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Social Studies: The Original STEM

This post is not a plea to add social studies to list of STEM disciplines.  “SSSTEM” does not roll off the tongue politely in conversation.  “STEMSS” is not a memorable acronym, either.  I also worry that if we add too many more disciplines to STEM, we’re just going to end up with a clunky acronym for the traditional 8-10 course school day.

Instead, this post is a thought that social studies education is the original STEM initiative.

Consider this definition of STEM:

“STEM is the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, and encompasses a vast array of subjects that fall into each of those terms. While it is almost impossible to list every discipline, some common STEM areas include: aerospace engineering, astrophysics, astronomy, biochemistry, biomechanics, chemical engineering, chemistry, civil engineering, computer science, mathematical biology, nanotechnology, neurobiology, nuclear physics, physics, and robotics, among many, many others.”1 

Sound familiar?  Consider this definition of social studies:

"NCSS defines social studies as the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence. Within the school program, social studies provides coordinated, systematic study drawing upon such disciplines as anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, as well as appropriate content from the humanities, mathematics, and natural sciences. In essence, social studies promotes knowledge of and involvement in civic affairs.”2

The concept that multiple disciplines with shared interests should join together is an important one.  The good news is that this concept has a history.  NCSS is approaching its 100th anniversary in 2021, and as I noted in my last post, the idea of “social studies” dates back even further in time.  A model of integrating disciplines into the social studies has undergone many tests.  Yet the long-standing push for appropriate curricular integration through the social studies shows the possibilities of STEM today.  Our education system has pushed for integration of the various social sciences and humanities as an effort to understand the human-made world.  In recent years, it’s logical that we’ve made the same push for the integrated study of science, technology, engineering, and math as an effort to understand the physical world.  The promotion of “STEM education” is based on our long-standing work in “social studies education” as a multi-disciplinary approach to teaching and learning.

Because “STEM” and “social studies” share a similar focus on using multiple bodies of knowledge to understand and solve problems in the world around us, we share common ground.  As NCSS further writes in its definition of social studies, “…because civic issues--such as health care, crime, and foreign policy--are multidisciplinary in nature, understanding these issues and developing resolutions to them require multidisciplinary education.  These characteristics are the key defining aspects of social studies.”  I propose connecting social studies and STEM education together at meaningful points, because civics issues like those described above are both “physical world” and “human-made world” issues.  For example, advances in medicine are connected to our study of health care; new technologies in forensics help us to address crime; research on our climate and environment influence foreign policy.  When partnered together, “STEM” and “social studies” enable us to ask deeper questions and propose sharper conclusions based on a wide body of evidence. 

As we define the goals and outcomes of social studies education in its next century, let’s think and practice between STEM and social studies disciplines: geography and geology, civics and technology, history and engineering, economics and math – to name just a few of the possibilities.

1 Source: “STEM Education.” Retrieved from https://teach.com/what/teachers-know/stem-education/.

2 Source: “About National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)”. Retrieved from http://www.socialstudies.org/about

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