Integrating STEM and Social Sciences


By definition, STEM is collaborative. It is a way of introducing multiple streams of thought to students to enable higher-order thinking. This is evident from the way it is termed –  an acronym for multiple subjects – indicative of subject integration. Yet, when it comes to the social sciences, STEM considers it to be outside of its purview. In order to inculcate a holistic view of those subjects that it does consider to be under its purview, STEM must necessarily encompass the social sciences, and the other way around. There are various reasons to make the two streams inclusive of each other. These reasons vary depending on the context i.e., school, research or work. In this article, we will lay down both the reasons and some ways to introduce the change.

Predominantly, in the Indian education system, students are forced to make a choice between ‘Science’ and ‘Commerce’ (for the most part there are no other options) at the age of 15. This choice is considered to be a major one since it supposedly decided the student’s career path. Thus, behaviorally and mentally, this choice sets in at a much earlier age. Parents often attempt to predict their child’s future based on the ‘type’ of subjects that they like right from their elementary education. The child is then categorized in everyday conversations and other such practices– “My son is good at science and math”, “My daughter is better at social science than math” , and so on. Children who are good at math and science are often thought of to be ‘smarter’ than those who have an aptitude for the social sciences.

The subjects are divided, and then so are the students. Science and math are also often dubbed as the ‘hard’ subjects, and the social sciences are thought of to be nothing more than ‘stories’. This creates an inauthentic hierarchy of students based on the streams they ultimately pick under pressure. The mutual inclusion of social sciences and STEM within the classes and syllabus of the other would not only improve the students’ level of thinking and learning, but would also hugely contribute towards abolishing such prejudices, hierarchies and pressures.  

There are many interesting ways to begin including STEM subjects within the social sciences in schools. For instance, science experiments can be used to teach about climate and culture in various parts of the world, pipelines can be constructed in an engineering classroom style to talk about transportation, infrastructure and the spread of diseases as well. Design challenges can replace poster making competitions to create awareness about various problems in the world. The use of maps can be made more dynamic and advanced with today’s technologically advanced classrooms and educational tools.

Over the past decade many educators have shone light on the necessity for this intersection between the social sciences and STEM, right from school education. Some of these proponents even specify how they use social sciences for instance in a STEM class. Meghan Raftery, of the Elementary Social Studies, uses social studies as a ‘topical focus’ for STEM education. She sights for instance that it helps to clarify that the people of the past are not rudimentary or primitive just because they did not have the knowledge that we have now. “We try to help kids respectfully consider the engineering feats of the past in context with the resources available at the time.” Through this points to the fact that that understanding simple machines helps students learn their science as well as gain a deeper socio-historical perspective.

Another proponent for the integration of STEM and the social sciences, Michelle Warrington, an elementary school teacher, points out that connecting the two shows students to make connections between events. “For example, technological advancements such as the cotton gin and the electric bulb, both has societal implications.”

Other proponents have argued that such an integration allows for students to express more enthusiasm, and choice, in terms of what they want to learn and which way they want to take the course of learning, together. This way, some argue, students also accrue the benefits of team work and initiative, in addition to creativity and education itself.

Within the social sciences, anthropology and sociology specifically, the study of STEM through their own lenses, has been relevant for decades now. Science and technology studies within the social sciences often bring a cultural study that is steeped in observations of science and technology as disciplines. However, these fields too often host researchers and academicians who have a previous base in the STEM disciplines before ‘moving’ to the social sciences. A hold over the concepts or the ‘technical’ parts still seems to be outside of the bounds of the social sciences.

There are other differences between these disciplines too. Patrick Dunleavy, Simon Bastow and Jane Tinkler, authors of the book ‘ The Impact of The Social Sciences’ argue that “social science has a research process that is essentially cumulative, largely missing the ‘breakthrough’ discoveries or the ‘lone genius’ insights on which public images of the physical sciences and technological disciplines still focus.” In popular imagination, the idea of a scientist is one that still brings to mind the image of a man in a white coat, slogging away all alone in a laboratory. The new research within the social sciences, Dunelavy, Bastow and Tinkler point out, are instead considered to be “new ideas”. The research within both STEM disciplines as well as the social science disciplines are equally robust, time consuming and challenging. However, the STEM research acquires more funding, and garners more social merit and respect.

The role of the social sciences research in governance, social network analyses (this is highly relevant now for COVID  contact tracing etc), transport, health etc., cannot be ignored. An integration of the two disciplines even in a research level could yield very productive and insightful fruits for the betterment of human life. In today’s world, where crises loom large and often, both ecologically and politically, the coming together of STEM subjects and social sciences is not only a good idea, but a necessary one.

The USA’s National Science Foundation has recently published that the increased influence of the social sciences have impacted the workforce of STEM jobs. There has an been an inflow of people from diverse streams thanks to the awareness that the social sciences have created. The broadening of cultural and social horizons through new ideas and insights established within the social sciences has impacted the rise in numbers of women and minorities within STEM workforce. This inflow has in-turn changed the course of research in the STEM disciplines.

If this isn’t reason enough to integrate STEM with the social sciences, the fact that there is also a higher relevance between the two supposedly different fields today than ever before, cannot be ignored. Most work places create and manage data in large quantities. The market runs through the exchange of this data. However in order to exchange it, the data needs to be collated, processed and put through technology that is able to handle the vastness, as well as provide accurate analyses. In order to be able to read the data, the social sciences are required – to understand the ground reality, the required information, and the logical connection between various parameters.

Social Studies are defined as the study of the humanities and the social sciences to promote civic competence. Today, all matters pertaining to the civic life of an individual are intertwined – the market, the government, and the social sphere. This thick network can only be competently navigated through an integrated approach – one that allows for great minds to think adeptly through all the possible angles. Such an approach can only be achieved by the bringing together of the STEM disciplines and the social sciences.