What is STEM Education? A Guide for Teachers and Parents

What is STEM Education? A Guide for Teachers and Parents

You’ve probably heard the term STEM or STEAM before or your child may have taken a STEM class in school. STEM Education is often misunderstood for a number of reasons including what it means in terms of curriculum and the skills students are taught.

What is STEM Education?

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math and through STEM Education students acquire skills that enable them to become problem solvers, creators, critical thinkers, innovators, and collaborators.

The History of STEM and STEM Education in the United States

STEM was first coined by Judith Ramely of the National Science Foundation in 2001. In the early 2000’s, schools began introducing courses integrating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math after the publication of the report Rising Above the Gathering Storm (2005) by the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. This report forecast a bleak future for the United States if we couldn’t compete in a global economy due to a workforce that lacked necessary skills.

International comparisons of math and science achievement such as the Trends in International Math and Science Study which began assessing 4th Grade and 8th Grade Math and Science achievement worldwide in 1995, further increased concern that American students were trailing students from other countries.

Further studies identified educational practices of successful STEM programs which encouraged Governors to develop K-12 STEM teaching and learning programs in their home states.

In October 2015, President Obama signed into law the STEM Education Act of 2015 which (1) expands research and training opportunities for math and science teachers through a prominent National Science Foundation (NSF) scholarship program, (2) boosts research in informal STEM education at the NSF, and (3) explicitly incorporates computer science into the definition of STEM education for federal purposes.

How Do U.S. Students Rank Internationally in Math and Science Achievement?

U.S. students for a number of reasons, have traditionally lagged behind other industrialized countries in math and science achievement. 8th Grade students in the United States ranked 11th in the world in science and 11th in the world in math achievement according to the 2015 Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS).

Why STEM Education?

STEM Careers once again offer the top starting salaries and for the Class of 2019, Engineering Majors can expect to earn $69,188, Computer Science Majors $67,539, and Math and Science Majors $62,177.

Components of a Quality STEM Education Program

According to the University of Chicago STEM School Study (S3) , a great STEM Education Program is comprised of 8 essential elements as shown below.

  1. Problem-based Learning Problem-based Learning
  2. Rigorous Learning
  3. School Community and Belonging
  4. Career, Technology, and Life Skills
  5. Personalization of Learning
  6. Connection to the Broader and External Community
  7. Staff Foundations
  8. Essential Factors

While there is no consensus on the perfect model for how STEM Education should look like in the classroom, the most successful STEM Education Programs include : incorporating the Engineering Design Process into current curriculum, a thematic approach that involves real-world issues and incorporates two or more STEM areas, and finally maker-oriented programs such as Maker Faires, robotics, and coding.

How Can Parents Foster STEM Skills at Home and School?

Children that have parents that spend time with them on reading and math learning activities from a young age, have higher achievement in math and science according to IEA’s Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study – TIMSS 2015. In addition, children that attended structured daycare or preprimary education programs had higher in science and children who lived in homes with many resources for learning (books, technology, educational toys, etc.)

While children from more affluent homes have an advantage when it comes to a rich learning home environment, there are many low-cost alternatives that can provide opportunities for your child to develop STEM related skills. Here are a few ideas:

Read to Your Child Daily: Spending 15 minutes reading to your preschooler before bedtime will provide a solid foundation of early literacy skills and help your child be more successful in school. Your local library is a great source of free reading materials and ideas for incorporating literacy into your families everyday activities.

Teach Problem Solving Skills: In today’s world of disposable products and instant digital information, children have less opportunities to develop problem solving skills than when I was growing up. If something breaks(non-electronic), instead of immediately replacing the item, use it as an opportunity for problem solving, repair it, or open it up to see how it works. A set of Kenex or Legos are a great way to help your child develop problem solving skills while enjoying playtime with friends.

Get involved with your school PTA or Site Council: and advocate for the creation of a STEM Night or Maker Space program at your child’s school.

SCIENCE – go to the museum, attend a stargazing event, check out a field guide at your local library and take your child on a field trip to identify local flora and fauna. more ideas…

TECHNOLOGY – Have your child learn coding for free or dismantle an old computer to learn what a microprocessor looks like. more ideas…

ENGINEERING – teach your child the Engineering Design Process (EDP) and use this process at home to solve problems. more ideas…

MATH – take your child to the grocery store and have them calculate how many produce items can be purchased with a set amount of money or which product is a better buy based upon unit price. more ideas…

How Can Teachers Foster STEM Skills at School?

Setting aside a regular block of time for STEM activities is difficult if not impossible for most teachers. In fact, integrating STEM principles into everyday situations in the classroom is a more appropriate model for teaching STEM skills.

Have Students Solve Real World Problems – For example, student’s pencils are often rolling off their desks causing classroom distractions. This is a perfect opportunity to have students develop a solution to this problem. Walk your students through the Engineering Design Process to arrive at a solution. Providing your students with a limited supply of materials will help to focus student’s design ideas and result in a better experience.

Create a STEM Box – stock a box with common household items such as paper towel tubes, craft sticks, scrap pieces of fabric, hot glue guns, card stock, Legos, velcro, cups, playdough, string, plastic water bottles, etc. Periodically provide your students with a problem to solve or have students use STEM Box materials to engineer a solution to a problem you are having in the classroom. Keep your STEM box restocked by inviting parents to donate items during meet the teacher night!

Advocate for a Maker Space at Your School – A Maker Space doesn’t have to be an elaborate or dedicated room on your campus. It can be a table in the library or any classroom where students have access to materials they can use to create solutions to problems. The most important aspect is that the space is well organized and managed properly. Students should have a clear understanding that a Maker Space is not for playtime but a space for engineering creative solutions to problems. The main reason why most Maker Spaces fail is that students and teachers don’t share a clear understanding of purpose.

Host a Maker Faire – The next logical step after creating a Maker Space is to have your students participate in a Maker Faire. A Maker Faire is part science fair, part performing arts festival, and part arts and crafts show. If you haven’t been to a Maker Faire you owe it to your students to participate in one and then host one at your school.

what is stem education