Well, the shortest, simplest answer would be that STEM is an acronym. It stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. However, the concept of STEM itself – as a teaching method, as an approach to education, as a standardized curriculum – is much more complicated. Ideally, someone using a STEM-based process would combine the principles of the four subjects mentioned in order to achieve a desirable outcome.
But what are those principles, exactly? And why combine the four fields in the first place?
Hopefully, this general overview will help you understand exactly what STEM is—and why so many insist it’s beneficial.
WHAT IS STEM?
As we mentioned earlier, the most basic definition of STEM is that it’s an acronym. It stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Expanding on that a bit further, STEM is a curriculum based on the idea of educating students in these four specific disciplines.
In the context of education, STEM is meant to teach students these four subjects using an applied interdisciplinary approach. It largely focuses on objective observation, computational thinking, and practical problem-solving.
In the context of real-world application, it emphasizes using an innovative thought process to arrive at viable, practical solutions.
WHY IS STEM EDUCATION SO IMPORTANT
According to reports, integrating STEM into the education system has empowered people working in STEM-related fields. As a result, the government is further encouraging that all citizens be introduced to even the basics of STEM education and its principles.
But here are a few other reasons why STEM education is so important—and why it definitely needs to remain an integral part of the mandatory curriculum:
It encourages innovation. As we mentioned earlier, the principles of STEM involve developing an innovative thought process to solve problems. With the world as it is now, we are in an era of innovation. More and more people are becoming pioneers in fields and technologies that we’ve never even heard of.
To continue this prosperous, rapid societal advancement, it is important that prospective innovators be nurtured and encouraged from as early an age as possible.
Innovation = Employment Opportunities. If more innovators are given platforms and resources to turn their concepts into realities, they will eventually generate more employment opportunities. The easiest way to explain this is in the business sense. Say someone turns their new idea into a legitimate business. They will need manpower to sustain the business, and they will need to fill multiple positions (i.e., production/manufacturing, marketing, development, administration, logistics, etc.)
It is a huge personal benefit/advantage to have this knowledge. The fact of the matter is that the world is governed by the principles of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Even just the basic grasp of practical and theoretical knowledge in these four fields will help people process and understand theories in almost every subject matter.
Yes; even creative fields that seemingly have nothing to do with the four STEM principles, believe it or not.
STEM education can help develop critical life skills. We all possess the ability to solve problems. We all have the capacity to think critically. In any given situation, anyone can be expected to take the lead. It’s therefore crucial that, as early as possible, people are taught how to develop the skills necessary for surviving – and thriving in – these encounters.
STEM requires people to put these skills to use time and time again, effectively fine-tuning them.
WHAT ARE THE 6 STEM SKILLS?
You know the four principles of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). STEM skills, however, are different. They refer to the individual skills a person needs to successfully apply the four subjects in a practical setting.
Think of it in the mathematical sense. A person can be taught the theory of addition. They can know that adding one number to another will result in a bigger number, which is the sum of both numbers. But if they don’t know how to count, they’ll never be able to apply addition in a real-life situation.
On paper, they may be able to add five and three to get eight. But if you place three apples in front of them and add another five apples in front of them, they’ll never be able to arrive at eight since they can’t physically count the apples.
Hopefully, that clears things up!
With that said, these are the six essential STEM skills one will want to develop and/or enhance:
According to research conducted by Adobe, a majority of educators and policymakers (around 96%) agree that problem-solving skills are some of the most important skills to hone and develop. They also agree that problem-solving is necessary to have in all areas of education—from the most technical subjects to the most creative. Even subjects involving art, writing, and entertainment!
The World Economic Forum cites problem-solving as the number-one skill people will need to thrive in their chosen careers.
This is all the more reason why integrating STEM as a standard curriculum is so important. STEM can help students develop and refine their problem-solving skills since problem-solving is, without a doubt, a key factor in science, math, and engineering subjects. STEM students are given numerous opportunities to discover, test, and improve different techniques as they are challenged to design viable solutions for a myriad of problems.
The best part is that there is no age requirement for problem-solving. All of us are born with the capacity to recognize a problem and solve it.
Alison Gopnik in “Scientist in the Crib” even describes babies as having an “infinite capacity for wonder,” further stating that scientists are “big children” that have retained the inherent drive we all have to explore and experiment in order to make sense of our surroundings.
Watch a child throw their food. That’s them discovering physics. Ever seen them try to get down from a high chair? They’re learning about gravity. What toddler hasn’t tried to eat every toy in the toy box, splashed water during bath time, tried to touch fire? That’s them organically discovering the concept of matter.
Creativity is probably the last thing one would equate to someone in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics field. In fact, the two concepts – STEM and creativity – seem to oppose each other.
How can something as intangible and liberated as creativity fit within the rigidity of critical, analytical thinking?
But, here’s what’s interesting; new research (from Australia and the Netherlands) strongly suggests that creativity is a core competency in both arts and science careers. It challenges the age-old belief that sciences are quantitative and, therefore, cannot be creative.
