Why STEM? What Does It Have to Do with Zoos and Aquariums?

STEM — as an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math — has become part of common parlance. But why only these four disciplines? Why put them together? And what do they have to do with zoos and aquariums?

We launched the WZAM3 initiative to better understand how zoos and aquariums (Z/As) teach important STEM concepts with an eye towards improving existing programs. In previous posts, we have shared some of the methods that we use to collect data from our partner institutions to help us understand the ways STEM learning is currently happening in Z/As. But to really understand how they help their guests learn STEM, it is helpful first to understand how STEM is defined. Our research shows that members of the public believe that there are a number of STEM topics that Z/As could speak to based on their expertise, but they feel that these stories are seldom shared.

In this post, we’ll look at the origins of the acronym and how its four pillars fit together. This will lay a foundation for later posts focused in more depth on how Z/As facilitate learning on each of the four STEM disciplines. It’s also crucial to define STEM because though the acronym is widely used, there are still portions of the public that profess little or no familiarity with STEM. Of 1,461 participants in STEM learning study, only 64 percent of participants (791 individuals) reported encountering the acronym “STEM” prior to being recruited for the survey. In later posts, we will explore topics such as the public’s understanding of STEM and the role of Z/As in shaping that perspective. We’ll also dig into some of the challenges that we have experienced with measuring STEM learning in the context of WZAM.

Going all the way back to the beginning, the term STEM was first used by Dr. Judith Ramaley, in 2001, while she served as the assistant director of human resources and education at the National Science Foundation. Aiming to improve the existing curriculum for science, technology, engineering, and math at the time, Ramaley introduced the now ubiquitous idea that these four pillars had inherently overlapping and compatible qualities. Because of these overlaps, she argued that students would benefit by learning them in tandem.

“Science and math are critical to a basic understanding of the universe, while engineering and technology are means for people to interact with the universe,” Ramaley told Link Engineering. “STEM weaves those elements of human action and understanding into all aspects of education.”

Initially, Ramaley arranged the first letters of these four pillars to spell SMET to reflect the idea of using science and math to understand something, and then using engineering and technology to do something about it. She later abandoned that idea in favor of STEM, which sounds better, and is easier to both remember and parse. In this post, we’ll perform one more rearrangement, changing “STEM” to “MSET.” This new acronym highlights the way these subjects work together, and emphasizes the importance of math and science in supporting and driving engineering and technology.

To understand the impact of “MSET” over “STEM,” think of the relationship between these concepts as a pyramid with the first subject, math, acting as the foundation.

Math is the base of STEM learning. It teaches the skills to understand and work with numbers that is necessary to approach the analysis, interpretation, and simplification of the three other STEM subjects. In other words, without math providing the building blocks, science, technology, and engineering would not be possible.

Science allows us to use math to systematically further our understanding of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experimentation using carefully constructed methods.

Engineering involves applying math and science to the design, building, and use of engines, machines, systems, and structures, enhancing human activity.

And finally, Technology is a product of engineering, produced by the application of mathematics and scientific inquiry in combination with human activity to produce new goods and services or to accomplish specific objectives.

Z/As occupy a unique space. As authorities on conservation and environmental sciences, these institutions offer the public opportunities for learning important MSET concepts. But unlike in the traditional classroom setting, learning takes place in more relaxed, less formal contexts. Z/As draw on information from each of the four MSET pillars and lumping these pillars together enables the development of cross-disciplinary approaches to learning.

At the same time, the accumulation of these disciplines makes it challenging to evaluate MSET programs in Z/As and determine when MSET literacy is increasing. For example, is MSET learning occurring if only one pillar is being explored? Furthemore, can institutions claim that an exhibit increases MSET learning if it only focuses on conservation science? We’ll explore these and other questions in upcoming posts.

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