ESTEEM is STEM plus Ethics plus Empathy

by Jay Cuthrell
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High School Science Student Honors Program Argonne National Laboratory Summer 1990

About the photo…

You can’t go very far on the Internet or modern media before the term STEM is mentioned or extolled as a target to reach. STEM is the backronym associated with educational pursuits in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

Oddly enough, everyone from the IEEE to various political forces within the United States is bent on highlighting STEM curriculums and the state of general education within the United States. In these instances, the highlighting is done to illustrate an education crisis or a manufactured crisis depending on the source of that assertion.

Focusing solely on STEM or crisis claims of these types is missing something. Rather, the something is a couple of somethings.

Missing Ingredients

As with most backronyms, there are chances for specialization, focus, and emphasis that expand the definition by adding a letter or two. This can result in a memorable word that can shorthand a concept when used in confined and previously informed parties. For example, adding an A before Mathematics to be Applied Mathematics becomes STEAM. Alternatively, one could add that same A and introduce the notion of Arts in addition to the other pursuit areas of STEM.

In the spirit of addressing the human values aspects of STEM, I’d like to propose the following backronym expansion of STEM to include Empathy and Ethics: ESTEEM

Ethics, Science, Technology, Engineering, Empathy, and Mathematics

ESTEEM would start with an examination of Ethics across a range of fields and pursuits. Further, ESTEEM would include an examination of Empathy inclusive of the outcomes possible from STEM pursuits.

One could argue that Empathy would be a portion of the examination of Ethics. People even write books about these things.

So while there is a case to be made for making Ethics and Empathy some kind of interchangeable or fungible concept it isn’t my goal to promote that notion. Instead, I’m going to ignore that and not attempt to unify or classify in this way and keep Ethics and Empathy in two distinct areas.

Here’s why. I think STEM itself is similar enough sounding like stem to confuse folks who think it is part of a plant (which is also admittedly kind of cool). I’d like to have people confuse ESTEEM with the very thing that humans need to have for all forms of life and the variety of life itself both known and yet to be known — healthy and sustainable respect internally, externally, and communally.

The Origins of Meme

I was incredibly fortunate to be able to attend (and eventually finish) college. While I may not have become a Materials Science Engineer it was the exposure to the non-STEM electives that formed my view of the world of what is called STEM.

First, I took a history course called “History of Science and Technology”. In that course, I learned that science is that which explains and predicts whereas technology is the response to a perceived need.

Second, I took a multi-disciplinary studies course called “Science, Technology, and Human Values”. In that course, I learned that, among other things, just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

In a nutshell, science is important and grasping technology is important and being grounded in engineering is important and none of it happens without mathematics but all of it still requires that the student understand what has preceded them and the ethical quandaries leading to this point in time and the development of empathy in the future.

Update for 2017

I was listening to the local NPR station today and learned Anil Dash was interviewed by Krista Tippett of “On Being”. As soon as I heard the first few minutes of the interview I knew I needed to revisit this post from 2014.

Three years have gone by since I wrote this and it would appear that many of the most visible personalities in the tech world are beginning to get asked deeper questions. I see this as progress.

IMHO, the sobering tone of the interview should not be confused with despair… but one of cautious hope… Enjoy.


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