STEM is a popular acronym in educational circles and is used to refer to careers and educational tasks. Though most know that the four letters stand for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, it can be difficult to pin down what exactly it means. In this post I suggest that there are two related uses of STEM as a description.
The term, STEM, originated in the USA in the late 1990s to describe specific careers and education for these careers. There seems to be no universally agreed-upon definition of STEM. From a careers perspective, the focus is on making sure that there are enough skilled workers in the STEM areas for future development. A common (engineering?) analogy is that of a pipeline. Industrialised nations need people with STEM skills, so need to ensure there are enough people entering and staying in the pipeline in order to fill future demand. There are also identified equity issues, as STEM jobs tend to be higher-paying, and also tend to be dominated by white males. A consequence of the higher demand and pay for people with STEM skills and qualifications is that there is often a shortage of teachers in STEM subjects.
There are multiple ways of viewing STEM Education. One category is specific STEM Projects which I refer to as STEM-Ed, and another is education in STEM subjects, as they currently exist in the school curriculum.
It is believed that one way to encourage children and young people to continue in STEM subjects, is to embed STEM into the curriculum. There has been a move towards specific STEM-based lessons or projects, particularly at middle-school or older primary level. Pinterest is full of attractive STEM-Ed lessons based around engineering and the design process. These include tower and bridge building, making boats to carry certain weights, creating a mechanism that will protect an egg from a fall or launching projectiles a maximum or specified distance. STEM-Ed lessons use a wide range of materials, including Lego bricks, spaghetti, marshmallows, masking tape, newspaper, recycled materials – just about anything you can think of. The makerspace movement ties in with STEM-Ed.
A good STEM-Ed project is described by Anne Jolly in her post Perfect STEM lessons. Anne Jolly suggests that a “perfect” STEM lesson uses an engineering approach as a framework, applies maths and science content through authentic experiences, deals with real world issues, involves hands-on and open-ended exploration with multiple right answers for students working in teams with the teacher in a facilitator role. A STEM project should also engage students in communicating, remove the fear of failure, appeal equally to boys and girls and promote authentic assessment.
It seems that when primary/elementary school teachers talk about STEM, it is usually STEM-Ed they are referring to. Certainly material under the STEM label on Pinterest, a popular source of inspiration for teachers, tends to be STEM-Ed.
Education in STEM subjects
In order to encourage and enable students to continue on to STEM careers, they must study the individual subjects that make up STEM. At school level, maths, physics and chemistry are often the areas where students make decisions that limit their later opportunities in STEM areas. (Where they leak out of the pipeline?) This is where teachers of STEM subjects have a part to play. Tying their subjects to authentic, real world contexts and teaching using STEM-Ed projects can help engagement.
However, there is also a need to learn the mathematics that does not appear in a “good STEM lesson”. Current mathematics education thinking aims to enable children to become mathematicians, not just engineers. To quote Tracey Zager’s excellent book, “Becoming the math teacher you wish you’d had“, mathematicians take risks, make mistakes, are precise, rise to a challenge, ask questions, connect ideas, use intuition, reason, prove, and work together and alone. Mathematics curriculum overlaps well with STEM-Ed in the areas of measurement, geometry and statistics. Number skills are practised in context. However, to provide enough exposure to other areas of mathematics, specific STEM-Ed lessons would need to be carefully designed. I suspect that there are areas of the curriculum that are more effectively learned through other methods than STEM-Ed.
There is a push to add Arts to STEM, making it STEAM. The relevance of this addition depends on viewpoint. It does not seem relevant to include Arts when talking about high-shortage career paths. But at the same time, STEM jobs also require other skills, not the least being communication skills. There is a strong link between fine art and technology, through design. The inclusion of A in STEM also depends on the definition of Art. The term “Arts” can include painting, music, dance, literature, film, design and the even the humanities. Including these into STEM (as a career or subject description) seems a trifle incongruous and begs the question whether there is anything that is not included in STEAM. Physical education and foreign languages?
However, when we look at STEM-Ed, there is a rationale for the inclusion of art. Good design does have an artistic component, as is all too clear when we look at some communist-era architecture and much amateur web-design. And written and oral communication are well-developed in many STEM-Ed projects.
Statistics clearly has a place in both STEM and STEM-Ed. There is a demand for statisticians, and people who can use statistics in what they do. The study of the discipline of statistics gives important insights into the nature of variability in our world. STEM-Ed projects could involve collecting and analysing data in a non-trivial way, though I have not seen evidence of this. The barrier to this is the statistical understanding of the teachers creating the STEM-Ed tasks, and points to an area where statistics educators need to be involved. Another barrier can be the time taken to collect an adequate sample, clean the data and analyse it. This is why specific tasks need to be designed for this.
Concerns about STEM and STEM-Ed
We do need to think about the focus on STEM and wonder about the philosophical underpinnings. Are we educating our students to provide workers for the industrial machine? Is this the right thing to be doing? I found a very interesting book: Philosophy of STEM Education: A Critical Investigation by Nataly Z. Chesky and Mark R. Wolfmeyer . They ask these important questions.
STEM-Ed also needs to be approached carefully. Dayle Anderson, a lecturer in science education emphasised at a Primary Maths Symposium that teachers need to keep their eye on the learning. When a project is engaging it can be seductive to think that the learning is taken care of. There are so many demands on time in a school, that STEM-Ed lessons need to be well-designed for specific learning.
STEM, STEM-Ed and 21st Century Skills
I am quite taken with the 4 Cs of 21st Century Skills, which have been defined as Critical thinking and problem solving, Communicating, Collaborating and Creativity and innovation. These correspond well to the five Key Competencies in the New Zealand curriculum – thinking, using language, symbols, and texts, managing self, relating to others and participating and contributing. These skills are needed by people who work in STEM jobs. They need to be able to communicate and work with others.
These 21st Century skills can be developed in STEM-Ed lessons, as students are required to work together, solve problems, think, innovate and communicate their results.
Overall I am excited about STEM and STEM-Ed. A knowledge of how the world around us works is empowering to all, whether or not they join the STEM pipeline. Making mathematics, statistics and other related subjects more relevant and desirable is always going to be a good thing. Statistics educators need to be involved make sure that statistics is a vital part of STEM-Ed.
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