You’ve likely heard of the acronym STEM before — and not in relation to gardening, either. STEM — or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — is one of the primary focuses of the educational system in the 21st century, but it’s not the only focus (and it’s not specific to education, either). Given all these particulars and their very loose nature, it can be difficult to understand exactly what STEM is and what it means for education. Not to mention, its difficulty to pin down makes you wonder why it even matters in the first place.
Let’s take a look at the true definition of STEM, what it means for the field of education, and what the history of STEM education looks like. After that, it’ll be much easier to use critical thinking to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the acronym and come up with a true and final definition. Let’s begin with a basic definition of what STEM stands for and what exactly it means.
While the consensus agrees that STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the true definition of STEM is not so concrete. In truth, it’s a little difficult to define in any sort of resolute way. In other words, it’s a very broad term that could mean different things depending on who’s talking about it: Teachers, students, scientists, mathematicians … Everyone’s likely to have a different definition of what STEM means to them, and none of them are necessarily wrong.
This definition of STEM gets even more complicated when incorporating additional letters as some have done. There’s STEAM, which incorporates an “A” for arts, and there’s even STREAM, which incorporates the arts as well as an “R” for research or reading. Above all else, there’s one prevailing notion about STEM (or STEAM, or STREAM) that remains true across all industries: the main idea is about progress, problem-solving, critical thinking, innovation, and ultimately, learning.
What is STEM Education?
If STEM (or STEAM, or STREAM) is about progress, problem-solving, innovation, and learning, then STEM education is about teaching individuals how to make that happen across the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. STEM education also serves the purpose of preparing students to enter into careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
No matter which particular industry (or letter) a student wants to pursue, STEM education exists to provide the critical thinking and problem-solving skills to help these students understand the who, what, when, where, and why of innovation. The pillars of STEM have long been a part of the K-12 curriculum in America, but there’s been a disconnect for a while about how those subjects apply to the real world. STEM education makes a serious effort to show students how they can go beyond getting good grades in these subjects — they can make a career out of STEM, too.
History of STEM Education
First introduced by the U.S. National Science Foundation in 2001, the acronym “STEM” replaced the acronym “SMET” with a much more catchy and appealing string of letters. Ultimately, though, the two represented the same concept: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It wasn’t until biologist Judith Ramaley came along and moved around the letters that the STEM curriculum really began to take hold of the educational system in the United States and abroad from early childhood education all the way through to students’ entry into the working world.
While there’s no doubt science, technology, engineering, and mathematics have been an integral part of the K-12 educational system in America for far longer than just 2001, it’s the intentionality behind the STEM acronym that really makes it a focal point — That decision on the part of the NSF and the U.S. Department of Education at large to make this catchy acronym priority from early childhood education all the way to high school graduation and beyond.
Advantages and Disadvantages of STEM Education
- Teaches students how to think and learn like innovators, giving them the skills to become innovators themselves as professionals
- Gives students the chance to explore complex topics in a much greater depth
- Provides students with the critical thinking and problem-solving skills they need to succeed
- Hopes to elevate the United States’ educational achievements compared to other, more educationally advanced nations
- STEM is a very broad concept that lacks a concrete set of guidelines and parameters for teachers to abide by
- There are no national or global standards to follow along with
- Some labs and materials associated with STEM far exceed the budgets of underfunded schools
- Excludes subjects like arts and literature
Why STEM Education Matters
A 2005 report from the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine does an excellent job underlining the real reason why STEM education matters (and has mattered especially over the last fifteen to twenty years in particular). Titled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” this report underlines the way successful and important jobs are directly linked to STEM education and the way that those successful, important STEM jobs can help America resolve deep-seated societal problems in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. This includes everything from cancer to infrastructure to the economy to the climate and all sorts of other trouble spots in between.
This is the real and most valid reason why STEM education matters so much: by beginning to focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics from early childhood education onward, the United States (and other nations around the globe) can hope to foster up new generations of professionals who know the true importance of STEM in relation to progress, problem-solving, critical thinking, innovation, and lifelong learning.