Thursday, 30 August 2012

STEM: Definition is Everything

This is the first of three articles focusing on topics covered by the STEM report...

The first problem the Select Committee identified in their report, Higher Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, was the very definition of a STEM subject.
“We found [the JACS] definition unsatisfactory because it is too broad and includes subjects that have not traditionally been considered STEM. An implication of such a broad definition is that there is a danger that a significant proportion of the growth in the number of students studying STEM subjects is made up of courses with little science content, thus hiding the true picture of the level of STEM skills available to meet the needs of the economy.”
The JACS3 STEM subjects are divided across 10 groups, including physical sciences. These are subdivided into 49 major subgroups (one being chemistry), then further into over seven hundred individual subjects (eg, polymer chemistry). The interactive table below provides further details.

At the highest level, there is some debate as to whether medicine and subjects allied to medicine should be included in the STEM classification. Similar deliberation is made over the architecture group.  Within the biological sciences, some subgroups (eg, psychology, sports science and complementary medicine) are perceived as “soft sciences” which lack sufficient scientific content to be viewed as STEM subjects.

The interactive visualisation below lists the components within the STEM classification, and highlights potential issues with the current definition. The data shows the number of students that started each programme in 2010/11, and can be filtered by subject, course type (full/part time) and student experience (first degree/postgraduate).

Some issues illustrated by the data include:
  • The four components of STEM are clearly unevenly matched in the number of students they attract: Science (287k), Technology (52k), Engineering (84k), Maths (16k).
  • The fundamental differences in subject groups across the science, technology, engineering and mathematics classifications mean they are likely to have very different supply and demand requirements and issues. It's difficult to comprehend how solutions to resolve a potential supply issue for chemists would be relevant to architects.
  • Similarly, even within a subject group the individual subjects are very diverse (eg, chemistry, geology, astronomy and forensics in the physical sciences; biology, psychology, sports science and genetics in the biological sciences).
  • Subjects allied to medicine (arbitrarily placed in the science classification in the chart) undoubtedly needs to be re-examined. While some subgroups (eg, pharmacology, toxicology and pharmacy) are considered scientific, others (eg, nursing and complementary medicine) are perhaps less so. In addition, the overwhelming number of students associated with the group (141k, the majority in nursing), massively distorts its host classification.
  • Due to their popularity, the “soft sciences” further distort the science classification. For example, of the 77k biological sciences first years, 36k are studying psychology, and 17k sports science. The xkcd strip below comes to mind.
 The Select Committee made the recommendation that:
“... the Government should work together with HESA, the Research Councils, HEIs and professional bodies to formulate and apply a standard definition of STEM. The definition should derive from a statement of the competencies and skills that a STEM graduate should possess and the characteristics that a STEM course should contain, including direct STEM content.”
However, while “the Science Council... argued that science should be defined ‘as a methodology, rather than as a subject or group of subjects’” it is clear that any “methodology” must be used to create a defined set of subjects that are deemed to be STEM, rather than remaining just an inconsequential definition. The report noted that “UCAS and HESA are currently considering a fundamental revision of course subject classifications” to address these STEM issues.

Similarly, while the STEM classification may be useful in some holistic contexts, the issues of supply, demand and employment are going to be specific to individual subjects or subgroups. The ability of a government to understand or influence this from a top-down “STEM” approach seems challenging. Rather, a coordinated, bottom-up approach, perhaps led by the professional institutions of each subject (eg, the Royal Society of Chemistry), may be more effective in measuring, assessing and addressing the issues faced by each discipline; the role of government being to issue guidelines on the information required from each institution, and to provide and allocate the appropriate funding, resource or legislation.

Next week, industrial placements and careers advice...


  1. Great graphics, well done! I didn't know that subjects associated with medicine were classified as science for this analysis. Demand for nurses (and the causes and solutions to this) will be so extremely different from a polymer chemist (for example) that placing them together in this context seems disingenuous.

    1. Thanks! It does make you wonder what can be achieved by looking at such broad classifications.


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