In a tide of technology, innovation and development, Sheilagh Foley assesses the potential of bringing a human element into the STEM structure to ‘humanise’ it and make it more useful to the end users. Us
Per the Cambridge dictionary – a ‘stem’ is a central part of something from which other parts can develop and grow, or which forms a support. Look around any garden, the place is aflood with stems. In the 1990s a bunch of educators and the American National Science Foundation decided to integrate the teaching of pure and applied science into one unit and call it SMET – Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology. SMET? Lads, seriously? I’m sure at some point a New Yorker may have suggested a change to METS, personally I like TEMS a play on ‘teams’.
However, proton push came to subatomic shove, someone whipped out the Cambridge dictionary and the acronym changed to STEM – Science Technology, and the other two.
STEM has now become a generic word bounced around the classrooms from preschool. The concepts of STEM are as old as the pyramids, but as the Digital Age picks up speed, STEM has never been so important, not just for the select few, but for us all. Many countries focus education on STEM to ensure their human capital can become a productive workforce in this computer-driven world.
The website of a famous university promotes progressing technology and continued innovation that may help address societal problems we have thus far struggled to contain. I’m not sure exactly what societal problems, or the forms of containment. So far, online peer-pressure policing appears to have taken the unfortunate form of trolling and ‘cancel culture’. However, technology is indisputably the way forward and will continue to infuse our existence.
Learning STEM isn’t just about knowing your way around a bunsen burner, building an app or a bridge, or getting really, really good at Sudoku. It can provide you with a sense of logic, the principle of valid, skilled reasoning, and problem-solving ability. These attributes used to be requirements for the Galileo Galilei’s of this world. Now everybody needs them just to turn on their phones.
Rooting STEM in the education policy and curricula is essential.
But we are missing a vowel? When STEM becomes STEAM it includes Arts and Humanities classes alongside Science. This allows the left-brain logic thinkers (who go on to become engineers in tech companies) to learn how their algorithms will impact people on a personal level.
Technology has been a steep learning curve for us all, including its originators. Facebook, for example, was famously whistle blown for allegedly exploiting vulnerable people. Social media has the potential to be incredibly advantageous to humanity – to champion great causes on scale, to disseminate important information, encourage connectivity, and give those that are not heard a voice. However, too often we are seeing methods to boost profits over people.
Just because an algorithm works, that doesn’t mean it’s doing the right thing. I recently learned of the phrase ‘purpose-washing’ where a company purports to stand for an honourable purpose but in fact they are engaging in activity that is the antithesis to honourable. The fact this practice exists in such frequency that it has its own phraseology is disheartening.
My heart, dissed or otherwise, is probably of no consequence to companies that purpose-wash, but I am not alone in my dismay. Per the MIT Technology Review, more than one million users left Twitter when Elon Musk took over the company (now known as X). People vote with their feet.
When I was younger that expression would conjure up images of people slipping into a voting booth, kicking off their shoes, grabbing the pencil between their big toe and second toe (whilst somehow keeping the pencil tied with string to the makeshift desk) and neatly tick the box of their favourite candidate (I was a kid, I didn’t know what went on behind closed curtains!)
The world’s collective conscience is dangerously inflamed at this point, outrage is frequent and contagious. Tolerance is very low for mistakes, let alone deliberate skullduggery. In this climate, corporate malfeasance is not just wrong, it’s bad business, and the market will reflect this. We need to start getting things right and infuse the engineering code with the emotions from the Arts and Humanities. (Oh, the humanity!)
Programmers and engineers are increasingly teaming up with artists to co-develop software, products and renderings for gaming, simulation and training tech. A knowledge of design, writing and history can help engineers problem-solve in more creative ways. The 3D printer is the end product of a STEAM project.
The origins of modern tech were like the Wild West. We are growing and learning as a global community. In a world where you can order your morning coffee in 68 different ways, interdisciplinary collaboration is the new normal. I believe by incorporating the Arts and Humanities into science, technology, engineering and mathematics, it will leverage both hard and soft skills to solve problems, and create ‘considerate’ technology.
Soft skills such as communication, collaboration and consideration cannot be machine learned to the degree a human can apply them. So let’s be the only thing all of us can be – human.
Why stop at Arts and Humanities? Many people are using STEM as its original Cambridge definition ‘something from which other parts can develop and grow’. There are now enhanced variations on STEM learning that include research, innovation, medicine, environment, entrepreneurship, social science, logic, robotics, multimedia, economics, agriculture, informatics and natural science, or as I like to call it STEAMRIMEESLRMEAIN. Stick that in your bunsen burner and smoke it!
It’s hard to do everything and tick all the boxes (especially if you are using your feet) but I think adding some humanity to technology might be the appropriate next step in our co-evolution.