What Is STEM Education and Why Is It Important?

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Originally published with Upjourney. “What Is Stem Education and Why Is It Important? (13 Experts).” UpJourney – Live a Happy, Healthy and Successful Life. 18 Nov. 2020. Web. 24 Nov. 2020. <https://upjourney.com/what-is-stem-education-and-why-is-it-important&gt;

By Micah Shippee, PhD

The acronym STEM has seen popularity in education, software, and even in the toy market. This has led us to use “STEM” as a word-acronym, like GIF, AIDS, or SCUBA. STEM has been most often used in reference to educational program priorities.

A STEM-education focuses on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. The belief is that these will help prepare our learners to compete in their future economy. Many policymakers, economists, and futurists believe a solid foundation in STEM will make us more successful. In our increasingly globalized economy, the spread of products, technology, information, and jobs is occurring across national borders and cultures. This “globalization” has increased discussions about the relevance of STEM in education and how a STEM education leads learners to better understanding the interconnectedness of concepts and ideas.

History of STEM

For decades, in the United States, national policy documents have argued that our global competitiveness relies on students’ engagement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In response to growing concerns about our future workforce, the term “STEM” was introduced in 2001 by the National Science Foundation (NSF). They stated: “A well-prepared, innovative science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce is crucial to the Nation’s prosperity and security. Future generations of STEM professionals are a key sector of this workforce, especially in the critical scientific areas…To accelerate progress in these areas, the next generation of STEM professionals will need to master new knowledge and skills, collaborate across disciplines, and shape the future of the human-technology interface in the workplace.” STEM Critics argue it is a socially constructed label developed in response to economic and global pressure, yet one would ask: Isn’t that part of the role of education? To respond to changing times? After all, education is changing because the world is changing.

What does STEM education actually look like?

The directive for classroom teachers has been to reach an ambitious goal of increasing the number of students pursuing STEM-related careers. Perhaps a more realistic goal would be to continue the mantra of over a millenia of education, what some call “the hidden curriculum,” that is, to motivate learners to care about the future… an empathy-driven focus to cause positive change in our world.

We talk about STEM-related careers, we think about four distinct disciplines, yet in practice, the meaning and emphasis often only include one discipline: Science. Some, choose to put the onus solely on Science teachers arguing that they must have an understanding of what integrated STEM education is in order for the education system to be successful. Is this mission of STEM? Simply for science teachers to bear the burden of preparing students for their future?

The truth of the matter is that the actual educational meaning and practice of STEM is not clear. Do we approach all four as siloed curricular areas with distinct course objectives to be mastered? Or, do we instead break down the silos and leverage each of these areas around a central theme? I would argue the latter is where the most powerful learning potential is found. Rather than focus on the individual contents of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics learners will make the most meaning by leveraging them all together with a STEM-thinking approach to solving real world problems.

From a teaching and learning perspective we find supporting direction from the field of instructional design where we can prescribe effective teaching and learning practices. Among them are the work of Dr. M. David Merrill who describes 5 principles of instruction:

#1 Learning is promoted when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems.

#2 Learning is promoted when existing knowledge is activated as a foundation for new knowledge.

#3 Learning is promoted when new knowledge is demonstrated to the learner.

#4 Learning is promoted when new knowledge is applied by the learner.

#5 Learning is promoted when new knowledge is integrated into the learner’s world

These 5 principles explain the power of hands-on learning where each individual learner makes real meaning of the process. A problem/project approach which employs STEM-thinking, over siloed content understanding, will prepare learners for their future.

STEM-thinking is a set of skills that we can employ to identify important problems and questions in real-life situations. STEM-thinking supports our explanation of both the natural and designed world through evidence-based conclusions. STEM-thinking serves as a process of inquiry and an attitude that exhibits a willingness to engage in issues as a reflective citizen.

Meaningful adoption of STEM-thinking in education can positively impact learners when it is translated into policies, education programs, and practically applied in classrooms. STEM-thinking will lead to a prepared workforce that focuses on meaningful innovation.

Is there a global need for STEM education?

Free-trade economics of globalization aside, does STEM have potential to have a positive impact on our world? From a project/problem-based learning perspective… absolutely.

The United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) describe where that impact needs to take place. The SDGs are an urgent call for action by all countries, developed and developing, to employ a global partnerships that recognize “ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth, all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.”

The UN SDGs provide guidance for helping cultivate focus areas for our future citizens. We can help our learners understand and be ready to address them with a STEM-thinking skill set.

The global challenges we face are significant and will require more than academic thought. STEM-thinking in education must be part of our strategic response… more than simply tinkering with current policies and programs, or just updating science curriculums. STEM-thinking is about understanding the world from many viewpoints.

From a humanities perspective a STEM focus in education appears to tell only part of the story. Some argue for a modification to the acronym to complete the picture. Should we simply add letters to the acronym like “A” for “Arts” giving us STEAM or “R” for “Reading” and/or “Research” and thus STREAM? I would suggest that we instead accept “STEM” and propose that we frame the humanities (reading, writing, fine arts, history, social studies, etc…) as the glue that links the components of STEM together. Humanities, through context-driven accounts, and stories, explain and illustrate the meaningful application of STEM. For example, the science, technology, engineering, and math used to explain why an Archimedean Screw works is amplified by both the historical accounts of its development and the stories of modern use which illustrate how it works. Further, the humanities help us understand culture, a critical component when trying to help others adopt meaningful change.

One of my favorite stories embodying a STEM solution to a real world problem that only became effective when culture was understood, is Dr. Christopher Charles’ “Lucky Iron Fish.”

In 2008, a Masters student travelled to Cambodia for a research project. While there, he was shocked at the high rates of iron deficiency anemia and anemia in the region. He decided to dedicate his future research to developing a safe, and affordable solution.

The student was Christopher Charles, now Dr. Charles. He was inspired by previous research which showed that cooking in a cast iron pot increased the iron content in food. He developed an iron ingot that could be boiled in soups or drinking water. But not everyone was ready to throw a block of iron into their drinking water. It was clear that Dr. Charles had to better understand the culture in which he was working.  

After doing more research on the culture, he realized what he needed to do in order to persuade people to use the ingot, Dr. Charles cast the ingot into the shape of a fish that was considered to be lucky in Cambodian folklore. As explained in his thesis “the concept of a lucky iron fish design did not pander to superstition, but created a cultural relevance for a solution based on science. To make the fish more attractive to the users, he gave the fish a smile. He called this prototype the “Happy Fish”. He went on to show that almost everyone used the fish and results from his research showed that regular use of the Happy Fish decreased anemia by 46%.

The Lucky Iron Fish story exemplifies an SDG, real world problem with a solution developed through a STEM-thinking lens that would have failed to make an impact if it was not for the humanities. Understanding culture is paramount in leading positive change.

Conclusion

What is STEM? We could simply say a focus on teaching science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Perhaps we would be better off asking: What could STEM be? A STEM-thinking approach in education will help prepare our students for their future by preparing them with a set of skills that will help address the growing needs of our world. STEM is so much more than mastering a few courses in school.

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