Math as the Language of STEM

David Alviar | Published  August 10, 2020

If we consider science to be the understanding of phenomena, technology the tools used to investigate phenomena, and engineering the application of what we learn, then math is the language that unites all three. This blog explores how math relates to the other “STEM” fields and why it’s important to have a strong foundation in math in order to be a successful STEM professional.

Research has found that community college freshmen have weak math skills; in fact, nearly 70 percent of them require developmental math courses. More surprisingly, only 5 percent actually pass those courses. Rather than blaming the students for their lack of knowledge and skills, let’s examine how math is typically taught in PK-12.

Often, STEM in schools takes a siloed approach. We learn math in a vacuum as algebraic equations with little to no real-world connection. This monolithic approach to learning places using the “right procedure” to get the “right answer” at the center of the learning process. Science (and engineering and technology) take a back seat in the math classroom. Accordingly, students struggle to develop a meaningful understanding of why math is interesting, useful, or vital for solving real-world problems.

Math should actually be at the forefront—it offers the logic, common language, and precision needed to understand its STEm brethren. Furthermore, early math skills are the number one predictor of future academic success. If we don’t teach them in a meaningful, integrated way, students will not want to learn them as deeply as if they were taught with passion, interest, and meaning. And, of course, math competency is vital for almost every career:

“Even if we project as high as 20% of students on a path to STEM careers, the other 80% will go into fields which will also require skills obtained through math proficiency.” (Mike Lefkowitz, Mind Research Institute)

So what can we do, especially in this time of distance learning, to re-insert math into STEM learning in a meaningful way? We understand that teaching time is compressed and that asynchronous learning may result in much less teacher support. Judiciously choosing instructional materials that help merge these areas is only half the battle. Accordingly, it’s essential to select activities that help students see the bridge between the STEM fields and learn how math plays a key role. This can also happen through reflection journals and discourse where students debate and question the role math plays in real-world problems that science, technology, and engineering present, as well as more everyday activities. 


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