Even though schools have been teaching science, technology, engineering, and math for about as long as these subjects have existed, suddenly everyone seems to be adding a big dose of STEM to their schools. To find out what STEM’s all about, we turned to two great sources: Kim Magloire, the founder and president of SciTech Kids (which is opening a new STEAM—STEM plus art—Lab in December), which offers enrichment classes in science and technology for children from 3-12, and Eric C. Nastasi, Esq., director of advancement at the Smithsonian Science Education Center, whose STEM-based curriculum is used in schools across the country, and locally at the Alexander Robertson School.
What does STEM commonly mean?
Kim Magloire: STEM is an acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Traditionally, math and science have been taught separately and most of the time independently from one another. A STEM curriculum combines science, math, engineering, and technology into an integrated learning experience. Basically, students participate in project-based, collaborative activities that require them to apply STEM topics to understand and solve real-world problems.
Why is STEM important?
Eric Nastasi: We live in an era of constant scientific discovery and technological change. STEM education equips us with opportunities to improve life for people across the world, and chances to be better stewards of our natural resources. As our economy increasingly depends on these revolutionary new advances, many new jobs will be created in STEM fields. If we are to stay competitive as a nation, then we need to build a scientifically literate citizenry and a bank of highly skilled, STEM-literate employees. In 2011, 26 million US jobs (about 20 percent of the workforce) required in-depth knowledge in at least one of the STEM fields. However, these STEM jobs are not just growing for those with higher educational degrees. In a report titled “The Hidden STEM Economy,” the Brookings Institution states that “half of all STEM jobs are available to workers without a four-year college degree, and these jobs pay…ten percent higher than jobs with similar educational requirements.”
KM: There is a strong push from politicians and the business sector to have more students be versed in STEM. According to the results from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), American students ranked 31st in math and 24th in science internationally. This statistic is alarming because about 80 percent of the jobs created in the next decade will require STEM skills. Science and technology companies are concerned they will not have the qualified workforce to fill the growing technical positions. One solution to improve student achievement and the United States’ global leadership and economic competitiveness is to bolster STEM education at the elementary and secondary level. When implemented correctly, a STEM education will provide students with the skills to successfully enter STEM fields.
STEM is often associated with the idea of introducing concepts into curriculum and activities with children in lower grades, even Kindergarten. Why?
KM: Children are natural explorers and curious about how the world works. Building learning connections among subjects using STEM curriculum gives children a perspective that is not only a real eye-opener, but also helps them develop the critical thinking and problem-solving skills required for success in school and later in the workplace. For Kindergartners, this may seem a bit premature, but the kind of critical thinking and problem-solving skills required for success in the workplace can start at this stage.
Is one of STEM’s overriding impulses a feeling that, beyond early exposure, subjects like science and technology can be better taught to children?
KM: Absolutely! Research shows that, by the time children reach the third grade, many are turned off to science because they find it difficult, dull, or confusing. Suddenly, science involves the rote memorization of facts and is no longer fun or relevant. Young children need to experience science and math as an engaging, collaborative processes of inquiry and discovery. When children are placed in the role of an investigator and immersed in hands-on activities that draw upon their sense of curiosity, they learn these subjects better.
EN: Children are so curious about STEM topics. Whether they can’t put their tablet down or they are asking questions about the sky, the subway, or the dinosaurs—kids are so curious. They love shiny new things; they are intrigued by mysterious, old dusty things; and they squeal at slimy, strange things. STEM has all of that. Schools are a place for learning, and STEM offers the topics kids want to learn about. That wanting to learn, that curiosity; it might start with wanting to know about newts or airplanes, but it leads to reading, observing, recognizing patterns, calculating, recording, and collaborating. STEM at an early age provides the gateway to better learning across all fields and disciplines, and harnesses curiosity in a way that can lead to a lifetime of intrinsic motivation, or wanting to know for the sake of knowing.
Does a typical STEM curriculum integrate its four pillars—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math—into the same lessons, or separately?