It even goes so far as to hint that creative thinking may be the secret sauce to succeeding in STEM fields.
This research was based on a study that they conducted with 2,277 German undergraduate students between the ages of 17 and 37. 94.30% of the participants (2,147) were enrolled in STEM courses, while the remaining 5.70% (130) were enrolled in art courses.
The goal was to explore how the students thought about and perceived their creativity and to see if it differed between the two groups.
The result? There was surprisingly little difference between the thought processes of the Arts students and the STEM students with regards to creativity. Specifically, openness, creative self-efficacy, and divergent thinking were all present in the students’ understanding of their capacity for “being creative” or “creative thinking.”
This acts as further evidence that STEM fosters creativity. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics require creativity just as much as arts and entertainment do. Those in STEM fields often have to “think outside the box” in order to come up with a working solution to a problem that everyone’s given up on because the conventional or expected answers don’t work. Scientists and engineers are often expected to come up with new, never-before-seen processes or procedures in order to stay ahead of the game.
The evidence shows that, yes; contrary to popular belief, STEM does require creativity. Participating in STEM activities can help one boost their creativity immensely because creativity is, inherently, a STEM skill.
One of the reasons students shies away from STEM subjects – especially the four major ones – outside of compulsory education is due to the curriculum content. So often, the curriculum is so far removed and so irrelevant to the lives of the student outside the classroom, they cannot remain engaged. Even if they want to!
It’s not that the subjects are boring. It’s that the subject’s concepts can be so abstract when they have nothing that the students can relate to.
Active engagement is crucial for real learning to happen, and active engagement is not possible when neither party (in this case, the students versus the subject matter) has common ground.
This is why inquiry-based learning in STEM subjects is so important.
As the name suggests, inquiry-based learning is an educational approach in which the learner obtains, retains, and understands information through inquiries. By constantly asking questions, STEM students start to actively participate. This active, authentic participation (aka engagement) can help them better understand the concepts being talked about because they’re being discussed in a way the person is familiar with.
Allowing students to ask questions can help them better understand the relevance of STEM in their lives. Rather than telling them straight up, “STEM education will give you a better career,” you allow them to arrive at that conclusion themselves through inquiries.
Inquisitive students are more likely to find solutions, propose ideas, and generate action plans on how to further refine the results because they are actively seeking. Knowing when and what questions to ask is an important skill – both in STEM and in life in general – but it’s one very few people consciously improve.
IV. Math & Science
This is, of course, fairly self-explanatory. Two of the major STEM skills you’ll learn and develop are math skills and science skills.
Applied mathematics is often useful in figuring out the logistics of your solution (i.e., how many people, how many days, how much will it cost? etc.).
A solid grasp of science, on the other hand, will help you measure the validity and viability of your plan (i.e., where, how big, how tall, from how high, etc.).
Even though we didn’t list them first, it’s important to think of math and science skills as the foundation of STEM. They may be the only school- or education-specific skills on this list, but that doesn’t make them any less applicable in real-life situations. They are skills that must be applied every time you search for a solution.
V. Critical Thinking
In a partner content article published on Wired, Stephen F. Deangelis, Enterra Solutions, wrote that “educating students in STEM subjects … prepares students for life, regardless of the profession they choose to follow.”
Of course, this statement is worded under the assumption that STEM is taught correctly.
Deangelis follows this up with the explanation that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics subjects teach students “how to think critically and how to solve problems.” These skills, he points out, can be used throughout life.
Critical thinking is indeed a skill that, much like problem-solving, can be used no matter your industry, career, or lifestyle. I mean, come on; the technical definition of critical thinking is “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.”
Even at a very young age, humans are capable of analyzing an object and drawing conclusions about it based on their observations. For instance, a toddler refusing to eat mashed carrots because they know, from the color and smell alone, that they won’t enjoy it. They can tell that the orange mush they see is the same orange mush they tasted last time, and they remember that they didn’t enjoy it.
Does the toddler know its name? Maybe not, but they know it’s something they don’t want to consume.
Or a toddler using a shape sorter. How do they figure out which block goes into which hole? A mix of observations plus trial and error.
Is that not, in a simplified nutshell, the scientific process?
The toddler feels the round block and guesses that it either goes into the circular hole or the hexagonal hole. Of course, the block shoots into the circular hole. They then take note of that and commit it to memory for next time.
STEM subjects require students to use critical thinking all the time. From practice problems to graded projects, written exams to practical applications, there is always a need to analyze information, evaluate designs, and conceptualize creative solutions. And having to constantly put these to practice effectively develops and refines one’s ability to think critically.
Intensive, complicated challenges often require multiple minds to tackle them. One Individuals cannot carry out an entire operation by themselves, no matter how intelligent or talented they are.
And solving problems is an entire operation – especially in the real world.
One individual is capable of conceptualizing or drafting the winning solution, that’s true. But so often, a full team is needed to make that solution a reality. In fact, teamwork is demanded in virtually every workforce setting you can think of.
