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Should Nursing Be Recognized as a STEM Profession?

Joelle Y. Jean, FNP-C, BSN, RN
Updated February 27, 2023
    Explore why nursing should be recognized as a STEM profession and how that recognition can happen.
    Credit: Solskin / Getty Images
    • The goal of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education is to competitively position the U.S. in the global market, prepare students for STEM careers, and increase the amount of STEM-prepared students in the job market.
    • Although nurses apply math, biology, and technology to their practice daily, nursing degrees aren’t typically recognized as STEM degrees.
    • Nursing is not recognized as STEM by the Department of Commerce’s Economics and Statistics Administration, Department of Homeland Security, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

    When asked if nursing is a STEM career, many may assume it is recognized as a STEM-designated degree program. Nursing students take courses robust in science, math, and technology.

    “Nurses in every aspect of healthcare engage with technology and are the first to implement the use of new technology as it emerges,” says Tammy K. Stafford, DNP, assistant clinical professor and graduate program coordinator at Angelo State University.

    Without STEM, nurses wouldn’t be able to provide evidence-based, scientific, and innovative practices to their patients.

    But in the realm of STEM, nursing is not recognized as STEM education by the U.S. government. This can lead to social, political, and economic barriers.

    Find out why some nursing professionals believe nursing should be recognized as a STEM profession and what they feel needs to happen to get there.

    What Is STEM?

    In 2001, Judith Ramaley, Ph.D., from the National Science Foundation coined the term STEM. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. She defined it as:

    “An educational inquiry where learning was placed in context, where students solved real-world problems and created opportunities — the pursuit of innovation.”

    In 2007, a few studies revealed adding “A” for art, to create STEAM education, provided innovations through:

    • Analogies
    • Models
    • Skills
    • Structures
    • Techniques
    • Methods
    • Knowledge

    The addition of art to STEM education allowed students to expand their imaginations and become innovators through art.

    STEM/STEAM eventually transformed into an educational concept integrating into classrooms of all grade levels. Past presidents like Barack Obama and George W. Bush have also promoted STEM education.

    In 2022, the Biden-Harris administration started an initiative called Raise the Bar: STEM Excellence for All Students Initiative. It is designed to:

    • Enhance STEM education nationally
    • Ensure all students from pre-K to higher education excel in rigorous, relevant, and joyful STEM learning
    • Develop and support our STEM educators to join, grow, and stay in the STEM field
    • Invest in STEM education strategically and sufficiently using the American Rescue Plan (ARP) and other federal, state, and local funds

    There are many reasons for STEM programs. STEM education competitively positions the U.S. in the global market, prepares students for STEM careers, and increases the amount of STEM-prepared students in the job market.

    To be recognized as a STEM degree drives funding. Through ARP by the Biden-Harris administration, $120 billion dollars is dedicated to K-12 STEM education programs. Federal education funds are also reserved for STEM education throughout higher education.

    Federal and state agencies promote and fund STEM programs. Scholarships are offered to students interested in STEM fields. But the STEM field and which professions fall under the umbrella term continues to be up for debate.

    Is Nursing a STEM/STEAM Subject?

    A nursing degree is composed of a variety of courses on the fundamentals of nursing. Prerequisites to nursing classes begin with the same as many other STEM degrees.

    “They include math, higher-level math, and chemistry just like other STEM fields,” Nancy A. Mimm, DNP, an assistant professor at Harrisburg University, points out.

    A master’s in nursing, for instance, includes:

    • Advanced statistics
    • Biostatistics
    • Advanced anatomy and physiology
    • Advanced pharmacology

    The science- and math-focused curriculum prepares nursing students to examine and create data that dictates evidence-based practices, Mimm says. A nursing degree also fosters inquiry, logical thinking, and collaboration as a team, similar goals to a STEM education.

    “Nurses are scientists as we examine, evaluate, and recommend treatments and interventions,” Mimm says. “We then assess them for effectiveness to promote the best optimum health and well-being outcomes for populations and individuals.”

    Nurses cannot do their job without the use of math. Math is used by nurses to ensure proper calculations of medication dosages that are provided safely to patients.

    “Nurses also use math to analyze data to determine changes made and changes needed to improve the quality of care while controlling healthcare costs,” Stafford says.

    The nursing profession is also considered an art. Regarding STEAM, the nurse curriculum contains prerequisites in liberal arts, including social and behavioral science and the humanities.

    “Nurses demonstrate empathy and compassion soft skills as well. Many nurses are creative and use the arts to convey and teach concepts,” Susan J, Farese, MSN, RN, says. For example, Farese explains she teaches poetry, especially Haiku, as a therapeutic avenue for stress management. She also uses art as an educational method.

    [I use art] for teaching and validating nursing concepts, subjects, and values clarification,” Farese says.

    Mimm adds, “Nursing is … an art of caring, compassion, and empathy to help to empower individuals and communities to have their best health and well-being.”

    When it comes to engineering, many may think a nursing degree doesn’t encompass engineering. But that’s quite the opposite. While nurses might not consider themselves engineers, they are at the heart of engineering, Stafford says.

    “As trained problem solvers, nurses are engineering every day in their work as demonstrated by their ability to identify problems and often create a workaround to ensure the delivery of quality patient care,” Stafford explains.

