The buzz around STEM education continues to grow as teachers discover how it builds creative problem-solving through connections to real-world applications.
The Origins of STEM
There was a time when the National Science Foundation (NSF) talked about the disciplines of science, mathematics, engineering, and technology, their study, and the careers associated with them, collectively, with the unfortunate acronym SMET. Luckily, in 2001, biologist Judith Ramaley rearranged the letters to give us the much more pleasant-sounding STEM. (Imagine trying to encourage students to study SMET!)
Over the past few decades, interest in STEM education has grown considerably, not just because of the improved acronym. Although there are various benefits to STEM education, which we will cover below, we shouldn’t ignore the two important elements of context in education and society at large.
The Shift in Schools that Fosters STEM
First, there has been a shift in how we approach subjects in school. Project Based Learning, for example, presents students with larger projects that require seamless integration of skills and knowledge from science, math, language arts, and other disciplines. This, of course, aligns with how we all use skills and knowledge in daily life. Just as importantly, it aligns perfectly with how STEM education is focused not simply on increasing students’ aptitudes in each of the separate subjects but also on helping them move effortlessly between each, using the appropriate knowledge and skills to become creative problem-solvers.
Why Society Depends on STEM
Second, since the industrial revolution, the centrality of STEM in our daily lives has increased enormously, and the pace at which we progress is getting steadily faster. Consider that the time between the Wright brothers’ first flight and the first moon landing was only 66 years! As our society and economy become increasingly dependent on a STEM-educated workforce, encouraging students to pursue STEM will not only prepare them to enter a growing and lucrative field. Still, it will also be beneficial to the nation and the world at large. It’s not just that opportunities in STEM careers are growing faster than non-STEM careers. The truth is that we can’t predict what careers will be available to most students by the time they graduate. That’s how fast things are changing. But one thing remains constant, society depends on STEM.
Benefits of STEM Education
The discussion above describes the context that explains why STEM is important, but in making a case for STEM education, we can’t ignore the benefits it provides. These benefits have, of course, been discussed at length elsewhere. Rather than simply share the same list, let’s look at the advantages STEM education provides in what we might call nested spheres of influence, starting with the student, moving out to the school, and finally, further out to society.
How STEM Education Benefits Students
Let’s begin with the unique benefits of STEM education to students. What are the benefits provided to kids by STEM education that would be helpful even if schools and society did not exist? We can summarize them as follows.
- Excitement & Motivation: One of the most important benefits of STEM is its focus on solving real-world problems, which makes it relevant and engaging to students. For a teacher struggling to get kids excited about learning, STEM can be just what is needed.
- Universally Applicable Skills: Another great thing about STEM education is that it helps students develop skills they can use in other classes and beyond. The list of skills includes creativity, problem-solving, critical analysis, digital literacy, collaboration, and independent thinking. Students who develop these skills will be able to succeed not just academically in all subjects but in life as well. This also supports the argument for the importance of STEM in early childhood education.
- Increased Opportunities: The skills and knowledge gained through STEM education also open up opportunities for students in the job market. The list of so-called soft skills sought by employers matches almost perfectly with the skills kids get from STEM education. These skills include creative problem-solving, time management, leadership, adaptability, and a growth mindset.
How STEM Education Benefits SchoolsNot surprisingly, there is a lot of overlap between the benefits of STEM education to students and schools.
- Excitement & Motivation: When students are engaged in and excited about learning, it doesn’t just help them; it also makes the teacher’s job easier.
- Universally Applicable Skills: The skills students develop in the STEM classroom equip them for learning in every classroom. Moreover, students who are used to applying universal skills in various contexts can transfer these skills more easily to new material and situations. These students are more likely to succeed no matter what the schools throw at them.
- Increased Academic Performance: Of course, we can’t ignore the sword of Damocles hanging above the heads of schools: standardized tests. The good news is that improved scores on high-stakes standardized tests are yet another benefit of STEM education.
How STEM Education Benefits SocietyJust as society at large forms part of the context that drives the push towards STEM education, it also receives the benefits of students who learn in STEM classrooms.
- Engaged Workforce: The excitement and motivation that drives students to study STEM continue as they join the workforce. Workers who like what they do are happier and more likely to stay in the same job, creating a more stable and embedded workforce.
- Adaptive Skillset: When STEM-educated students enter the workforce, they have the universal skills discussed above, which will help them adapt as industries evolve.
- Increased Innovation & Development: STEM's benefits since the dawn of the 20th century are undeniable. Improvements in medicine have increased longevity and bettered health. Innovations in technology increase our ability to grow and transport food, communicate and collaborate, and enjoy our free time. The larger and better prepared is our STEM workforce, the greater the potential for similar benefits in the future. STEM education is essential not just for our country but for the world as a whole, particularly those developing countries that currently lack many of the benefits we take for granted.
Looking ForwardThe importance of STEM education will not likely wane any time soon and will undoubtedly increase exponentially. With that in mind, what can educators do? Here are three ideas for your first steps.
- Learn More: Take advantage of the wide variety of resources available to learn more about STEM and STEM education.
- Add STEM to Your Classroom: No matter what you teach or your level of expertise, you can follow some simple tips to make your classroom more conducive to STEM teaching and learning.
- Explore Proven STEM Curriculum Resources: If you’re ready to take the plunge and launch a STEM classroom, then check out STEMscopes, which provides all the K-12 STEM resources you need.
Most importantly, relax and have fun! Many of you have grown up in a STEM-rich environment and are entirely on board with the movement. For others, STEM still seems new and, perhaps, intimidating. If you are in the latter group, don’t worry. One of the great things about STEM is that it creates for itself exactly those innovations that make learning about it easier and more fun! And, as the movement grows, you’ll have a larger group of friends who can help you along the way.
Omoth, T. (2022, June 13). 9 soft skills employers are looking for in 2022. TopResume. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from https://www.topresume.com/career-advice/6-soft-skills-employers-are-looking-for
Thelwell, K. (2019, May 31). The role of STEM in developing countries and potential benefits. The Borgen Project. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from https://borgenproject.org/stem-in-developing-countries/
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2022, September 8). Employment in STEM occupations. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from https://www.bls.gov/emp/tables/stem-employment.htm