STEM, DASTEM, and STEAM in Making: Debating America’s Economic Future in the 21st Century


As noted in the previous post of this series, Democratized Tools of Production: New Technologies Spurring the Maker Movement, the power and opportunity purported to emerge from the maker movement is strongly focused on STEM education and the ‘tools of production’. This post will focus on the history of STEM, how other schools of thought have critiqued and added new areas to STEM, and the relationship of these issues to ‘making’ and the maker movement.

STEM: A History of ‘Crisis’

STEM is an acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, and, according to Michael Anft, “It’s an acronym that has morphed into a meme” (Anft, 2013). STEM may refer to education or the specific academic disciplines depending on the context. The acronym was first used by the National Science Foundation as an update to ‘SMET’ (Science, Mathematics, Engineering, Technology) in the 1990’s, purportedly due to ‘SMET’ sounding too much like ‘smut’ (Sanders, 2009).

Up until 2005 STEM was a relatively unknown term but the national focus on science, technology, engineering, and math, while not called STEM at the time, began as a political reaction to the Soviet launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957. NASA addresses the issue on its history webpage:

A full-scale crisis resulted on October 4, 1957 when the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite as its IGY entry. This had a “Pearl Harbor” effect on American public opinion, creating an illusion of a technological gap and provided the impetus for increased spending for aerospace endeavors, technical and scientific educational programs, and the chartering of new federal agencies to manage air and space research and development. (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2005)

Further, “A direct result of the Sputnik crisis, NASA began operations on October 1, 1958, absorbing into itself the earlier National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics intact…” (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2005).

In addition to the creation of NASA, the government passed landmark education reform aimed at addressing this ‘technological gap’. On September 2, 1958 President Eisenhower signed federal legislation that had passed Congress titled the National Defense Education Act (NDEA). This legislation provided funding to improve American schools and promote secondary education and, “it marked the beginning of large-scale involvement of the federal government in education, pairing what was billed as “good education” with the national interest” (Hunt, 2010 p.627). There were extensive provisions in the legislation that provided scholarships and loans to students and teachers in the curricular areas of science, mathematics, and modern foreign languages. The NDEA was not the first instance where the government incentivized science and engineering subject areas, the Morrill Act in 1862, for example, provided each state with federal land that the states could sell to fund public colleges focused on agriculture and the mechanical arts. However, the NDEA was the first legislative act that “placed education in a role of supporting and assisting national policy” (Hunt, 2010 p. 628).

The political STEM crisis discourse that started with Sputnik continues to this day. In 2011 federal investment in STEM increased dramatically. $3.7 billion were designated for STEM education specifically and $4.3 billion for the Race to the Top Fund, where STEM education was the only competitive preference priority (Johnson, 2012). Johnson notes that, “in order for states to be successful in winning a share of the Race to the Top funds, they must “commit to a comprehensive strategy to improve STEM education” (Johnson, 2012 p 45). President Obama commented on STEM in his remarks on the ‘Educate to Innovate’ campaign:

The key to meeting these challenges — to improving our health and well-being, to harnessing clean energy, to protecting our security, and succeeding in the global economy — will be reaffirming and strengthening America’s role as the world’s engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation. And that leadership tomorrow depends on how we educate our students today, especially in those fields that hold the promise of producing future innovations and innovators. And that’s why education in math and science is so important. (Obama, Remarks by the President on the “Education to Innovate” Campaign, 2009)

Is there really a STEM crisis in America, as the discourse would suggest? In an interview on Here and Now, Robert Charette, contributing editor for IEEE Spectrum magazine, confronts this issue. In the interview he states that between 250,000-275,000 STEM jobs open each year but we graduate over 440,000 STEM students (Charette, 2013). Researchers from the Economic Policy Institute also found that only one out of every two STEM college graduates are hired into a STEM job each year (Salzman, Kuehn, & Lowell, 2013). STEM workers make up 6% of the current American workforce and, according to Anft, most researchers who have looked at this issue have found that, “the STEM-worker shortage is not only a meme but a myth” (Anft, 2013). This perceived crisis is deeply threaded into our national narrative, as Anft notes,

For the United States to maintain its global supremacy in innovation, the commonplace goes, the nation must crank out more and more college graduates in STEM programs—science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Otherwise a continuing shortage of workers in those fields will sink the nation and its economy beneath the surface of an ever-flatter world, overrun by lower-paid foreigners who have outpaces us in STEM education. (Anft, 2013)

Full STEAM Ahead: Adding ‘Art’ to Sustain American Innovation?

STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) is a term that evolved out of the Rhode Island School of Design in 2008. John Maeda, President of RISD at the time, championed a STEM to STEAM movement. In an interview, when asked how he became interested in changing STEM to STEAM, he said:

I always wondered why art and science were somehow [considered] different, and more recently here as president of RISD, I began to think about art and the relationship from art to all kinds of spaces: government, economics, industry. I noticed that people think innovation comes from the STEM space—at MIT, that’s how we used to feel, or at least how I felt there—but I also wondered about art and how that fits in. I’d be walking around RISD and I’d see so many examples of how a STEAM approach leads innovation. It seemed like turning STEM to STEAM made a lot of sense to talk about. (Maeda, 2010)

Maeda argues that a solely STEM-focused direction will not be enough to help the next generation meet the challenges of the future, stating that “Innovation happens when convergent thinkers, those who march straight ahead towards their goal, combine forces with divergent thinkers—those who professionally wander, who are comfortable being uncomfortable, and who look for what is real” (Maeda, STEM to STEAM: Art in K-12 is Key to Building a Strong Economy, 2012)

In 2011 the National Science Foundation sponsored a workshop at RISD called Bridging STEM to STEAM: Developing New Frameworks for Art-Science-Design Pedagogy where participants from the fields of science, creative IT, engineering, art and design, mathematics and education gathered to discuss ways that educators and policymakers could bridge the gap between art and science (STEM to STEAM, 2011).

STEAM supporters have, in a similar way to STEM, started to align the subject with national economic interest. Maeda notes,

With global competition rising, America is at a critical juncture in defining its economic future. I believe that art and design are poised to transform our economy in the 21st century in the same way that science and technology did in the last century, and the STEAM movement is an opportunity for America to sustain its role as innovator of the world. (Maeda, STEM to STEAM: Art in K-12 is Key to Building a Strong Economy, 2012)

Making as Medium: A Platform for STEM or STEAM?

The discourse focuses on the power of STEM or STEAM to move the country forward, and ‘Making’ and ‘Makerspaces’ are being incorporated into this rhetoric. In an announcement for a virtual ‘Town Hall’ discussion, hosted by Maker Ed Initiative and STEMconnector, making and makerspaces were identified as the antidote to the nation’s STEM skill shortage, stating:

By offering students access to hands-on, inquiry-based learning scenarios, Maker Spaces are rapidly emerging as a powerful antidote to the nation’s STEM skill shortage. This Town Hall will explore the issue of “making” and where it is appearing as a medium to improve outcomes in STEM education. (Cornelis, 2014)

The STEAM discourse is also connecting with the maker movement, as Maeda notes that, “RISD is the ultimate culture of makers. There is no greater integrity, no greater goal achieved, than an idea articulately expressed through something made with your hands. We call this constant dialogue between eye, mind, and hand “critical thinking—critical making” (Maeda, STEM to STEAM: Art in K-12 is Key to Building a Strong Economy, 2012)

It should be noted that it is not surprising that supporters and practitioners of the maker movement have encouraged the link between STEM/STEAM subjects and the maker movement as there is significant financial incentive through granting agencies encouraging the connection (for example Congnizant’s ‘Educating the Future’ program).

As discussed in earlier posts for this series, the discourse actively supports the idea of “every child a maker” and this is also present in the discourse of STEM, “every child an engineer”. In a Make Magazine article, Ping Fu wrote, “We believe there is an engineer in every student, …We will find that engineer and bring them to the surface” (Fu, 2013). STEM is not the only way, or even the best way, to introduce critical thinking skills or find the joy in asking questions and investigating the answers. Some, like Maeda, believe that STEAM is the answer. Others, like Steve Mann, have taken a different approach.

The Heart & Soul of STEM: DASTEM

There are many challenges that need to be addressed regarding participation in the movement as noted in this blog series. The adoption of ‘making’ into the STEM/STEAM discourse presents additional concerns. However, the act of ‘making’ might, indeed, support a fusion of art at science that connects with a philosophy of education and learning rather than an economic-driven interest. Steve Mann, Director of the Digital Eye Glass Laboratory and professor of Applied Science and Engineering at the University of Toronto, has been working to change the STEM focus for over twenty years, believing that the current curriculum of engineering places too much emphasis on structure and not enough on discovery, through what he calls ‘existential tinkering’ (Mann & Hrelja, 2013). Additionally, Mann thinks that STEAM “misses the boat” altogether (Mann, personal communication, July 27, 2014). To this point, Mann coined the term “DASTEM” to denote Design + Art +Science/Sustainism + Technology +Engineering/Environment/Enterprise + Mathematics/Music/Musicology. He describes a DASTEMist as a “tree-shaped thinker or a person with “tree-shaped’ skill sets that have broad-reaching rhizomic roots, combined with deep-reaching roots into many fields of study, plus skyward reaching branches” (Mann, 2014 p. 35) He points to visionaries like Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci as examples of DASTEM thinkers.