KM: A true STEM curriculum is an integrated program of study. Although STEM programs may look a little different in every classroom or school, most rigorous lessons interconnect STEM subjects. However, the emphasis of the four pillars may change depending on the lesson. For example, an engineering-based STEM lesson about building bridges may place more emphasis on the design process, geometry, the forces at work, and technology than science. It is also the type of questions we ask children to explore that turn an ordinary lesson into a rich STEM lesson. For example: “What is the design process for this activity?” Or: “What is your hypothesis? Now that you have tested your activity, what would be a better approach to your design?”
EN: The integration of STEM has been a challenge when it comes to actual implementation. Increasingly, however, the private sector and learning science researchers are converging on the same conclusion: STEM needs to take an integrated approach. It squares with how people live, work, and learn. Newer approaches to learning standards have been taking this integrated approach to heart, but it will demand a great deal of re-envisioning on the part of curriculum developers. It will also require an investment on the part of schools to develop their leadership, educators, and community so that they are prepared to offer this type of education to students.
By starting STEM learning early, is the hope that greater percentages of women and minorities will end up in these fields?
KM: Another initiative by policy makers, businesses, and educators is to increase the number of women and underrepresented minorities who pursue STEM-related careers. The majority of STEM graduates are white males (55 percent), while African Americans and Hispanics make up less than 3 and 4 percent, respectively. In order to have a diverse workforce, we need to increase the number of females and underrepresented minorities who pursue advanced degrees and careers in STEM fields. Research on STEM education has shown that children who experience STEM early through hands-on learning are those who will be best equipped to develop a strong understanding of STEM concepts as they get older.
EN: Research shows that if you want to know what a child will grow up to be, you need only to look to who his or her neighbors are. Children who grow up around engineers or scientists have role models and mentors in these fields and consider careers in engineering or science. We also know that children see role models most readily in people who resemble or remind them of members of their own community. One way to mitigate a dearth of role models in a child’s community, however, is to provide that child with opportunities to integrate his or her identity with a given role… The earlier we provide children with these opportunities, the more receptive they are to absorbing these different identities.
How’s a parent to know whether a school or program is doing a good job of introducing STEM, or just kind of riding the trend in a superficial way?
KM: Just because a program is labelled STEM does not ensure that students will actually build competencies in STEM. Unfortunately, there are a lot of curricula and materials that are trying to pass themselves off as STEM. As a parent, the key to identifying a high-quality STEM program is to ask the following questions: Are students encouraged to explore and come up with ideas? Does the program engage students in the scientific or design process? Do students address a real-world problem? Do they work in teams to solve this problem? Are there multiple possible solutions? Are the principles of STEM (critical thinking, asking good questions, observation and exploration) truly at the heart of every discipline? If so, you are dealing with a quality STEM-based program. Another question would be to ask if the teachers received any professional development and ongoing support. Some schools create their own STEM curriculum which may not fulfill the criteria above. Lastly, does the school have outside partners such as universities, STEM-based companies, or businesses?
EN: STEM requires materials. You can’t separate the learning from the doing in STEM. If your child was learning basketball, violin, or crochet, you would expect to see hoops, bows, or yarn. You would be skeptical if you just saw books strewn about. Likewise, STEM education requires lab space, computers, spreadsheets, batteries, beakers, and a whole host of other items… Parents should [also] know what sort of professional development is being provided for teachers, administrators, and support specialists in the school. Teaching STEM is a tricky thing. You’ve got a complex content base that changes over time, and teachers need to stay up to date on that. The pedagogy, learning science, and cognitive sciences that inform the teaching of STEM take years of practice and mentorship to master, and that body of research is growing all the time as well. Educators need time to learn, plan, implement, and collaborate. In this respect, the greatest sign of a healthy STEM program is a quality program for professional and leadership development.
What else do parents need to know about STEM?
KM: A growing movement among educators has been to integrate the arts into STEM curricula—from STEM to STEAM—as a way to engage and appeal to a broader group of students. Studies show that students who create projects that incorporate art into the mix (paper crafts, music, movement, playdough etc.) visualize STEM concepts better. This approach holds great promise, since it helps a more diverse group of young learners experience STEAM as an engaging process of inquiry.
EN: Parents also need to know that they are critical in ensuring a quality STEM education. When you see a school or district with a thriving, fruitful STEM curriculum, you can bet that a community of active and passionate parents is behind it.