NEH and STEM (my personal experiences with an initialism and an acronym).



In the summer of 2013 I had found out about an NEH sponsored History and culture workshop for school teachers. Its catchy title “Forever Wild” and its description had intrigue and made large promises. The website read:

“Only a few Americans at the turn of the century ever received the engraved invitation to join these Gilded Age elites at their “great camps” nestled deep in New York’s Adirondack forest.  For those favored guests of Uncas, Camp Pine Knot, and Sagamore, the trip by train, steamboat and carriage brought them out from soot-choked skies clouding industrial America to the pristine and unspoiled wilderness.  But what did they see when they arrived?”


I applied and six weeks later received my engraved invitation (well a somewhat standardized response from the program’s administrator explaining I would need water shoes for the shower and the camp was BYOB). So I embarked out of my “soot-choked skies” and onto a bus up to the Adirondacks not knowing what to expect.

Kevin Sheets and Randi Storch, two college professors from SUNY Cortland hosted us at a camp once visited by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and J.P Morgan. In one adventurous week our hosts, school teachers from around the country, local tree hugging experts and myself debated the concept of wilderness. Through the eyes of politicians, big business, academia and recreationalists we understood the lands of Upstate New York. There were scholarly inquiry in our discussions relating civilization’s connection to wilderness. There was debate on how land that is in the public’s trust can and should be used. There was a six passenger sea plane that gave us a bird’s eye view of terrain that could not be easily seen in any other way.


NEH: making everything accessible, one way or another.

Looking back, the experience has helped me to define not only what wilderness was, but also the NEH. Drawing from Mary Rizzo’s post “Finding the roots of civic engagement in the public humanities, I can safely say that I experienced first hand NEH’s striving to be non elitist. The location was one of many little known landmarks in the United States that the NEH was helping to make accessible. In addition, I felt the program’s objectives were in fact both  equal parts civic engagement and debate of public policy. These lessons have now found their way in my classroom here in New Jersey, and across the country in the classrooms of the other participating teachers.


When STEM (now STEAM) came to my district I had petitioned to have it renamed STEMSS. The SS would stand for Social Studies, a subject near and dear to my heart. My suggestion fell on deaf ears. In addition, I was recruited to chaperone one of the trips. Not only do I see a push for the STEM subjects, I sense that the humanities in the eyes of the State boils down to reading comprehension scores. This all made me very much depressed. Then I viewed “The Heart of the Matter”, an inspirational plea to inspire the world with Humanities. Yes, we are flower, and we don’t need an acronym like STEM to tell everyone how important we are. We have John Lithgow.

I think the biggest mistake we can make is to begin to separate and isolate any field of study. There has been huge pushes to create an across the curriculum approach to learning. Math teachers, language arts teachers and social studies teachers are constantly coordinating their efforts.

STEM does not in fact live in a tech bubble. Although it is not on the marquee, there are plenty in the way of humanities occurring in the world of STEM. Stem projects are full of language, art and even history. It just would be nice if we got some sort or credit for it.

About Ron

I am a social studies teacher at Carlstadt Public school and I attend Rutgers, Newark part time. I am looking to graduate sometime next year with a Masters in Teaching History. I enjoy traveling, the outdoors and technology when it makes life easier/more interesting.
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2 Responses to NEH and STEM (my personal experiences with an initialism and an acronym).

  1. Brian Tobin says:

    Ron! Thank you for your interesting story and congratulations – the world seems to always be BYOB now, but thankfully, we are living in a time of some excellent craft beer.

    It’s good to see the humanities being taught to teachers. Part of my job responsibilities is to bring STEM to high school students. I interact with them in a couple of avenues, and it is exciting in every aspect. I get to see the wonder in their eyes (literally), and I get to introduce each one of them to some pretty cool civil engineering stuff.

    But in the end, the class they always like the best is the class I teach on writing and history. It’s not math. It’s not blowing up concrete plugs. It’s a group discussion about where they came from, why do they have an interest in math or engineering, or who has influenced them the most in their 17 years on Earth.

    What I find the most inspiring is that the 75 minutes that week flies by faster than the other 11 sessions each summer. I also find it phenomenal that I rarely get an answer like, “Because I like math.” The answers are more like, “Because I want to make the world a better place.” “I want to be the one that built a theater for art to be performed.” “My dad was an artist, and he told me that there aren’t enough engineers that do good things.”

    These kids get it. They get that the work they will end up doing needs to have a purpose in the long run. The readings this week helped me recognize that the humanities are the flower so eloquently stated by John Lithgow in The Heart of the Matter – These kids know they have a greater purpose, and I truly hope they figure out how to use the skills they will learn for the greater good. It can get so lost if left out.

    They want to have a purpose in the world and someone taught them this. We can’t say for sure who taught them this. Was it a Social Studies teacher? Was it their parents? Either way, their sense of civil engagement was inspired.

    It warms my heart.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Drew says:

    Thanks for this post, Ron, and thanks to Brian for the response. Not a lot has come to mind for me in terms of commenting on people’s posts — I’m just absorbing, as I’m very new to discussing the humanities at large. I’m embarrassed to say that I had to google “STEM” when it came up in our readings — that’s how out of touch I am. At any rate, I think you’re right, Ron, that the NEH-sponsored trip you took involves plenty of civic engagement, since the lessons learned on the trip directly impact the classroom. Also, it seems good to me that teachers, who can be so overworked, can combine some BYOB dialogic wilderness experience with learning more to teach their students through the NEH. And Brian, it made me cheerful to read about your experience with the kids you’ve taught. One of my all-time favorite teachers in middle and high school taught both math and history. I had him for both in 7th-8th grade and loved it. Well, hope this is somewhat coherent. Looking forward to meeting people in class.

    Liked by 1 person

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