Natalie Angier’s angry words about the term “STEM” in her New York Times column last week (“STEM education has nothing to do with flowers”) are still puzzling to me.
She made a few good points: The use of acronyms can indeed lead to confusing and exclusive language. STEM education agendas, simply by grouping certain academic or research activities together and not others, can encourage science and technology to remain remote from social engagement and the concerns of the humanities. But her ire seemed overblown, sweeping every invocation of STEM away before her in a blast of almost aesthetic distate for the term. What’s going on here?
The Times published a short letter that I wrote today in response to that column, which I’m glad they titled, “STEM: Fighting Word.” I hope it captured some other readers’ feelings about her anti-STEM eruption. But I am left wondering: Is it possible that Angier, a science media writer I have considered among the best, may not have known that the “STEM” label has adorned countless diversity and equity projects in the science and technical disciplines? If so, those projects are even more marginalized in the science world than I’d feared.
We all need to rant now and then. There are cringe-inducing words that set me off, too: “Staycation,” “Spalon”…don’t get me started. But STEM is a politically and historically complex label. Angier miscasts it as “didactic and jargony” and thus, for readers who don’t know about STEM’s long-standing role in educational equity, encourages quick dismissal at every encounter with the word. What a shame. Think of how much good Angier could have done with this column had she distinguished among the multiple invocations of STEM, rather than just venting.