STEM: is it time to ditch the acronym and shine a spotlight on the super-cool subjects it abbreviates?

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 6 November 2018 in Inside Politics

Hiding STEM subjects behind a neat acronym is unlikely to make them any more palatable

STEM - Image credit: Holyrood

Tell a teenager that they really need to get into STEM and they’ll probably look either bemused or bored.

Like GIRFEC, CfE or ACEs, the acronym STEM is now so liberally used without elaboration by chin-stroking education experts that the casual listener often has no idea what they are talking about.

When the unenlightened finally Google it and find out it stands for science, technology, engineering and maths, many of them will probably think it wasn’t worth the effort.

STEM subjects tend to appear tiresome or terrifying, but hiding them behind a neat acronym is unlikely to make them any more palatable.

The Scottish Government also includes numeracy and digital skills within the remit of STEM, but presumably DSNSTEM isn’t punchy enough.

If politicians are serious about engaging wider society in the often complex world of STEM, perhaps it’s time to ditch the acronym and re-emphasise its constituent elements.

It is worth reminding learners that two of the letters of STEM are actually practical subjects, technology and engineering, which, broadly speaking, is what working-class dads once told their sons to do when they grew up.

“Get yourself a trade, son,” was the common refrain in many households in the last century, hilariously parodied in Monty Python’s ‘Working-class playwright’ role-reversal in which a gruff northern-sounding father with writers’ cramp berates his well-spoken son for “poncing off to Barnsley with yer coal mining friends”.

“There’s nowt wrong wi gala luncheons,” says the eponymous playwright after getting drunk on too many novels.

The Pythons were knowingly mocking the fallacy, which was as misguided in the 1960s as it is today, that engineering is “proper men’s work” while anything involving books is useless “fancy talk”.

However, the other two letters in the acronym, scary science and monstrous maths, actually underpin technology and engineering, and yet one of the most common questions posed to bookish scientists and mathematicians is: “What’s the point of science and maths?”

It’s a question as old as science itself, exemplified by Michael Faraday’s equally hilarious but more high-brow retort to Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, when pressed to explain the point of electricity in the mid-1850s.

“One day, sir, you may tax it,” was Faraday’s understated response, acknowledging that the best way to appeal to a politician is to talk to his pocket.

Scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the biggest and most expensive experiment in the world, stradling the border between Switzerland and France, are often asked to explain the point of smashing tiny particles together by short-sighted plutocrats or impatient charities who think the money could be better spent elsewhere.

This was most tragically seen in the USA, where the world’s most plutocratic politicians axed the proposed Superconducting Supercollider, a particle accelerator that would have been three times more powerful than the LHC, because it was deemed too expensive in 1993.

If it had been completed, it could have got a 20-year jump on the discovery of the Higgs boson, the missing link in particle physics first proposed by Edinburgh-based mathematician Peter Higgs in 1963 and finally detected by the LHC in 2012.

The unenlightened still regularly ask what the discovery of the Higgs boson will do for their personal wellbeing or pocketbook, and the answer that invariably comes from scientists is: “Watch this space.”

The practical appliances of previous generations of particle accelerators are almost too numerous to list, from medical scanners which can pinpoint cancers, to the silicon chip that powers your laptop, to lasers which are used for everything from reading a DVD to high tech drilling tools used in that most working-class profession, mining.

The Scottish Government’s STEM strategy also puts tackling climate change, dealing with the impact of an ageing population and encouraging Scots to make better lifestyle choices amongst the top challenges for the upcoming generation of practical thinkers, but it also recognises the value of curiosity for curiosity’s sake and the enriching virtue of learning about the natural and physical world.  

The key challenge the government identifies for creating the next generation of productive thinkers is encouraging young people to engage with these often challenging subjects.

Rock star scientists such as Professor Brian Cox do an admirable job of explaining complex ideas to a general audience, selling out the Glasgow Hydro and other UK arenas on an annual basis with his stage show which is essentially just a mass audience physics lecture.

