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Defining STEM

PostedFriday, November 9, 2018 at 2:31 PM

Defining STEM

In 2001, Judith Ramaley, then the Director of Education and Human Resources at the National Science Foundation, was working on a curriculum to enhance the teaching of science, technology, engineering, and math. She called it STEM. Ramaley described how in the acronym science and math serve as bookends for technology and engineering. “Science and math are critical to a basic understanding of the universe, while engineering and technology are means for people to interact with the universe. STEM weaves those elements of human action and understanding into all aspects of education,” Ramaley said. Seventeen years later and it seems like STEM is everywhere. The term has been used as handy shorthand for anything related to the four subjects, not just in education, but in career development, research funding, state and federal initiatives, and even immigration policy. With all the hype and expectations around STEM, it can be hard to define it.

Integration vs. Silos

People tend to define STEM to fit their own purposes, but generally the term is used to refer to science or, sometimes, math. Rarely do people use the acronym to call out the "T" or "E." More recently, some have begun to use STEM to describe the integration of two or more of the subjects. Much of the impetus to rethink the way that K-12 science and math are taught comes from industry leaders, who are concerned that American students waren't prepared to apply their math and science skills to real-world applications and for solving design problems as part of a team. Integrated STEM education is an attempt to break math and science out of their silos by applying them to engineering challenges and using or creating technology.  

The Florida Department of Education lands squarely on the side of integration with their definition of STEM: STEM education is the intentional integration of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and their associated practices to create a student-centered learning environment in which students investigate and engineer solutions to problems, and construct evidence-based explanations of real-world phenomena with a focus on a student’s social, emotional, physical, and academic needs through shared contributions of schools, families, and community partners.

The Components of an Integrated STEM Lesson

Sometimes a science class is simply a science class. Using a smartboard does not turn a math class into an integrated STEM lesson just because instructional technology is being used. Computer coding and project-based learning are not truly STEM activities unless they are being used to solve a problem. So, how do you know if you are teaching integrated STEM or not? Anne Jolly outlines the components of an effective STEM lesson in her book STEM by Design. Ask yourself these questions when looking for a good integrated STEM activity.

  1. Does the lesson present a real problem (engineering challenge)? 
  2. Will students relate to the problem? 
  3. Does the lesson allow for multiple acceptable and creative approaches for successfully solving the problem?
  4. Does the lesson integrate and apply important science and math grade-level content?
  5. Does the lesson intentionally use the engineering design process as the approach to solve problems?
  6. Does the lesson use a student-centered, hands-on teaching and learning approach? 
  7. Does the lesson lead to the design and development of a model or prototype?
  8. Is the role of technology in the lesson clear to the students?
  9. Does the lesson successfully engage students in purposeful teamwork?
  10. Does the lesson include testing the solution and evaluating the results?
  11. Does the lesson involve students in communicating their design and results? 

It should be noted that, unlike many math and science classes, the engineering challenges that provide the structure of many integrated STEM activities can result in a number of different, equally valid solutions. The teacher functions more as a coach and facilitator in their students’ investigation and design efforts. Engineering-based STEM lessons require preplanning, flexibility, and time to allow students to go through more than one cycle of the design process. Such lessons are most effective when they incorporate grade-level math and science concepts. Doing it well is a challenge, but the payoff is increased student excitement and academic engagement for all learners.

Be Explicit about What You Are Teaching

A truly integrated approach to STEM education requires students to make connections among ideas and practices from different disciplines. This is not easy. To help students, teachers need to be very explicit about what subject skills the students are using by saying things like, “Now we are going to use the math we learned last week.” or “Let’s compare our results with the data you collected.” Anne Jolly always uses “engineering challenge” instead of “design challenge” to make it clear to students that what they are doing is engineering. Being transparent about the techniques, principles and phenomena that students are applying makes it easier for them to see themselves as scientists and engineers.

Want to Learn More?

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published two reports on k-12 engineering education and STEM integration that make the case for an integrated approach to science and math education.

Relevant LinkEngineering Video Conversations include:

Bonus Video

The National Academies produced this snappy video about its findings from the 2014 report on STEM integration. Enjoy.



How do you define STEM? Let us know in the comments.


Photo credit: STEMposium US Army Japan via Flickr Creative Commons licence

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