    Nurses also use the scientific method in every portion of their role. “This method is the exact method that every scientist utilizes,” Mimm says.

    Because nurses are immersed in every aspect of the healthcare facility, they are often the ones who identify areas that need improvement, especially with technology and systems practices.

    Why Isn’t Nursing Considered STEM/STEAM?

    The U.S.Bureau of Labor Statistics includes nursing as a STEM field and STEM adjacent, recognizing practitioner occupations as STEM professions. Higher education has also embraced nursing as a STEM profession, with several universities including nursing in their science programs.

    But the Department of Commerce’s Economics and Statistics Administration does not consider nursing a STEM education.

    The Department of Homeland Security and ICE also does not include nursing on their list as STEM.

    Like medicine, although nurses apply math, biology, and technology to their daily practice, medical and nursing schools are typically not included as a STEM field. Nursing is considered an applied science that can be perceived, as one literature review points out, as “a jack of all trades and a master of none.” This, perhaps, is a reason why nursing isn’t considered STEM/STEAM.

    Resulting Barriers

    There are barriers the nursing profession faces when nursing isn’t considered a STEM degree. For example:

    • The Department of Homeland Security doesn’t consider nursing as STEM, which makes noncitizens not eligible for a visa extension.
    • Although STEM education is expanding nationally, the Department’s Civil Rights Data Collection continues to report students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately excluded from learning opportunities in STEM. This directly impacts recruiting prospective nursing students into the profession.
    • There is a gender gap found in STEM fields. The American Association of University Women reports women make up only 28% of STEM occupations.

    Over 85% of nurses are women. Perhaps if nursing was recognized as STEM, it could increase the percentage of women in STEM, attracting more funding and workforce development.

    What Needs to Happen for Nursing to Be Recognized as a STEM Profession?

    There are a few initiatives that can push the agenda to recognize nursing as a STEM profession. Here are seven:

    1. 1

      The U.S. government should recognize nursing as a STEM profession

      If the U.S. government recognized nursing as a STEM profession, this would open many opportunities for those pursuing the profession. For example, funding would be more available for nursing education on a federal level and less competitive.

      Funding can be used to address nursing shortages both in clinical and academic settings. With nursing identified as a STEM profession, it can also better position nurses to pursue other STEM careers.

    2. 2

      Nurses should spread the word

      Spreading the word would help the public understand that nursing is, in fact, a STEM career. “We need to use the language of STEM and continue working on nursing research and quality and process improvement,” Mimm says.

    3. 3

      Nurses need to believe they are innovators

      Nurses need to understand their role as innovators. Understanding this role begins with knowing innovation can be small or large. “Nurses need the educational background and time to learn and implement evidence-based practice, technological improvements, and innovative ideas,” Stafford says.

    4. 4

      Nurses should collaborate with other STEM professions

      An aspect to consider is the interprofessional collaboration of nurses with engineers. This would help to engage a partnership and spur innovation, says Stafford.

    5. 5

      Academic institutions should categorize nursing within STEM/STEAM education

      Academic institutions must place nursing under the STEM department. This is happening at some institutions in higher education but should be consistent within all academic institutions and begin at the undergraduate level.

    6. 6

      Nurses should pursue a seat at the table

      Farese suggests that nurses intentionally pursue a seat at the table in the government, in centers for statistics in education, on hospital boards, in the media, and in hospital management companies, healthcare organizations, and/or academia.

    7. 7

      Nurses should add their input

      Nurses should be included in STEM-funding decisions for education, hospitals, health and medical equipment, and system procurement programs, Farese says.

    Nursing’s designation as a STEM profession is essential for the future of nursing. The nursing shortage is only predicted to worsen. If nursing was considered STEM, it could improve workforce development, funding, and immigration policy. It could also lead to more scholarship opportunities for those interested in pursuing a nursing-STEM career.

    Meet Our Contributors

    Portrait of Tammy K. Stafford, DNP, MSN, MBA, RN, NEA-BC

    Tammy K. Stafford, DNP, MSN, MBA, RN, NEA-BC

    Tammy Stafford has 29 years of experience in the inpatient and outpatient settings caring for end-stage renal disease patients with 18 years of leadership experience. In fall 2018, Stafford joined the Department of Nursing at Angelo State University as an assistant clinical professor and graduate program coordinator. Stafford is proud to have the opportunity to teach nurses and prepare them for advanced practice.

    Portrait of Nancy Mimm, DNP, MSN-BS, APHN, CNL

    Nancy Mimm, DNP, MSN-BS, APHN, CNL

    Nancy A. Mimm is an assistant professor in the nursing program with a specialization/concentration in population health at Harrisburg University. Mimm is board certified in advanced public health with a demonstrated history of working in healthcare leadership. She is interested in public health topics including maternal child health, nursing leadership, public health administration, evidence-based practice implementation, and the evaluation of clinical outcomes.

    Portrait of Susan J. Farese, MSN, RN

    Susan J. Farese, MSN, RN

    Susan J. Farese has been an RN since 1978 and has a master’s in nursing. She has been a nurse consultant intermittently since 1991. Farese has clinical, administration, teaching/staff development, research, and consulting experience in nursing and healthcare. She is presently a consultant in PR/communications with her company SJF Communications.