When teenagers who watch X-Factor see that they could sell out the Hydro without prostrating themselves before Simon Cowell, it might push them towards science, but for now, being a pop star remains a more popular ambition.

Another key challenge is recruiting teachers with the right skills to educate and inspire future productive thinkers.

It’s a common disparaging comment that ‘those that can do and those that can’t teach’, but with engineers, scientists and mathematicians in high demand in the lucrative private sector, there may be a grain of truth when it comes to finding good teachers.

Industry experts have called on the Scottish Government to lower the bar for access to teaching, which currently requires a relevant degree and at least a year of teacher training, to encourage more experienced industry professionals into the profession.

Would you rather have future engineers taught by a 21-year-old graduate with a textbook understanding of engineering, or an experienced professional who may have turned their hand to teaching after a 30-year career in industry?

There is also a need to align teaching with the skills that are required in the modern Scottish economy.

There’s no point sending a teenager on a mining apprenticeship when the mines have all closed, and the same is true of other professions which are in decline.

This can be a controversial topic to broach with young learners, urging them to effectively follow the money rather than their hearts, but there is also a responsibility to let them know that their chances of becoming a millionaire footballer, rock star or artist are slim, without stifling their creativity.

So, once you’ve convinced budding engineers that an element of science and maths is not only essential to their trade but ‘kinda cool’, you have to convince half the population that it’s not just men’s work.

Science, maths, technology and engineering remain overwhelmingly dominated by males, so there is the ever present need to explain that wielding a wrench can also be women’s work.

One female scientist recently made the controversial suggestion that segregated girls-only science and maths classes might actually be helpful.

Professor Polly Arnold, Crum Brown Chair of Chemistry at Edinburgh University, said there remains a “depressing leak” of women out of these careers, and also pointed out that most of the top paid medical jobs are held by men.

She called for short-term girls only science classes to help them build confidence without being subjected to stereotypes such as “girls are bad at maths”.

Other inequities exist across science, maths, engineering and technology education and training including race, disability, deprivation and geography.

Science and maths skills are not only vital for building rockets or solving big equations, they’re essential for interpreting and analysing data, research and critical inquiry.

We live in the information age, and yet so many people have no idea how to critically evaluate information.

In an era when the president of the United States says climate change is a hoax and that there are two sides to every scientific debate, rather than a single unquestionable truth, the ability to scrutinise facts using empirical evidence is more important than ever.

Some things are beyond the cut and thrust of adversarial politics. One cannot say the sky is red just because the colour red is more politically appealing.

The Scottish Government has tasked its network of chief scientific advisers to champion “STEM careers, particularly those within government”.

However, politics and science don’t always go together, particularly when the scientific evidence clashes with the political ideology of the party in power.

The scientific method is an enlightening discipline that can liberate ideas from the constraints of ideological politics, and yet it is under attack from those that seek to suppress science to appease their party’s ideological base.

It is widely believed that Donald Trump insists climate change is a Chinese hoax because the red tape required to cut emissions will stifle US economic growth, which he relies on to attract voters to keep him in power for another few years. 

The clash of science and politics is not always so plutocratic, but can simply be the need to weigh up the fine balance between well-meaning scientists and cautious sections of the public who view any new science as ‘interfering with nature’.

This can be seen in the current Scottish Parliament debates over fracking, genetically modified crops and nuclear weapons.

There is a mountain of scientific evidence that demonstrates that fracking is at least as environmentally safe as drilling for oil in the North Sea – once a cornerstone of the nationalist case for independence – and yet the Scottish Government has imposed a ‘moratorium’ on fracking on the Scottish mainland.

The Conservatives say fracking would be a neat way to plug the Scottish budget deficit, but they are outnumbered by the SNP, Labour and the Greens who support the consensus that fracking is bad.

