What’s in a Name: The Differences Between STEM, Computer Science, Coding, and Robotics

Post in News by Skyla Lilly on 3rd January 2020

When people talk about makerspaces and STEM labs, lots of terms are thrown around interchangeably (STEM, engineering, coding, computer science, robotics). All of these things interact, but they’re not exactly the same. Read below to get an idea of the nuances and differences between the words STEM and computer science.


STEM (or STEAM) is Science, Technology, Engineering, (Art,) and Math. The idea behind STEM is that all of these things are interconnected and easily combined into one program. The biggest thing to consider when creating a STEM Lab is the goal for the space. You can have all of the aspects of STEM hold equal weight or have some parts support a main subject. What you put in that space will greatly depend on that goal.


Coding is how we tell computers what to do. There are different coding languages, such as, block-based coding, which is a way to introduce coding in a more manageable way before learning the text-based languages. Coding can work on a computer or in combination with physical computing. A lot of robots sold for the classroom use block-based coding to teach beginners how to code. There are even some robots that use actual blocks for young learners! (I’m looking at you, KIBO!)

Physical Computing

Physical computing is where electronics and circuits come into play. You’re connecting parts and wires and then telling it what to do with code. When students learn physical computing, they’re not just learning about coding or circuitry, but paying special attention to how they interact and create a functional unit. Units that use Raspberry pi, like pi-top and Kano, are great for this type of learning. The coding kit for littleBits is also an excellent way to merge coding and circuitry to build cohesive projects.


Robotics is part of this as well, specifically when it deals with designing and building robots. The difference between that and physical computing is really about input. Robots are intended to do a job and operate on their own, while typically pure computer science involves an input of some kind and it does something in response to that input. Obviously, as you add sensors to robots, the line between these two get a little fuzzy. Not to mention that most robots in schools are used for learning to code. Robots like Sphero and Ozobot focus on coding already-built robots. Robotis kits, on the other hand, focus on building the structure and the coding comes in later in smaller amounts. So, when you say robots, you often need to think about which part of the process is most important.


Often you’ll see all of these things coexisting and interacting in a STEM Lab or Makerspace. They all blend together well within a STEM curriculum. Knowing the differences between STEM, Computer Science, coding, and robotics, however, can make it easier to define the goals for your school or classroom and help you create a more productive space for learning.

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