The answer is simple: STEM is science, technology, engineering and maths… But if you dig deeper?

Lorna DallasWhat is STEM? As Chair of Women in STEM Plymouth – a voluntary group that aims to increase gender equality within STEM careers in the Plymouth travel-to-work-area – this is a question I hear often. In its purest form, the answer is simple: STEM is science, technology, engineering and maths.

This answer encompasses every possible instance of these subjects – studying them at school, working in one of their many distinct fields or using any of their myriad skills. So, at the highest level the answer to ‘What is STEM’ is easy – if all encompassing. But as you dig deeper, there are some challenges with defining STEM.

The first of these is that ‘STEM’ is often used as shorthand for ‘STEM outreach’, the very important job of engaging young people with the STEM subjects through exciting, interactive activities. Due in no small part to the amazing work of the national STEM Ambassador scheme, – which connects those with STEM skills/experience with schools and community groups – the word STEM has become synonymous with outreach activities, rather than the four disciplines that underlie them.
This unintentional narrowing of the definition isn’t a major problem – but it does create confusion. Compounding this issue is that outreach is an essential part of the solution to STEM workforce shortfalls (e.g. predicted yearly deficits of 69,000 engineers/technicians). In fact, Women in STEM Plymouth encourages our members to become STEM Ambassadors as part of our inspire agenda, but we also work with people of all genders to promote and support women who are already in the sector. I can’t count the amount of times someone has said to me “STEM, that’s working with schools isn’t it?” which rather oversimplifies our mission.

When did you last go without technology?

The second problem with defining STEM is more deep-seated. Despite the four STEM subjects being hugely influential in society (when was the last time you went a day without technology?), people do not realise their immense scope. Science is considered exclusively the preserve of those who work in labs, technology only for the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, engineering for those who fix cars, and maths for eccentric old white men who write on chalkboards. This lack of awareness disenfranchises people from STEM, making it seem remote and irrelevant – the reserve of hyper-intelligent elites, only useful for jobs in medicine, IT, and science.

In actuality, a STEM education opens so many doors that when people ask me to list them, I am literally lost for words. For just one example, Women in STEM Plymouth recently toured TR2, where artists design and build world class stage sets (engineering) – a fantastic example of STEAM (the incorporation of Arts into STEM). This illustrates the gulf between the perception of STEM as dry and detached vs its creative, varied reality. The disconnect is one of the biggest challenges we face, and a huge contributor to the aforementioned skills shortages.

In reality – and to cut a long story short – STEM surrounds us and pervades almost everything we do. The answer to ‘What is STEM?’ is limited only by your imagination. Take a run-of-the-mill example, baking a cake… The recipe for which may be viewed on a smart device (technology), after going through several different versions based on taste tests (science), ingredient amounts may have been scaled up in order to feed ravenous Friday afternoon colleagues (maths) and the oven in which it is baked will have been designed and made by engineers.

So… next time someone asks you ‘What is STEM?’, take a deep breath, and tell them everything! In the meantime, as we say to our members at the end of newsletters, keep STEM-ing!

Guest blogger: Lorna Dallas, Graduate Safety Engineer from Babcock.

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