STEM, as some of you might know, stands for science, technology, education, and mathematics. STEM education is usually described as, and expected to be, a STEM related subject-teaching approach that integrates concepts that are usually taught as separate subjects, in different classes, and seeks a solution to real-life situations via project-based learning methods (Bouchillon, nd ). STEM education has become popular in the last decade due to its so called strategic importance in countries’ economic wellbeing and global competitiveness. For some, it is another fad in education and will soon vanish (1). For others, it is of paramount importance for any post-industrialized country that wants to either sustain their economic and innovative leadership in the global economy, or to catch up with those who have been leading the way in technology and innovation. I want to talk about why STEM education is important for all of us, as well as presenting the United States’ approach to STEM as an example of why countries place so much importance on it.
Why is STEM Education Critical?
STEM’s importance grows from the fact that STEM knowledge is diffused to almost each and every part of our lives. If we just look at our environment, we can see how we experience things that are STEM-related. At this point, if a country wants to produce innovative economic leadership, it will depend upon producing STEM professionals (engineers, mathematicians, physicists, etc) who develop inventions and innovations in all areas of the economy. In addition, the 21st century workforce requires an almost entirely new set of skills due to the rapid changes in technology and the internet; we have to prepare our young population for the challenges they are going to face. The 21st century has brought many changes to our lives, from manufacturing to broader dissemination of information and technology. Today’s students know that the future holds jobs that require more advanced skills (Roblin, 2012; National Research Council, 2011) because many traditional jobs have been outsourced or replaced with high-tech tools. Therefore, students must also be prepared for jobs that do not yet exist (Dede, 2010). A lack of a skilled or, a STEM-illiterate, generation is a threat to each and every economy that worries about their future.
How do we experience STEM in our daily lives?
The Science Pioneers website gives many good examples of how science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are diffused into things happening around us every day. The website defines science as our natural world. We ride a car, fly a plane, or sail a ship, and each has its own system and set of sciences.
We also live in the digital age where all types of technology enter our lives via desktops or laptops, iPads or smartphones, and countless other information sources. We witness the construction of colossal structures, as well as engineers’ amazing solutions to today’s challenges of a growing population and global warming. We don’t need to search very hard to see the contributions of engineers to our daily lives. All we have to do is look at the world around us, including the houses we live in and the cars we drive.
When it comes to recognizing the use of mathematics, evidence is everywhere. Math is used for such minor tasks as going to a grocery store, bank, or shopping center, or for budgeting or investing. Mathematical calculations are part of our daily routines. Almost every other field (STEM and non-STEM) depends on mathematics. I remember an example one of the STEM teachers gave me. He explained why mathematics is not fully appreciated. He used an analogy of a tray, which represents mathematics. When you serve other subjects – including physics, chemistry, biology, technology, and even reading – on the tray, people pay attention to the things on the tray, but not the tray. But without the tray, you cannot serve anything.
In sum, STEM education is a must in today’s economy; it’s very important, because “it pervades every aspect of our lives” (Science Pioneers, p.1).
STEM Education’s role in countries’ global competitiveness: the case of STEM in the United States
It is better to explain this section with an example. The United States will produce more than 1.8 million STEM jobs by 2018. In fact, it is expected that STEM-related jobs will grow at a faster rate than other fields - 17 percent versus 9.8 percent (Bertram, 2014). Unfortunately, it is estimated that 1.2 million of these STEM jobs will go unfilled. Why? Because the current US workforce does not possess the skills to fill them (Bertram, 2014). Moreover, the World Economic Forum ranks the United States 52nd in the world when it comes to the quality of mathematics and science education, and 5th in overall global competitiveness or innovativeness. Moreover, the United States comes in 27th among developed nations in generating college graduates in science or engineering. Not surprisingly, many graduate students studying in US graduate schools are mostly non-American citizens, including over 2/3 of the engineers who receive Ph.D.’s from United States universities. What’s more, only one third of the annual 1.8 million bachelor graduates in the US choose STEM majors. One very important quote from the US Department of Labor (cited in Vilorio, 2014) summarizes why STEM education is important for the US economy: “The STEM fields and those who work in them are critical engines of innovation and growth: according to one recent estimate, while only about five percent of the US workforce is employed in STEM fields, the STEM workforce accounts for more than fifty percent of the nation’s sustained economic growth.”
Therefore, STEM education has a critical role in countries like the US. The importance of STEM education is not limited to only the United States: when you look at the research literature, you will see that many other European and non-European countries have started investing millions of dollars to improve their STEM education and increase their STEM-literate college students (Archer, DeWitt, & Wong, 2013; Ayar, 2015).
What a good STEM Education should look like
The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) (2010) identified four major goals of STEM Education. But again, these goals were developed for the American people and government. Thus, any community or country can develop their own STEM education goals based on their needs or expectations.
According to PCAST, the first goal of American STEM education should be to ensure a STEM-capable citizenry where average Americans have the knowledge, conceptual understandings, and critical thinking skills that come from studying STEM subjects. The second goal of American STEM education is to generate a STEM-proficient workforce, one that has the skills to meet the needs of the American economy. The third goal of American STEM education is to cultivate STEM experts who can contribute “to economic growth, to technological progress, to our understanding of ourselves and the universe, and to the reduction of hunger, disease, and poverty” (p.6). The last goal of American STEM education is to close the achievement and participation gap among students of color and women, in order to tap into the country’s full potential.
In conclusion, it seems that policymakers and researchers agree on the strategic and scholastic importance of STEM education. In order to produce the workforce countries need, research suggests STEM teaching has to be engaging, rigorous, relevant to students’ lives, and must cultivate an interest in STEM subjects (NRC, 2011). But the pivotal question we need to ask is: how will educational institutions teach STEM subjects and raise a STEM-literate generation? This is another article topic to ponder!
Archer, L., DeWitt, J., & Wong, B. (2013). Spheres of influence: what shapes young people’s aspirations
at age 12/13 and what are the implications for education policy? Journal of Education Policy, 29(1), 58-85.
Ayar, M. C. (2015). Engineering design at first-hand and career interest in engineering: An informal STEM education case study. Educational Sciences: Theory and Practice 15(6), 1655.
Bertram, V. M. (2014). One nation under-taught: Solving America’s science, technology, engineering, and math crisis. New York: Beaufort Books.
Bouchillon, E. (2015). What is STEM education?: Definition, importance, & importance. Retrieved from http://study.com/academy/lesson/what-is-stem-education-definition-importance-standards.html
Dede, C. (2010). Comparing frameworks for 21st century skills. In J. Bellanca & R. Brandt (Eds.), 21st century skills: Rethinking how students learn (pp. 221-240). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Roblin, N.P. (2012, November). 21st century competences: A new challenge for Higher Educationinstitutions?Retrievedfrom http://www.fue.es/HTML/PDFS/01%20EUGRAD%20DISSEMINATION/%20SEMINA
Science Pioneers. (2016). Why STEM education is important for everyone. Retrieved from https://www.sciencepioneers.org/parents/why-stem-is-important-to-everyone
National Research Council. (2011). Successful K-12 STEM education: Identifying effective approaches in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Washington: NAP.
President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. (2010). Prepare and inspire: K-12 education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) for America’s future. Washington. Retrieved from
http:// www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/ microsites/ostp/pcast-stem- ed-final.pdf
Vilorio, D. (2014). STEM 101: Intro to tomorrow’s jobs. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2014/spring/art01.pdf