We see the acronym STEM all over the place these days, from HUNSTEM to CSTEM to the STEM Education Coalition, and on and on. It has become a common term when referring to science and math education. STEM, of course, stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics; but it seems to have become synonymous with science education.
We've always been a bit confused about what science means exactly in science education. We seem to use the word to refer to the list of topics that are science related more so than to the process of solving problems scientifically. Of course, if we are teaching for science literacy, we would want to emphasize science process and the use of scientific knowledge as a tool for inquiry rather than the end goal. Science is a process used to solve unique types of problems.
This is why problem-based, or project-based lessons are so important in science education, but we often lose track of the types of problems that are truly "scientific". Science is only one problem-solving strategy that uses scientific knowledge. Engineers solve problems differently. So do physicians and mathematicians, and inventors, and computer programmers. They all use perfectly legitimate problem-solving strategies, but they are not the same method scientists use. Engineers may use trial and error to arrive at the best design, but these are not controlled experiments testing hypotheses. Physicians would not want to form a hypothesis about your illness and then run controlled experiments to determine if thier diagnosis is correct before prescribing medication to treat your symptoms. Both of these professions utilize scientific knowledge but do not solve problems "scientifically." We wouldn't want them to.
Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are combined in STEM education so that we can emphasize the interrelationships between these endeavors. They are intertwined historically, and in practice. We need to understand how they work together synergistically, and how the integration of these strategies lead to innovation. But, we shouldn't lose sight of how they are distinctly valuable independently. Mathematics and technology provide tools for doing science. Advances in science often lead to new technolgy and new applications for engineering and medicine. Mathematical modelling is especially valuable to the practice of science, but it is in the distinctions between the mathematical model and the results of experiments with natural phenomena that we find the value of the model. Technology allows us to do experiments we couldn't have performed in the past, and it is often the needs of scientific inquiry that drives technological advancement, but we must never lose focus on the limitations of technology in data collection and analysis.
I am writing this blog to proclaim the distinct value of each type of problem solving covered by STEM. Each part of the whole is invaluable. We are best served, however, when we fully understand how each part operates in order to contribute to society. We should not confuse STEM simply with science or vice versa because to do so minimizes the distinctions between each strategy encompassed by the acronym.
You may want to consider this as you teach "science".