What is STEM Education?

Is STEM education some plant class that teaches you about plant stems? 


No, not exactly. In its simplest form STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Use of the term began in 2001 with  Judith A. Ramaley the former director of the National Science Foundation. The goal of STEM is to change teaching by incorporating more science, technology, engineering and math into the classroom and not just in defined, isolated blocks. Instead, bring the the excitement of these disciplines into the classroom at large including literacy.

I have a good personal example here. I helped co-found a hands-on science program at a Salt Lake City school. We called it  Sci-X for Science eXperiences. In one of our first hands-on labs went through hands-on examples of Newton's 3 Laws of Motion. You know, standing on a skateboard and pushing against a wall. Then we observed what happened. Well, after this lab a 1st grade teacher related a story from her classroom. She was reading a book on the Pilgrims and their voyage to North America. A boy raised his hand to tell her that it was the force of the wind against the sails that made the ship move. We did not talk about sail boats at all.

This is an example of how STEM concepts could be used in a literary way and connected to a science lesson. A small example, but pretty cool nonetheless.

On the one hand STEM is about subjects like chemistry, math, physics and the like. On the other hand the spirit of STEM education is so much more.

Typically, STEM subjects are taught in isolation as little islands unto themselves. The spirit of STEM is to foster a sense of independent exploration. The exploration allows students to utilize all subjects to understand something or more importantly to solve a problem. Indeed, it is this interconnectedness that leads to innovative ways of thinking, doing or problem solving.

Children's minds naturally connect one piece of seemingly unrelated information to other pieces of information. They do this without regard to boundaries, sometimes brilliantly, sometimes not, but always creatively. So, kids are a natural fit and exhibit tremendous joy when they do make these connections. Thus, the motivation and incentive for young students to do this is already there. Us adults need to let it happen and create an environment that allows it to take place.

Unfortunately, much of the adult world of education is about tight boundaries (standardized tests) around subjects that have known answers and outcomes. Certainly there are good things about this. For example, being adept with math facts is one of them. But, math is so much more than simply solving the math problem. Math is about using the skills to solve other problems whether it be materials for a building or the trajectory of an object. STEM takes it  one step further by promoting open-ended environments where any number of skills might come into play. There might be failures and successes along the way instead of right and wrong. Wrong is wrong, but failure is a learning experience that many of us and virtually all scientists use to hone and iterate their ideas into success. This is what people get paid well to do--solve hard problems. And this is what has made our country a leader. STEM's goal is to keep that leadership in our country by educating the whole child to be adept with their knowledge not just knowledgeable.