And for a textbook example of how not to have a scientific debate in politics, look to the Lib Dems who continue to oppose fracking in the Scottish Parliament despite a motion to support it at its 2016 conference, where delegates reportedly argued over the Trump-ish misnomer that there are ‘competing scientific facts’ about the safety of hydraulic fracturing.

Meanwhile, GM crops have the potential to increase yields without the need for poisonous pesticides, and yet the Scottish Government has refused to allow the cultivation of GM crops on Scottish soil lest it damage the ‘clean and green’ image of Scottish produce.

This does not stop them championing the work of Scotland’s world leading genetic research labs, such as the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh – where the first cloned mammal Dolly the Sheep was born – or Dundee University.

The clash of science and ideology can also be seen in the SNP policy which rejects nuclear weapons at Faslane but embraces the nuclear-armed military alliance of NATO.

Supporters of nuclear weapons point out that one cannot put the scientific genie back in the bottle and un-invent the H-bomb, so argue Britain has a responsibility to retain its nuclear capability while other countries such as North Korea and Iran are seeking their own.

The SNP’s resolve to make Scotland an independent member of NATO without its own nuclear weapons implicitly means that they consent to a ‘first strike’ nuclear attack being launched from somewhere within the NATO defence umbrella – as long as it’s not from Scotland.

The SNP is not so overtly nationalist when it comes to attracting and retaining students and teachers from abroad.

One of its principal objections to Brexit is the curb on immigration and the deterrent effect this will have on attracting international talent.

It has called for Scotland to have a differentiated immigration policy to plug emerging skills gaps, particularly in the technology and engineering sectors which are heavily reliant on international talent.

Universities could be in for something of a windfall after Brexit when restrictions on international discrimination are lifted.

Currently, the Scottish Government has to fund the tuition of EU students studying in Scotland for as long as it provides free tuition to Scottish citizens.

This does not apply to students from elsewhere in the UK as the EU only enforces anti-discrimination policies between member states and not within them, so students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland currently have to pay to study in Scotland.

After Brexit, Scottish universities will probably be liberated to charge EU students as well, handing them a source of new revenue, but most university chancellors would happily give this up for a commitment that they will still be able to attract the best teachers from around Europe, and keep some of the talent that they have gone to all the time and effort training.

Innovation is the root of affluence and Scottish universities now have lucrative business development hubs which can spin out companies from the talent and research they foster, but it will all be for naught if they have to send some of their most promising students home at the end of their last term if they don’t meet the strict earnings or skills gap criteria that current non-EU citizens must meet to stay and work in the UK.

Scotland already faces a big challenge retaining talent in a small country without additional roadblocks being erected.

The country has just two ‘unicorns’, privately owned start-ups worth more than £1bn, in Skyscanner and FanDuel and some of the biggest obstacles to building more are talent retention and limitations on growth in a country of just five million people on the outer fringes of Europe.

Businesses operating in cities around the world struggle with internal funding, apart from big investment hubs such as London, Berlin and Hong Kong, so it is difficult for a Scottish university foal to grow into a unicorn if it does not fly off to larger pastures.

Tech businesses tend to grow and then get bought up, predominantly by the five biggest companies in the world: Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook.

Facebook and Apple have been secretly buying up companies in Edinburgh, hoovering up their talent for their own projects and handing founders big pay-outs in exchange for becoming a subsidiary rather than a competitor.

While this is bad news for the sustainability of Scotland’s domestic economy, it will be music to the ears of those that have toiled away getting a technology degree and built a tech start-up from scratch.

To many of these people, tech titans like Bill Gates, Page and Brin, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and the late Steve Jobs are like rock stars, so the opportunity to bask in their glow is often irresistible.

A boy dancing in front of a mirror with a hairbrush knows he’ll never be Mick Jagger, but he might jump at the chance of being a Rolling Stones roadie.

A career in science, technology, engineering and maths probably won’t be the route to fame and fortune – but you never know.

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