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What Is STEM Education?

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For about two decades, the term “STEM education” has been used to describe an integrated approach to education. The first letters of the four broad subject areas, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, form the acronym STEM.

The Beginnings of STEM

According to the U.S. STEM Foundation, it was during the 1990s that the NSF recognized science and mathematics “as the bookends and enablers for the applied subjects of technology and engineering,” and “that these subjects cannot and should not be taught in isolation.”

Education consultant Patricia Fioriello agrees. In an online article, she writes, “STEM Education attempts to transform the typical teacher-centered classroom by encouraging a curriculum that is driven by problem-solving, discovery, exploratory learning, and requires students to actively engage a situation in order to find its solution.”

Fioriello, who holds a doctorate in educational leadership, suggests creating a STEM “meta-discipline” by “incorporating technology and engineering into regular curriculum.”

What Is the Goal of STEM Education?

Ideally speaking, the U.S. Department of Education says students in STEM programs will demonstrate that they “are prepared to bring knowledge and skills to solve problems, make sense of information, and know how to gather and evaluate evidence to make decisions.”

The Education Department is overseeing a five-year plan published in December 2018, Charting a Course for Success: America’s Strategy for STEM Education, developed by the Committee on STEM Education of the National Science & Technology Council. The plan’s vision “represents an urgent call to action for a nationwide collaboration with learners, families, educators, communities, and employers — a ‘North Star’ for the STEM community as it collectively charts a course for the nation’s success.”

To support the development of a diverse talent pool of STEM-literate workers with skills for the jobs of the future, the plan addresses three broad aspirational goals:

  1. Build strong foundations for STEM literacy to equip the future workforce to handle rapid technological change, which will also help them participate culturally.
  2. Increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM for all Americans, ensuring lifetime access to high-quality STEM education, especially to populations historically underserved and underrepresented in STEM fields and employment. The Executive Summary of the report states, “The full benefits of the nation’s STEM enterprises will not be realized until this goal is achieved.”
  3. Create STEM learning experiences that encourage learners in secondary school, colleges and technical and trade schools to pursue STEM careers.

What Are the Trends in STEM

The organization 100Kin10, on a mission to recruit 100,000 STEM teachers by 2021, publishes an annual report on STEM trends. Here are a few highlights from the most recent report.

  • Increasing the diversity of the STEM teacher workforce is a priority. Teachers of color comprise less than 20% of U.S. teachers, despite the fact that students of color comprise 50% of U.S. students. A study reported by NPR found that “when students had teachers of the same race as them, they reported … putting forth more effort in school and having higher college aspirations.” Partnerships and new programs will address the gaps in racial, as well as cultural, linguistic and socio-economic diversity in schools.
  • The Technology component of STEM will continue to gain prominence as a core life skill for teachers and students. More programs will emphasize digital literacy in teacher training.
  • Support of STEM teachers in rural schools, who may feel disconnected and lack opportunities available in more populated schools, will expand.
  • STEM’s role in early childhood education is strengthened, a result of studies showing that STEM education at an early age positively impacts educational outcomes.
  • Environmental advocacy continues to attract more youth to engage in STEM and take ownership of their education and their politics.

What Are the Challenges of STEM?

Despite the growing interest and investment in STEM at every level, education reporter Madeline Will lists several challenges facing the new initiatives, including:

  • Teachers, especially at the elementary level, feel and are underprepared in the STEM subject. In addition, the teacher training available does not always include STEM strategies for all different learning styles.
  • In many schools, math and reading are prioritized and funded. There is little budget or time left to invest in the other STEM content areas: science, technology and engineering.
  • Teachers are often kept in a rigid, pre-set curriculum system, rarely given the classroom autonomy to experiment with new strategies or interdisciplinary teaching.

If you are interested in becoming a leader in the ever-developing world of STEM teaching, consider earning a Master of Science in Education with a Concentration in Curriculum and Instruction in STEM Education Online from Southern Oregon University.

Learn more about Southern Oregon University’s online Master of Science in Education with a Concentration in Curriculum and Instruction in STEM Education program.


US STEM Foundation: What is STEM?

Critical Issues in Education: Understanding the Basics of STEM Education

U.S. Department of Education: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Including Computer Science Charting a Course for Success: America’s Strategy for STEM Education

100Kin10: 2019 TRENDS REPORT: Trends and Predictions that will define STEM in 2020

Education Week: STEM Education Is Facing Over 100 Challenges. Can $28 Million Solve Them?

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