The problem with acronyms is that they develop a life of their own and come to mean very different things to different people.

A good example is CPD, now used universally instead of INSET. Can we consider anything we do that contributes to our ability to carry out our professional role to be CPD?

Likewise, if we are teaching one of the subjects that exist under the umbrella title of STEM, are we really teaching STEM? Like all acronyms it can be used to add gravitas and perceived value to activity that, although perfectly worthy in its own right, is not actually meeting the definition of what, in my opinion, STEM is all about.

All too often we define STEM as mathematics and science, whilst the other contributing subjects struggle for visibility. Ministers and government officials do this all the time. It’s convenient and the use of the term sounds impressive. But it is not helpful as it devalues both the concept itself and the other subjects that contribute to that concept. Caroline Wright’s article on “barriers to increasing STEM take up at KS4 and 5” [Practical solutions, TS 4. 8, p.57] makes reference to the previous curriculum being dull, citing the possible relationship between this and the nature of practical activity taking place to support learning. We have heard for a long time about how the science curriculum is taught in too theoretical a way with less opportunity for practical experimentation to take place. She quotes the work of Robin Millar, whose work concludes that:

‘the key differentiators between achieving learning benefits or not , appear to be based on the kind of practical work used and the way it is incorporated – in other words , its not what you do but how you do it that matters’. (Millar 2010)

Isolation issues

Now those of us who teach design and technology (D&T) would wholeheartedly concur with that view. Indeed D&T has developed from a long and worthy history centered on practical work resulting in making things. But it is the value of the activity that underpins the end product that in the main justifies its very inclusion in the English National Curriculum, and those of other countries. That process is dependent on the use of skills, knowledge and understanding learnt in other subjects, complementing D&T’s own unique subject content.

Coming from the specialist area of D&T, I’m all too aware of how as a subject under threat, the claim that what is being taught under that particular subject title is STEM. Well, all too often it isn’t, in just the same way that teaching mathematics or science in isolation is not STEM. All contribute to the concept, but none on account of their mere title have a right to lay claim to what they are doing as being STEM. Unless what is being taught, is done so in a linked and coordinated way, it simply isn’t STEM.

Science and mathematics have been in the school curriculum for a long time, yet the subject of technology is relatively new. In the UK, engineering is rarely taught as a separate subject and D&T is still by comparison in its infancy. So perhaps is it not surprising that even after 27 years of design and technology featuring as a compulsory subject in the English National Curriculum, its role in providing real and meaningful contexts for STEM activity is under utilised. Where it is found embedded in the curriculum, it generally results from regular conversations taking place between science, mathematics and D&T colleagues. This become more and more important as the sophistication of the subject matter becomes more complex, as pupils progress through the school.

Few D&T teachers have sufficient background in science to be able to cover the science elements of what underpins the technologies they are using. Not enough have the confidence to develop the mathematical skills that could so readily be developed as part of a typical project. And teachers are conditioned to concentrate on passing on their own specific body of knowledge that will ultimately be converted into a GCSE grade further down the track. But what they can provide is a context.

Contextual learning

In their excellent book, Teaching STEM in the Secondary School, Frank Banks and David Barlex set out the opportunities that exist for developing a STEM curriculum. They provide numerous examples of project work including problem-based learning through STEM. Most of these are what are commonly known as design and make assignments.

One of the examples they cite is a project developed by Design and Technology Association Innovation Group teacher member Phil Holton, which involved the use of Mindsets teaching resources.

The project taught pupils about the benefits of harnessing a useful scientific phenomenon known as the Peltier effect. Pupils were given a small solid-state device about the size of a postage stamp, and told to observe what happened when a current was passed through it. The device became very hot on one side and very cold on another – an intriguing effect with potential uses in a variety of situations, and which even result in the development of innovative new products.

Understanding the physics needed to explain this may be beyond the range of the standard KS3 curriculum, but there was scope for an interesting scientific investigation and using mathematics to explore data relating to temperature change. In the context of D&T, there was scope for real innovation.

Cross-curricular working

The demanding task set looked like this:

• In this project you are challenged with designing a unique concept product using ‘Peltier cell’ technology
• You will need to conduct research into the capabilities of a Peltier cell, and understand current and patented uses of technology, before designing conceptual uses for the cell
• You will need to model your best idea to a level where it can be tested, evaluate your concept and finish by creating a patent document that describes the unique idea you have developed

In this particular example, the pupils were free to determine their own particular context for developing the use of the principle. Previous pupil designs have included sports injury treatment equipment and small containers for storage of hot or cold snacks. The opportunity is both motivational, and provides relevance for learning that crosses conventional subject boundaries.

It seems a long time since the National Curriculum was built on cross-curricular working, but it’s actually only been less than 10 years. STEM is a concept that still seems to have legs, but let’s see it in action in schools, not just referred to – and often incorrectly - in high places.

Andy Mitchell is an independent educational consultant, former deputy chief executive of The Design and Technology Association and previously taught D&T in a number of schools. For more information, follow @AndyMitchell14