STEM represents a field of learning with integrally connected components as shown in the accompanying figure. Science, engineering, technology and math always coexist. No culture has ever advanced science without producing a natural outgrowth of engineering and technology. And none of these fields can exist without mathematics. Science, engineering and technology are inseparable Siamese triplets. They work together, develop together, even stagnate and die together. And mathematics is their parent.
If the disciplines are so intimately connected, why treat them as separate fields at all? Why not just call them “scitecheng” and be done with it? Why preserve the integrity of the components by referring to them as STEM?
The simple answer is that, despite their interrelationships, there are clear demarcations among the fields. Science is not engineering, although a scientist may sometimes be an engineer and vice versa. For a young person planning a career in a STEM area, it is important to understand the differences among the fields as well as how they are related to one another.
STEM fields are separated by both their motivations and by the results they achieve. Scientists desire to improve understanding of the universe. Their results are intangible: principles, laws, hypotheses, theories and models. (Intangibility is why scientists struggle to answer the question, What is your work good for?) Engineers seek to improve the human condition. Their results are designs and prototypes for processes, machines, structures, tools and instruments. In technology, workers concentrate on expanding the accessibility of the improvements engineers offer. They operate, maintain, program, refine and reproduce the designs of engineers. The field is defined by its product: technology.
A STEM field of endeavor is thus defined by what people do. If people seek to understand cause-and-effect relationships in a molecular reaction, they are practicing science. If they design and build an instrument to help in their quest, they are acting as engineers. If they then search for new applications for the instrument, reproduce it to share with others and/or teach others how to use it, they are acting as technologists.
Surrounding, infiltrating, underwriting and expanding all of these fields is mathematics. Mathematics has rightly been called the “language” of science and is also the language of engineering and technology. Scientists, engineers and technologists all use mathematics to communicate with each other, and mathematicians use math to seek new ways of understanding and describing the universe.
At their most basic relationships, engineering is applied science and technology is applied engineering. But that is as simplistic as a food chain. The relationship among the STEM fields is more of a food web than a chain. Each field draws on the results of the others to further its own goals. Thus, they arrive at their natural and inseparable coexistence.
Let’s consider a real-world example that illustrates the separation as well as the interdependence of science, technology and engineering. We are not ignoring mathematics. Remember that mathematics is the matrix in which all three of these fields exist. It is the ocean in which science, engineering and technology swim. Without math, these fields gasp for breath, flop about and quickly die.
Man has always been curious about the moon. For thousands of years, mankind learned of the moon from a distance. They made suppositions and hypotheses. But the technology didn’t exist to physically study the moon, so people made do with what they had.
Scientists studied the moon and compared it to objects they could study as well as to other celestial objects. They wanted to understand what the moon was, its composition, its motions and how it produced light. They made hypotheses based on the best knowledge they had. As technology gradually improved, scientists used it to improve their understanding of the moon. Telescopes allowed them to see features on the moon and better understand its composition. Advances in mathematics led to improved physics and gradually an understanding of the motion of the moon.
Of course, the best way to study the moon is to go there, to touch it and sample it. Eventually, advancements in technology made this idea a possibility. Engineers began designing a craft that could carry a man to the moon and back. Many scientists backed up this engineering project. Physicists carefully mapped out trajectories. Chemists supplied an understanding of combustion and rocket fuels. Biologists determined the effects of weightlessness on human physiology. All of them communicated in the language of mathematics.
Other engineers worked to create a suit that would protect a man in space, yet allow him to walk, work machine controls and collect samples. Still more engineers ensured that the machine controls and sample containers could be used by a man in a spacesuit.
The technology developed by the moon project—rockets and spacesuits—led to more engineering projects that directly benefit us in our world. Advancements were made in the fields of computers, communications, materials and fuels. The scientific fields of meteorology, astronomy, chemistry, biology and physics advanced because of what was learned through the moon launch.
Developers quickly realized that spacesuit technology had many practical applications. Many types of cold weather gear in common use today can trace their existence back to the development of spacesuits. Space technology developed mechanics, fabrics and insulators that can function and protect in very harsh climates. In fact, they are used in one of the harshest climates on Earth: Antarctica.
And thus, we come full circle.
Why STEM? Because the acronym represents the integration of four disciplines that are distinguishable yet inseparable.
If you or someone you mentor is planning a career in STEM, they should plan to become as widely educated as possible. Education in math and science is essential for careers in both engineering and technology. A broad knowledge of cultures, economics, and politics is helpful to all of these endeavors. An ability to communicate, both written and verbal, is also necessary for success in STEM fields.