According to Mann, DASTEM goes beyond multidisciplinary work, “to something we call ‘multipassionary’ or ‘interpassionary’ or ‘transpassionary’, i.e. passion is a better master than discipline” (Mann & Hrelja 2013 p.87). Further,

Perhaps what we want to nurture is the “invetopher” (inventor + philosopher), through existemology (existential epistemology, i.e. “learning-by-being”). In particular, we aim to go beyond merely putting technology into classrooms, or churning out design technicians. Instead we want students to also think about the philosophical and humanistic elements of technology, in a way more traditionally associated with philosophy, the humanities, and the fine arts. (Mann & Hrelja, 2013 p. 88)

Like STEM and STEAM, DASTEM is linked to ‘making’; however, the link is not made through national economic interest but through something called ‘Maktivism’. According to Mann, “Maktivists are social makers–people who make things for social change” (Mann & Hrelja, 2013 p.88). Maktivists are activists who are not only interested in making things that change the world or save the planet but are also committed to “learning-by-being”, as Mann states:

…playful, childlike ways of doing basic research that can solve many of the world’s problems without necessarily being solution- or problem-driven. To promote “learning-by-being,” we can encourage people to engage in unstructured and free-spirited approaches, promoting lateral thinking rather than vertical problem solving. (Mann, 2014)

Mann isn’t the only scholar thinking this way. David Edward, founder and director of Le Laboratoire and professor at Harvard University, believes that art and science are fused (Edwards, 2008). As Mann identified Einstein and daVinci, Edwards identified Damien Hirst and Diana Dabby as divergent thinkers in his book ArtScience, where he wrote:

Pursuers of ideas, they change the world, and change what they know about it, through synthetic—deductive and intuitive—creative processes. Their trajectories carry them across barriers of specialization as a surfer explores the Internet. They pursue these trajectories not passively, not at all by doggedly following instructions, but by creatively developing their own ideas, growing finely attuned to environments, not fearing to enter new ones, charting paths of learning that only they would pursue—experimentalists in a lab. (Edwards, 2008)

“We’re Kind of Missing the Point”

In an interview with KQED, Gary Stager notes, “…when adults get out of the way and let kids shine, they produce amazing things, like “Slyvia’s Super Awesome Mini-Maker Show”. Sylvia’s only 11, but she’s already taken the world by storm by challenging herself with complicated projects in science, technology, engineering and math in her own fun and quirky way” (Schwartz, 2013). When ‘Making’ and the maker movement are viewed and used as a platform for STEM or STEAM they become part of a reform movement, a solution to a perceived problem. It places ‘making’ squarely in the role of ‘saving’ the U.S., as Charette notes,

My argument is that the future requires a better understanding, a better integrated understanding of science, mathematics, literature, English. All these things are needed because society in the future isn’t getting any less complicated. I think that the focus is so much on a STEM crisis, on the science and technology because scientists and technologists are looked upon to save the U.S., to get us out of this economic black hole that we’re in, that we’re kind of missing the point. The point is that we have to teach children how to learn, and that’s very important…And that’s not what we’re really focusing on. What we’re focusing on is trying to increase the education of a small elite group of students rather than a broad-based approach to education. (Charette, 2013)

Using ‘making’ and the maker movement as a medium for STEM or STEAM education places value on certain types of making, as Aaminah Norris, PhD, Director of Education and Research for the Representation Project, said “The discourse implies that every child is a maker but some making activities and skills have a higher value, like STEM skills. Those with less valuable skills are cordoned off. If we tell children to make things in their interest they gain personal power. But if we, as adults, say ‘make this, get this skill’ we lose them. We repeat the same mistakes of the past and create a divided space without equity based on race, gender, and socioeconomic status” (Norris, personal communication, August 4, 2014). Further, STEM degrees tend to cost more and some have argued that this creates a barrier to entry, replicating the existing status hierarchy. In an interview on NPR, Anthony Carnevale of The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said

If we give kids who go into STEM and business, and some of the other high-paying majors – and high-cost majors, in the case of STEM – we are going to reinforce intergenerational reproduction of economic privilege. And so I think that’s a bad idea. That’s my bias. And on the other hand, I do think that government – and government pays for education, essentially, and college in America – government should recognize the fact that a STEM course costs more. (Carnevale, 2013)

By coupling ‘Making’ with the national focus on STEM or STEAM we may run the risk of losing the best of what the maker movement can be. As Ron Deibert states,

“…DIY means taking matters into your own hands, not leaving it for others to do it for you. It means making decisions without the gaze of those in power saying what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s allowed or what’s not” (Deibert, 2014).

This blog post is the third of 5 of the blog post series, “Making and the maker movement: A democratizing force or an example of cultural reproduction?” See the first blog post and second blog post.

Access the works cited for this blog post


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