Sunday, January 15, 2023

S-T-E-M is a Four-Letter Word! - Part 1

Image by brgfx on Freepik

Depending on how much of this blog you have read, you might know that librarianship is a second career for me and that my first was in scientific research. Science was my first love, so I got my undergraduate degree in biology, with minors in chemistry and education, followed by a masters degree in microbiology. I worked several years in research, then was a stay-at-home-mom before finally ending up in libraries, where I love being able to use my science and education background in STEM programming and incorporating factual information in storytime.

Now, let's pause for a minute - What is the first thing you think of when you hear the words "STEM programming"? I'm guessing you're probably thinking of computers, coding, robotics, and electronics. Did you think of gingerbread houses, bread baking, or shopping for groceries? Probably not. Let's back up for a minute and examine what "STEM" really means.

The "STEM" acronym began popping up in the early 2000's, first coined by the National Science Foundation (replacing the previously used "SMET" acronym), then later being picked up by the education field, and finally making its way into library world a few years later. "STEM" stands for the four related and over-lapping fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics [an "A" for the Arts was later added by some, but I only use the "STEAM" acronym when referring to a program or activity that actually combines art with one of the others]:
  • Science is the study of the physical and natural world: biology, chemistry, physics, earth sciences, astronomy, etc.
  • Technology comes from applying all the others to produce or use tools & machines that do the work for us: computers, robotics, sewing machine, etc. 
  • Engineering is the application of science and math to build things and/or manage processes: civil, electrical, mechanical, chemical, biomedical, aerospace, etc. 
  • Mathematics is not only numbers, counting, and computations, but also measuring, patterns, grouping, shapes, geometry, spatial awareness/representation. 
Four letters, four different fields; however, in recent years I've observed a marked emphasis on one: the "T" for Technology, and coding in particular. 

I began to notice this trend around 2019. Suddenly there were at least a dozen or more different books on coding for kids on our shelves, and it seemed new ones were constantly coming out. I began to see library folks talking more and more about STEM programming, but the focus was mostly on the "T", with robotics and various coding programs, often tied to gaming: Minecraft, scratch, Raspberry pi, and lots of new, and expensive, toys and gadgets, like Ozobots, Sphero, snap circuits, squishy circuits, and many more. It seemed like people were trying to tie as many programs as possible to coding, even a simple bracelet of pony beads strung on a pipe cleaner. The kicker was when I attended PLA in 2020, and was excited to see several presentations that said they had to do with STEM programming, only to find out they were really only about Technology programming, specifically coding and robotics; mistakenly using "STEM" and "Technology" interchangeably. 

What's wrong with teaching coding and other Technology? Absolutely nothing! The problem is when Technology becomes the major focus, at the expense of Science, Math, and Engineering. Technology wouldn't even exist without the other three! The over-emphasis on technology, particularly coding, is problematic in several ways:
  • Misperception of what STEM is and all that it includes
  • Skewed perception of the importance of one particular skill set.  
  • May turn kids off STEM if they don't enjoy technology
  • Kids may miss out on important life skills
  • Library staff who are not tech-savvy may be intimidated by the idea of STEM programming and therefore avoid it.
  • Bad purchasing decisions and poor program design
  • Technology can be expensive
  • Technology can be more difficult to adapt to take-home kits.
If technology is the only branch of STEM that kids are exposed to, particularly when "STEM" is mistakenly used synonymously when they really mean "technology", then they may mistakenly think that is all STEM is and never explore all the many other areas of STEM. There are so many STEM careers out there that have little to do with technology! But if all kids are exposed to is computers and coding, and they don't like it or don't have the skills or aptitude for it, they may mistakenly think they don't like STEM period. Kids need basic science, math, and engineering as well!. I might even argue that basic science and math are even more important than engineering and technology as they pertain to so many everyday life skills.

I find the emphasis on coding in particular to be problematic. Coding is one single skill in the tech field and tech is only one field of a vast array of STEM, yet it seems to receive more attention than any other. Parents are getting the impression that their kids MUST learn coding to be successful, and that simply isn't true. There are many careers, even STEM careers, that do not require coding. As a lab researcher, I had to use technology in the form of sophisticated lab equipment and computers, but I never needed to know how to code. My daughter is a NASA engineer and was never required to know coding, either. I've seen coding and robotics programs touted as a path to equity, but an introduction to either does not guarantee success or a lucrative career. Coding for fun and coding at a commercial/professional level are two very different things. And while there is a demand for programmers, there is also a fairly steady supply, not to mention increasing outsourcing to other countries.

When technology overshadows all the other areas of STEM, library staff who are not tech-savvy may be too intimidated by the idea of STEM programming and avoid it altogether. Or, the pressure to jump on the tech bandwagon may lead to poor purchasing decisions, poor program designs, and wasted time and money. For example, when I moved into my current position, I found a pile of boxes stashed under a table in the corner that contained dolls riding scooters, called "SmartGurlz" (cringe). They were coding toys that had been purchased with the intention of starting a coding program for middle-school girls. First off, I'm not a fan of gendered programming or the gender stereotyping. Second, though they are certainly fine as a toy for younger kids, they were completely inappropriate for a coding program targeting girls aged 11-14. My co-worker said only a handful of girls came to the first program, and left after 15-20 minutes, no one showed up the next time, and it was soon dropped. So $600 was completely wasted on three of these dolls, plus three needlessly expensive tablets to run them.

