Science Directions

STEM is an acronym used commonly in reference to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It shows up in phrases such as "the STEM disciplines" or "STEM education" or "STEM faculty." The acronym is a popular one with the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), where I suspect it has its origin.

What's in a name?

Identifying a discipline or an area of education as STEM is used as a way of clarifying what is and what is not included. When NSF says that it provides support for all of the STEM disciplines, it means that mathematics, physics, biology, engineering, computer science, geoscience, behavioral science and social science are included: It also means that disciplines such as art, literature, music, humanities and business administration are not included.

Let's be clear: The "S" in STEM includes behavioral and social science. It includes psychology. NSF itself integrates psychology (along with linguistics, anthropology, sociology, economics) into its own structural organization of NSF's directorates, divisions and programs. When asked directly if the "S" in STEM includes psychology, NSF leadership will always affirm that it does.

Not a shared understanding

The STEM acronym is used widely, especially in science education circles. Research and discourse flow around inclusion and retention of students in the STEM disciplines. President Bush's own American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) calls for increased investment in STEM fields, including STEM education.

Yet, when studied closely, the "S" in STEM is often used deliberately to exclude the social and behavioral sciences. The National Academy of Sciences recent report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, is very clear in recommending that investments increase in the physical sciences, engineering, mathematics and information sciences, but not in the life sciences or the social sciences. Some fields are more STEM than others.

NSF itself can be duplicitous in its use of the STEM acronym. NSF's Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (S-STEM) program represents an effort to attract "academically talented, financially needy students" into the STEM work force. It is clear, however, that talented students interested in the social or behavioral sciences need not apply. The program is only for students pursuing degrees in these STEM majors:

  • Biological sciences (except medicine and other clinical fields).

  • Physical sciences, including physics, chemistry, astronomy and materials science.

  • Mathematical sciences.

  • Computer and information sciences.

  • Geosciences.

  • Engineering.

  • Technology areas associated with the preceding fields.

Selling science and society short

It is distressing that some seek to exclude psychology (indeed, all of the social and behavioral sciences) from the "S" in STEM. It is harmful to important areas of scientific inquiry, because it marginalizes them and deprives them of resources. It is harmful to science, because it reflects a poor understanding of what science really is. It thwarts scientific progress.

Above all, it is harmful to society. Science offers the potential to rise above many gathering storms, some of epic proportions. People are at the center of almost every gathering storm. Many of those storms have, in fact, been created by people and their social institutions. The sciences that will help us to understand the dynamics of these gathering storms, and respond effectively to them, are the social and behavioral sciences. The greatest challenges to society can only be met with a much deeper understanding of human behavior, cognition and emotion.

STEM is a handy acronym when used properly. Any pruning that seeks to remove the social and behavioral sciences from the "S" in STEM will ultimately weaken science and its contribution to society. "S" is for science, but only when properly inclusive.