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What is STEM?

Tuesday, 11 April 2017 06:37

From colleges to preschools, STEM continues to be a hot topic for both formal and informal education. STEM education is being driven by our increasingly technical society, a fear that America is falling behind in innovation, a lack of STEM college graduates and the need to prepare today's youth for the jobs of tomorrow.

As a STEM specialist, I am often asked to wax lyrical on a variety of STEM topics and provide insight and action plans for specialist STEM applications. However, I was recently given pause to think about how new educators are stepping up to the STEM challenge for the first time. This is especially true in the afterschool environment where, every year, passionate educators without a STEM background are being asked to provide STEM programming. In this article, I am celebrating those educators who are kicking off their STEM journey by providing a simple overview of STEM—and how it got started.

What is STEM?

STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math. Coined by the National Science Foundation, the term first appeared in the late 1990s. It came into common, standard usage around 2001.

STEM was not simply a way to group science topics—it was an initiative by the science and education community to revolutionize the teaching of science. In the late 1990s, various programs created to design and implement state science standards presented an in-depth look at how current practices in science education were failing to provide young people with the skills and inspiration they would need to be successful in science. These practices focused on content memorization and process and problem. As experts tried to formalize science standards, it became apparent to all involved that science education needed to be more hands-on and include problem solving.

These driving forces gave birth to STEM education.

What Did STEM Change?

STEM was designed to transform the typical content-driven, teacher-centric method of teaching science into curriculum that involved student-centric problem solving, discovery and exploration. The STEM movement was founded on the realization that the separate topics did not mirror real-world application of knowledge when taught in silos. STEM combined topics so they could be applied to real-world experiments. For example, if you are doing a physics experiment on speed, you will use the technology of some sort of timer and math to analyze your results.

STEM brought a transition from passive learning using guided experiments (cookbook labs) and textbooks to hands-on, problem-solving activities that required a combination of skills. STEM integrated the concepts of science, math and engineering with the tools of technology. This approach was then used to explore and solve real-world problems. The goal was a unified approach that would not only be a vehicle for content knowledge, but would help young people develop a set of skills that would become known as 21st century skills. These skills include:

  • Collaboration and teamwork
  • Creativity and imagination
  • Critical thinking
  • Problem solving

STEM Success

The idea of STEM quickly gained traction for multiple reasons.

It formalized an increasingly strong movement in the 1990s to make science education more hands-on with experiments, thus providing a better learning approach for middle school and younger children. At these ages, young people are natural investigators. With the learning focus switching to skills, content could take a lesser role. Younger children were no longer held back from authentic STEM experiences by their developing vocabulary and literacy skills.

STEM also came of age alongside the Internet. As the Internet—and access to it—expanded, critical-thinking skills became more important than content. Being able to memorize great amounts of content was no longer relevant when one had access to the collected knowledge of the world via an electronic device.

Lastly, when scientists and educators tried to standardize science education, it became apparent how vast the topics it covered had become. If one had an interest in science in the 1960s and 1970s, it was possible to leave high school with a ground-level understanding of all the main concepts. However, in the past 40 years the topics of physics, chemistry, biology, engineering and information technology have exploded with content.

Physics and chemistry introduced sub-atomic particles and quantum math. Biology unlocked the power of genomes and a deeper understanding of how systems work at the atomic level. Engineering and information technology had an unprecedented outpouring of computing power. One can no longer hope to provide more than a broad overview of the collected STEM knowledge.

STEM provided a solution to this information overload by focusing on the skills needed to actively understand science and technology, rather than the content of any single, specific focus. In today's world, it is more important to understand how—to ask and answer questions—than it is to remember any specific piece of content.

My Conversion to STEM

I often smile when I think of my reaction to hearing about STEM for the first time. In the late 1990s, I converted from a formal science teacher to an afterschool science teacher. My single motivation was seeing the power of hands-on learning in science and wanting more freedom to teach hands-on activities.

I originally saw STEM as a fad. It was simply outlining the obvious. Something I had discovered for myself. STEM just seemed to be stating what everyone already knew.

I did not realize that I moved in a small, specialized group and that the best practices of STEM were not universally understood or accepted.

With 20 years of perspective, I cannot name a more successful 20th-century education initiative. By formalizing a hands-on, experiential, integrated approach to teaching science, the methods used to teach young people have been transformed and improved all around the world. Textbooks, funding, research, testing and pedagogy have all changed for the better.

STEM in Afterschool

While there is still work to do, STEM changed education for the better. Nowhere is this more evident than in afterschool and enrichment education programs.

Small group sizes, younger children, flexible curriculum and a less formal atmosphere made afterschool programs the perfect setting to adopt the new, hands-on STEM approach. As STEM grew in acceptance, parents and others began to realize that hands-on science was missing from young people's formal education. They saw that afterschool programs and other enrichment opportunities could supplement what was happening during the school day. The STEM movement quickly recognized the power that enrichment and afterschool programs had to be part of developing young people's skills and interest in STEM. Research would go on to validate this power.

STEM education is working to prepare young people for their futures and afterschool programs can be a huge part of that process. If you are not already teaching STEM, start today. As an afterschool educator, you are uniquely placed to make a difference.

Written by Andy the Science Wiz, NAA's STEM Specialist, Andy Allan.