climate and soil science. 

STEM is not having all the answers, knowing the periodic table off by heart or being able to send your car into space. Key STEM skills include the ability to research, develop a plan, draw relevant conclusions from the plan and reassess and change the project as you find what works and what doesn’t. You need to be able to break down complex problems into smaller parts and make it easier to understand and communicate. But as well as having the skill to understand, interpret and use technology, it is equally essential to have excellent communication skills, creative abilities, leadership and organisational skills to better interact with those with whom we work.

One of the best ways, therefore, for young people to foster an interest in STEM is by letting them discover it for what it is. It is a vast, diverse, multidisciplinary field where they can utilise their creativity and natural curiousity. We need to emphasize learning and discovery rather than having to always have the “right” answer. It is allowing students to be themselves and engage in practical and hands-on activities and showing them how to solve real-world problems and ensuring that everyone with their varying skills and interests can always find a place to excel.

It is my firmly held belief that if you empower the young to follow their dreams and instil in them the power to learn and a passion for learning, then they can achieve anything.

About the expert

Donna started life “outback” as a “drovers brat” which is how and when she fell in love with the sky. She completed an MSc in Astronomy Research at USQ and is almost through her PhD just because she can! She has worked as a support technician, telescope operator and astronomer at Siding Spring Observatory for many years. She is the Australian National Coordinator for Astronomers Without Borders and very involved in astronomy and science outreach and amateur astronomy groups. She operates public astro viewing and outreach as “Donna the Astronomer” in Coonabarabran. She currently operates Milroy Observatory at Coonabarabran which hosts Australia’s largest telescope available to the general public. She has had the good fortune to be the discoverer of 2 comets.

Image description: Donna “The Astronomer” Burton Associate Lecturer at University of Southern Queensland and Astronomer in Charge Milroy Observatory Coonabarabran – Donna has short grey hair and is looking out into the distance.