In the STEM field, this ability to collaborate is crucial. As mentioned earlier, complicated challenges require cooperative teams.
For people in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics career, the problems they encounter are often of considerable proportion. They require innovation of a certain scale, and that kind of innovation is usually the product of multiple minds working in tandem to achieve a shared goal.
The problems need to be addressed by capable people with refined problem-solving skills and the ability to think critically. They need to work with people who are creative and inquisitive. Everyone working on the problem needs to have a solid grasp of math and/or science.
And, overall, everyone working on it must know how to collaborate.
They must know when to step up and when to back off. When to take initiative and when to let others take the lead. Because of how often such intense problems arise in STEM professions, the ability to collaborate with other people is crucial. Ergo, it is an important STEM skill.
WHAT ARE SOME COMMON STEM CHALLENGES?
Despite the many benefits and advantages STEM offers, there are still a handful of institutions that aren’t a hundred percent invested in implementing it.
It does come with a couple of challenges (as most educational tracks do).
Here are some of the major drawbacks and problems with the STEM track:
Age. Even as combined curricula, STEM is relatively young. It has only been conceptualized and implemented around twenty to thirty years ago. This puts it at a severe disadvantage when compared to other educational approaches that have been in effect since well over 5,000 years ago.
Complex Content. We know how complicated science, technology, engineering, and mathematical terms can be—especially to people who have no interest in them at all.
It doesn’t help that the delivery can be complex as well. The jargon, the structure, the presence of other undefined and/or abstract concepts in the definition … it’s a lot to take in.
This rings true for each individual subject. How much more is a curriculum that combines all four?
Yes, STEM utilizes creative thinking as much as art and entertainment tracks do. However, not everyone is predisposed to find STEM subjects interesting, and the intimidating content (plus delivery) doesn’t help matters much.
Lack of Support for Educators. Current statistics tell us that there is a marked shortage of teachers and professors qualified in the STEM fields. This means that a good chunk of instructors is being pushed to teach subjects they only have a basic understanding of.
What’s more, their access to readily available support for professional development in such STEM subjects is minimal to none.
This can be extremely damaging to their confidence and – as a result – overall classroom morale. If the teacher has no passion for the subject, how can it be expected of the students?
Limited Resources = Limited Engagement. As with any curriculum, it is important to excel in both theoretical and practical procedures. A solid understanding of concepts must go hand-in-hand with the ability to apply and execute them as needed. As such, there are a lot of resources needed to achieve a holistic STEM learning experience.
Unfortunately, these resources are consumable. And many institutions just don’t have the means to constantly replenish or restock them. This forces a lot of instructors to stick to a largely theoretical approach. And, as you can guess, a purely theoretical STEM experience may be too intimidating for some.
The result is a pretty discouraging domino effect of students losing interest in STEM because they are unable to grasp the more tangible aspects of the subjects. They are unable to grasp the tangible aspects due to a lack of practical application.
And the lack of practical application is caused by – you guessed it – limited resources.
ENCOURAGING STEM EDUCATION
Despite the challenges, however, many firmly believe in STEM’s viability as the best approach to education. Despite its relatively young age, the STEM method has been gaining plenty of enthusiastic supporters. There are a number of schools and professionals who have already adopted a more STEM-based technique for teaching.
Indeed, there are ways parents and guardians can encourage local institutions to implement STEM education. Here are a few examples:
- Suggest dedicating a separate classroom or section of the school to carrying out only STEM-related studies and projects
- Ask teachers to adopt an inquiry-based teaching system wherein students are encouraged to ask questions (no matter how “ridiculous” they think their question is)
- Instill a healthy sense of curiosity and interest in STEM-related topics in your child as early as possible. Encourage activities that will hone and develop any of the six STEM skills, and…
- … do these activities often. If the school doesn’t offer activities that can stimulate their STEM skills, have your child do them at home. Guide them through the projects as often as they need you to. After all; repetition is the mother of learning.
- We may not be acutely aware of it, but when we tell a child to stop asking so many questions, we are discouraging their latent curiosity. Yes, the constant questions may be a bit frustrating. However, this healthy curiosity will serve them well later on. As much as possible, reassure them that there’s nothing wrong with being inquisitive.
- Petition your child’s school to invest in a verified STEM software program. If it’s not possible at the current time …
- … invest in at-home STEM kits and projects for your child to practice on.
So, there you have it. STEM—a unique career field, a teaching philosophy, a complex curriculum, and more. Truly, the benefits of adopting it as a nationwide educational standard are well worth the effort it’ll take to fully integrate it. Problem is, not everyone sees that. Yet.
Lets recap what we covered once more:
Table of Contents
- What is STEM?
- What is STEM Education So Important?
- What are the 6 STEM Skills?
- Problem Solving
- Math & Science
- Critical Thinking
- What are Some Common STEM Challenges?
- Encouraging STEM Education
Hopefully, as more and more institutions adopt STEM as their primary teaching philosophy, those with authority will take notice of this incredible learning style and likewise be compelled to implement it.