Maths and STEM

In England the word mathematics is frequently shortened to maths. The term ‘numeracy’ is also used in relation to mathematics; the difference is not always clear and the terms maths and numeracy are sometimes used interchangeably. However, numeracy is generally seen as the set of numerical and quantitative skills needed by the general population in daily life. In primary schools, the daily mathematics lesson is also frequently called, for example, the numeracy hour.

STEM education refers to education in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Peter Finegold’s report suggests that STEM education is about links between the four fields:

“Reflecting the national importance of increasing interest in STEM, in 2008 the previous Government commissioned a programme of activity in England to drive sustained change in how schools addressed the links between science, technology, engineering and mathematics.” (p 8).

In practice, however, the term is mostly used in a broad and ill-defined way and often in reference to careers and jobs. It seems clear that there is no real agreement about what is meant by STEM. For example, the Select Committee report on STEM includes no fewer than eight paragraphs discussing the definition of STEM, stating that

“The acronym “STEM” encompasses a group of disciplines that teach the skills required for a high-tech economy. What this means in practice ….  is a more complex matter and the definition varies across the HE sector and Government.” (p. 11)

Further, the term STEM frequently seems to be used to mean ‘science’; mathematics is given much less attention. For example, although the Aspires report begins by stating that ‘This document summarises current, high-quality, international research evidence from the fields of science and mathematics education and makes recommendations for change’ it goes on with ten sections which relate mainly to science: ‘Liking science is not enough’, ‘Science is only for the most able’,  “If I do science, I have to be a scientist” and so on. The word mathematics appears a total of 12 times in the document, only four of which are in the main body of the text. The Finegold report states that “What does STEM mean to schools? In secondary schools, STEM is often taken as a proxy for ‘science’.” (P. 11). The report states that:

The implication for mathematics may be that the money and effort being put into STEM is not benefitting mathematics. There are calls within the reports to consider the position of mathematics in STEM. The report on STEMNET, for example, states that “The evidence also suggests some issues to consider in the future, in particular relating to the place of mathematics within STEM.” (p. v).

Of the reports collected, eight are about ‘STEM’, with a further five about ‘mathematics and science’.

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