And finally, technology is more expensive, and many small libraries just don't have the budget for it, and technology is also more difficult to adapt to take-home kits, which were a staple of programming in 2020 and 2021, and even now at some libraries. And again, library staff may not do any STEM programming if they don't have the budget for tech, and don't think about the other three areas of STEM.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-technology. I just would like to see more balance, a more well-rounded approach, in STEM programming. Basic science relates to everyday life and the world around us, and encourages curiosity, observation, and reason; we use basic math every day in both our personal life and at work, and engineering helps with critical thinking and problem solving; these are all life skills people need, as well as occupational skills. And as I've said, they overlap and build on each other, and technology wouldn't exist without the other three. The advantages of offering well-rounded STEM programming are:
  • Many basic science, math, and engineering activities are very inexpensive, so stretch budgets farther.
  • Often do not require special skills or knowledge from the presenter, other than what a quick review and test run can provide.
  • Less intimidating to staff and kids who are not tech-savvy
  • Introduce participants to many different STEM fields, increasing the likelihood that something will catch their interest.
  • Help teach life skills that may not be taught in schools anymore.
  • Keeps kids coming back; always something different so they don't get bored
  • They're fun!
If you love coding and technology and want to share your passion, by all means do so! I just hope I've convinced you to explore some of the other areas of STEM as well. And if you've been intimidated by the idea of STEM programming because you're not tech-savvy or a science person, I hope this will empower you to give it a try. In part 2 of this series I will give some tips and things to consider in STEM programming and incorporating STEM elements into other programs, and a few resources, and in part 3 I'll throw out some program ideas for each area.


  1. I do mostly actual science in my STEM/STEAM programs, I always feel bad because there's a little engineering, virtually no math, and usually not much technology--I do technology programs too, but as technology programs. My favourite things are the messy and explosive kinds of science, or cool things like sound science, and since I'm the main STEM programmer at the library, we do what I like best (and my Mad Scientists Club has a massive waiting list, so other people clearly love it too)! But yes, I think a lot of places focus on tech to the exclusion of the wonderfulness of the simple magic of plain old science, which is sad when tech can be so expensive, and not nearly as much fun to teach or do (I loath the seasons when I feel I must offer 3D printing or coding for kids)! We are a fairly well funded library and we have lots of robots and stuff, but almost never enough for more than 10 kids at a time. So I do science for my club, for PA Days, for summer programs, pretty much everything. Unlike you, I have absolutely no science background at all (two half credits in Geology for my B.A. requirements), but I love kid science so much, I hope I never have to stop doing it!

    1. I have to admit, I am sick to death of hearing about coding. The message that you must learn how to code to be successful, whether intentional or not, is definitely there, and that's just pure rubbish. I know there are a lot of us doing the other things, but that's not what gets attention or recognition. Math is harder to do as a fun activity, and I just incorporate bits of it here and there in other programs, but I do have a few suggestions that will be in my follow up article in the next week or two. I am all about Ms. Frizzle's motto: "Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!"

  2. Thank you for writing this! Three years ago I switched from animal keeping to the Children's Room (with a BA and MA in biology) and yeah, tech is not my strong suit at all.

    1. You're welcome! Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. Animal Keeping - another example of a STEM career that does not require coding knowledge! I am happy to leave the tech to those that love and excel in it, and I feel it's already emphasized over basic science in the schools.

  3. I also had a career before librarianship - I worked in IT for 20 years, my last 10-ish as a Windows sysadmin. I lean toward tech in my STEM programming because it's what I know. I still make an effort to focus on the other letters and I point out where different pieces of programs fall on the STEM spectrum. My bigger issue is adding the A into STEAM.

    1. Let's see....for an art component I've done Doodlebots, resist art (explaining the chemistry behind how it works, paper circuits to light up artwork, making snowflake art with q-tips, after talking about the science of snowflakes, why they are 6-sided, and symmetry; kaleidoscopes. These are all on this blog. Sometimes I'll have different stations around a theme, and one will be STEM, one might be something sensory, and another might be an art or craft activity.

  4. Very good points. As far as the coding, an interesting sidepoint was brought up at a conference I attended last year (Make Play Learn) that with the increasing push for "Girls coding" the field is now being feminized, i.e. the pay is dropping etc. So the idea that coding automatically qualifies you for a "good job" is pretty meh. I steer away from tech and the more advanced, equipment-requiring maker type things because our schools have a plethora of these tools and technology and people trained to use them! So why try to recreate, with less money and no expertise, this in the library? We do more hands-on things and process-based exploration.

    1. I do the same, and that's very interesting about the unintentional effect of pushing coding for girls. Personally, I've always found the idea that girls need gender-segregated classes and programs for STEM a bit offensive. I get that the idea is to try to compensate for the societal gender stereotyping and observed gender-bias in teaching, but I think what they actually do is perpetuate the idea that girls need special treatment and "coddling", and aren't as good at math and science as boys.

      I never needed any special treatment or girls-only programs in order to be interested and do well in STEM, and I never felt my particular field was male-dominated or that I was treated differently because I was a woman, though I know that's not true for all STEM fields; engineering is still male-dominated and my daughter has run into more sexism in that field than I did in mine, though it is slowly changing. I guess I just never cared about other peoples' expectations. I think rather than offering special programs to compensate for the damage the gender-biases ingrained in our society does, we need to fight harder to change this in our parenting and in education, and continue fight the pay gaps. But it does infuriate me that fields that tend to employ mostly women are devalued and grossly underpaid.