The Definition of STEM?

By Dan Donahoe

Honest and productive discussions about STEM topics (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) are muddled by the public’s confusion about what exactly STEM means. Corporations flavor the definition they use to push for more workers while engineers and scientists, who complain there is an oversupply, have another. This short article will attempt to explain how the lack of a STEM definition contributed to the origin of this philosophical confusion; and, briefly, why this seemingly minor intellectual error has gained traction in our collective consciousness.

History of STEM

Concerns about domestic technical education are as old as the country per the following quote: Depending on how broadly the term is defined, federal interest in STEM education may be traced to the 1st Congress (outline of historic legislative provided in appendix of reference) [5].

The term STEM was coined by Judith Ramaley while a director at NSF (National Science Foundation) in 2001 to replace its predecessor SMET by reordering the words [ 2, 4]. The origins of the acronym SMET seem lost to history. The earliest that I have found the term used was dated 1993 [3]. This document reflects NSF’s educational focus of SMET in the words: One major NSF goal is to improve the quality of the Nation’s science, mathematics, engineering, and technology (SMET) education. The term SMET was further highlighted to the public in a series of congressional hearings in 1997 [6].

Formal Definition of STEM

The existing Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) Standard Occupational Classification (2010 SOC) system classifies all workers into 840 occupations. In July 2011, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget tasked the BLS Standard Occupation Classification Policy Committee (SOCPC), a collection of federal agencies, with providing recommendations for defining STEM occupations based on the 2010 SOC “to enhance comparability of data across statistical agencies and organizations studying the STEM workforce
for policymaking purposes, including educational and workforce planners.”

The SOCPC workgroup provided their recommendation in August 2012 [7], and that recommendation came in the form of a table with four “domain” columns and twenty rows for “types of occupation” (providing up to 80 possible intersections). The table is too large to include in this brief article, but the fact that the interagency definition of STEM is so complex underscores the notion that a formal attempt at defining STEM is susceptible to lumping too many disparate disciplines together.

Informal Definitions of STEM

Our economy is based on technological innovation, and it is this generally accepted recognition of this core fact [11] that unconsciously drives disjointed approaches to STEM. Since humans often act on emotional grounds [12] and act on deeply held beliefs (for example, “entrepreneurs are more valuable than mathematicians”), private programs supporting STEM blend concoctions of their beliefs and motives into their approaches.

2013 Government Review of STEM Education

Given that STEM was poorly defined prior to August 2012, the General Accounting Office (GAO) reviewed federal programs which reads, in part, In fiscal year 2010 [1 October 2009 to 30 September 2010], 13 federal agencies invested over $3 billion in 209 programs designed to increase knowledge of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields and attainment of STEM degrees…. it will be important to finalize a government-wide strategic plan so agencies can better align their performance plans and reports to new government-wide goals [8].

Private Support of Technical Education?

Organizations have supported advancement of the full array of technical skills in students, including some groups that that promote noble visions of the future. Notable among these noble efforts is the competition known as “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology” or FIRST, founded by the well-known inventor Dean Kaman. FIRST is a contest intended to introduce hands-on skills and share the excitement of these pursuits in an emotionally energy-charged public arena.


The confusion of STEM policy topics originates from its history. A definition based on agglomerating dissimilar technical skills and the practice of improperly applying educational concepts to the labor force yield a confusing picture. Such confusion is inevitable whenever attempting to solve any improperly stated problem in science (including social sciences and economics), mathematics, engineering, or technology. The idea that one must know the origins of an idea before gaining understanding originated with the Greek philosopher Aristotle almost 2400 years ago [1].

When government policies are ill-defined, it is likely that those policies will be ineffective, as the GAO has shown. Moreover, history shows that unfocused policies open the door to abuse by groups such as is the case of exploitation in the H1-B visa program that is replacing domestic workers with cheap labor [10].

Dean Kaman best lifted the fog surrounding STEM confusion and the core issue with a direct statement about cultural and emotional aspects of cause and effect related to why many American students are shunning science, engineering and mathematics as careers: “In a free society, you get what you celebrate.” [9]


  1. Aristotle (Translated by G. R. G. Mure), Posterior Analytics, 350 BC,

  2. J. Ramaley, personal email, 9 Nov 2013.

  3. NSF 93-143 Guide to Programs in the Division of Research, Evaluation and Dissemination with specific guidelines for individual programs, September 1993

  4. E. Chute, STEM education is branching out, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 10 Feb. 2009.

  5. H. Gonzalez and , J. Kuenzi Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), Education: A Primer, Congressional Research Service, August 1, 2012.

  6. THE STATE OF SCIENCE, MATH, ENGINEERING, AND TECHNOLOGY EDUCATION (SMET) IN AMERICA, PART I WEDNESDAY, JULY 23, 1997 U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Science, Washington, DC.

  7. US BLS, Options for Defining STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Occupations Under the 2010 Standard Occupational Classification System. August 2012,

  8. GAO-13-529T, SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY, ENGINEERING, AND MATHEMATICS EDUCATION: Government-wide Strategy Needed to Better Manage Overlapping Programs, Apr 10, 2013.

  9. D. U.S. Must Focus on STEM to Regain Innovative Spirit,

  10. H. Smith, Who Stole the American Dream?, 2012, pp 292-301.

  11. Solow, R., Technical Change and the Aggregate Production Function, The Review of Economicsand Statistics, Vol. 39, No. 3, Aug 1957, pp. 312-320.

  12. A. Revkin, Daniel Kahneman on the Trap of ‘Thinking That WeKnow’,

Opinions expressed are the author’s.

Dan Donahoe, MBA, Ph.D., PE, is an IEEE Senior Member, a member of the IEEE CPMT BoG, associate editor of IEEE Transactions on Components, Packaging and Manufacturing Technology, and a member of IEEE-USA’s Career Policy Committee


Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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