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0414MEM_Cover4There are times when it seems you can’t turn around without hearing about STEM. But tracking the roots of the acronym, which refers to fields related to science, technology, engineering, and math wasn’t easy. Wikipedia hints that STEM may have its origins with the National Science Foundation, and The Winona Daily News, in Minnesota, reported a few years ago that the term was indeed coined by the NSF—well sort of.

Back around 2001 former Winona State University president Judith Ramaley was director of NSF’s Education and Human Resources Directorate and was developing curriculum to improve education in science, math, engineering, and technology. So the acronym for these disciplines became “SMET.” But Ramaley didn’t like the sound of it (and who could blame her?), so she changed it to STEM, and the rest is history. (Interesting enough, there’s some dislike for the STEM moniker as well in some circles, including deep inside the White House, because of the potential confusion with “stem cell.”)

The newspaper in Winona quoted Ramaley suggesting that in STEM, science and math serve as bookends for technology and engineering. Science and math are critical to a basic understanding of the universe, she said, and engineering and technology are means for people to interact with the universe.

For middle schoolers of my generation it was math and science; engineering was a nebulous career destination far into the future and technology was but a burgeoning amorphous term with no clear identity. The educational landscape has changed.

What hasn’t changed is that, generally speaking, engineering students are good at solving problems. Clearly, as a society, we need as many individuals as possible with the types of skills to wrestle down the challenges that exist locally as well as globally. Thus the push toward an emphasis on STEM in K–12—and I would argue especially in middle school—makes sense. The point is not to force-feed STEM over subjects like history, art, and literature, but to even out the level of instruction and ensure that the teachers who are responsible for it have the right tools, and the right skills, motivation, and drive to motivate students.

Seeing firsthand the drive behind the work of engineers, especially the rigor of those who work on building solutions in developing countries, is hugely inspirational. The landscape of problems facing the proliferation of STEM education is complex because it’s inherently difficult to fix problems comprising, in part, elements of human behavior.

Some of these are the issues to be examined at this month’s taping of the ASME Decision Point Dialogues, which will take place on the 23rd. This dialogue is being held prior to the opening of the U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference, in Washington, D.C. STEM Solutions precedes the USA Science and Engineering Festival. John Hockenberry, host of the National Public Radio program “The Takeaway,” will moderate the ASME dialogue. The Decision Point Dialogues will be broadcast on beginning in June.

From Winona, Minn., to both coasts of this country and beyond U.S. borders, the conversation over STEM is being heard. It’s time for actions to speak louder than words.


Girls love STEM

My April column in Mechanical Engineering magazine. 

Back in 1968 when it still was fashionable to light up a cigarette, Virginia Slims entered the marketplace with a unique, sleek product and a popular marketing campaign aimed at women. Not only was the new cigarette narrower than other brands—that was the “slims” in Virginia—but it had a catchy slogan meant to appeal to young professional women: “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

The catchphrase quickly became part of the day’s vernacular. Some today may consider it sexist and a cynical campaign to sell tobacco products, but in the 1970s and ’80s the theme came to encapsulate the advances women had made in participating in almost every sphere of public and economic life. Even so, some stereotypes linger, and one of them is that engineering is not for women.

Diversifying the engineering workforce from its traditional male dominance is something organizations like ASME, the Society of Women Engineers, the National Science Foundation, and numerous others are working hard to do. The Girl Scouts of America is another, and it has come a long way since the organization was founded.

Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, the group continues to sell its iconic cookies, but that’s one of the very few things that has not changed since 1912. The Girl Scouts are working hard to help shake the widely held notion that young women don’t thrive in areas of science, technology, engineering, and math. To prove that girls love STEM, the Girl Scouts teamed up with Lockheed Martin to conduct a research report called Generation STEM: What Girls Say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. The conclusions of the report may surprise you.

It found, for example, that 74 percent of teen girls are interested in the field of STEM and in STEM subjects; and that most girls are interested in the process of learning, asking questions, and solving problems. It also found that girls who are interested in STEM are high achievers who have supportive adult networks and are exposed to STEM fields.

In all, the report shows that a high number of teen girls are interested in STEM fields and subjects, and are drawn by the creative and hands-on aspects that characterize these fields. It also shows that parents or other role models play a significant role in the development of STEM interest among girls.

For the Girl Scouts, the topic of STEM is framed in leadership. That is, the Scouts emphasize the importance of leadership skills to make the world a better place. The research suggests that girls are more interested in STEM careers when they know that their work will help others. ASME also understands this and its own initiatives, such as, are stimulating thousands of young engineers each year.

Beyond the research report, the Girl Scouts truly have come a long way in developing leadership in young women. New programs and recognition badges now focus on science and technology and aim at fostering a generation of women who embrace technology and understand that a career in engineering is a matter of choice, and not a matter of gender.

The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

October 2019
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