By Sarah Hedgecock
While pulling together the America’s Best Value Colleges list, we hit upon a surprisingly contentious question: Would a nursing program fall under the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) umbrella? Or are nursing and similar fields kind of their own thing?
All over the internet there are message boards where people at all stages of nursing programs—prospective and current students as well as practicing graduates and longtime practitioners—argue over whether they work in a STEM field or something else. To make it worse, the answers are about evenly split.
So I went to the authorities. Who, it turns out, also lack solid consensus.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), for instance, includes nursing in its list of STEM fields as, at minimum, STEM-adjacent—but the Department of Commerce’s Economics and Statistics Administration does not. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) doesn’t include nursing on its list of STEM fields that make non-citizens eligible for a visa extension.
The way BLS categorizes nursing is complicated (as, it seems, is the way most people seem to categorize nursing): While it’s included in a very broad list of STEM fields, it’s more properly categorized under a secondary STEM “domain,” along with other health-related professions. When asked why the agency categorizes nursing the way it does, a spokesperson was careful to note that “there’s no single official definition of ‘STEM,’ and a different one might work better for another user.”
ICE declined to comment for this story.
The Department of Commerce, on the other hand, takes its cues from the National Science Foundation, which supports “all fields of fundamental science and engineering.” Nursing is an applied field, not necessarily focused on the fundamentals of physical sciences. No pure science research, no STEM designation. (Going beyond NSF designations, the DOC also doesn’t consider social sciences to be STEM.)
Next I decided to check with some educational institutions, and where better to start than a state whose governor is infamous for pushing STEM to the point of insulting other disciplines? (Full disclosure: Governor Scott made his anti-anthropology comments soon after I joined my college’s anthropology department. I chose to take my revenge by proving him wrong and growing up to be gainfully employed.)
As it turns out, Florida does include nursing in its list of STEM programs. The Florida education department’s reasoning for this is pragmatic, a spokesperson said:
The program includes a number of science courses—primarily in the “hard” sciences, such as anatomy and physiology, chemistry and microbiology—as prerequisites to entry into the program in addition to courses within the program that focus on both the acquisition and application of science-related content.
The practicality makes sense. If science and technology are deeply relevant to a profession’s training, why wouldn’t that profession fall under the STEM umbrella?
Patricia Davidson, the dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing, tends to agree. “You just have to look at what are the entry requirements for nursing,” she says, “which are basic sciences, anatomy, physiology, etc.”
The disconnect seems to lie in the translation of classwork to professional practice. Sure, biology classes are in a STEM department, but applying biology to day-to-day concerns is harder for people to wrap their heads around—including nursing students themselves.
“Claiming that nursing is a STEM field is constricting, but part of nursing definitely falls under the STEM umbrella,” Madeline Cox, a current nursing student at William Jewell College, in Missouri, told me.
Madeleine Hopfinger, another William Jewell nursing student, elaborated:
As nurses we definitely meet the requirements of a STEM field, but to limit it to STEM doesn’t do the field of nursing justice. So much of what we do involves communication, critical thought, cultural awareness, psychology. I wonder if we aren’t considered STEM because they think we aren’t science enough or because we are more than just science?
If you know anyone in a hard-science field—someone who does strict research and probably gets published in peer-reviewed journals (or tries to)—you’re probably familiar with the prejudice research scientists tend to have toward fields that apply science and technology in a day-to-day way. These prejudices can even be directed at other research scientists: Biology is really just applied chemistry, which is really just applied physics. Heaven help the social scientists.
That hierarchy can, and does, trickle down into day-to-day perceptions of certain professions as being under the STEM umbrella, and receiving all the funding and praise that that entails, or as just being another humdrum job responsible for mundane tasks between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. and serving no profound purpose whatsoever.
“Would you say that pharmacy is a STEM discipline? Most people would say yes,” Davidson says. “And is medicine a STEM discipline, most people would say yes. So I think it’s most people to look at the context of, yes, we’re caring, compassionate individuals, but there’s a lot more to nursing than mopping someone’s brow.”
There’s another barrier to seeing nursing as a STEM discipline that only one person I spoke to brought up: “Some of the residual stereotyping of nursing as being a ‘female’ career, as being about caring, makes visible a lot of the intensely intellectual stuff that nursing is,” Davidson told me.
That’s right: Sexism is most definitely still a thing in this world, and it even shows up (everywhere) in science and technology. In those supposedly completely logic- and merit-based fields, male and female students are about equal in number in high-school science programs. But the proportion of women steadily drops as you move up—and it’s not because science just isn’t a girl thing.
Fewer women at high levels in science means fewer people who are likely to default to thinking of scientists as women, or as traditionally female-dominated fields as science-related. Davidson puts it succinctly: “I think what’s often held nursing back is it’s seen as a women’s profession, and I think that’s stopped people thinking about nursing as a STEM discipline.”
(And while making sure more women get to the top of more biology departments might help with perception, it’s apparently terrible for pay.)
Ultimately, for the Best Value Colleges list, we decided that nursing programs do fall under STEM, on the grounds that students have to take a heck of a lot of science courses to graduate, and nothing says STEM like a bunch of science courses.
This article was written by Sarah Hedgecock from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.