Yes, it was SMET

Last week I posted about the transition from SMET to STEM at the National Science Foundation. I was repeating a story that can be found on several websites including an entry in Britannica.

Andrew Ruapp reached out to me about a possible error in my post. He presented some evidence that the term STEM has been used prior to 2001. Casually Googling the topic did not bring me to a reputable source for the claim I had made last week. “SMET” is comically bad. So, I did start to wonder if it had never been officially used at the NSF and was just a funny story getting repeated online.

To solve this problem, I reached out directly to the person who was credited with making the transition. Dr. Judith Ramaley is currently President Emerita and Distinguished Professor of Public Service at Portland State University.

Having her permission to share, here is our email correspondence:

Encouraged by her reply, I looked online and found a public NSF document from 1998 that clearly uses SMET.

Lastly, I asked her several questions, in a mini email interview:

  1. Are you surprised by how widespread the STEM term has become?

Ramaley: I wasn’t surprised because once NSF adopted the new acronym, I expected it would catch on.

2. Do you feel that the “STEM” brand has been successful?

Ramaley: STEM isn’t really a brand. It is simply an acronym. It works better than SMET I think because engineering and technology are framed by science and mathematics rather than trailing along behind as if less important. I am fascinated by the growing pressure to add other elements to STEM, making it STEAM, for instance. 

3. My son in 2nd grade goes to a STEM activity class once a week. (They just call it “STEM.”) This week he tells me they are working on a pollination project. Would you recommend anything different than the current system for encouraging American students to pursue technology fields?

Ramaley: Your third question is a sweeping one. It would help to know what a STEM activity means each week in your son’s second grade class.  I am drawn to ways of learning STEM that encourage students to approach these issues in an inquiry-based way that lets them explore what it means to ask interesting questions and work out ways to try to answer them. Young people are very curious about how the world works. I doubt that I need to tell you that since I bet your son sometimes drives you nuts with WHY and HOW questions. Questions like that are beautiful questions. 

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