STEM 2015: Are We Losing Our Focus?

Middle Web

A MiddleWeb Blog

1 stem_design_logoMy fingers are crossed for 2015 as the best STEM year ever! I’ve been looking around to see what directions STEM programs seem to be taking this year. At first glance, it appears that deciding what a STEM programshould look like is an ongoing conundrum for the K-12 education world.

I decided to scrutinize what’s being described as “STEM” these days using resources from the National Academies and the American Society for Engineering Education, as well as my own work with the Engaging Youth through Engineering project.

stem integration coverIf you’d like to have a good look at some basic STEM principles, you might start with these three publications.  (Note that you can download the PDFs for free.)

Successful STEM Education Programs (National Research Council)

► Examination of Integrated STEM Curricula as a Means Toward Quality K-12 Engineering Education (Research to Practice)

► STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research (National Academies Press). [PDF]

According to studies and writings about the STEM “idea” at its onset, certain criteria and principles would be common to all STEM lessons and programs. I made a list of some of these criteria to help me weigh how well our various STEM programs today are meeting them:

✔︎ Criteria for STEM Programs

1. Focus on integrating science, technology, engineering – preferably all four, although true integration of even two would be an acceptable step toward STEM.
2. Focus on a real-world problem or engineering challenge.
3. Use Inquiry-based, student-centered learning approaches.
4. Engage students in using an engineering design process that leads to developing a product or process to solve the engineering challenge.
5. Emphasize teamwork and communication.
6. Build rich content knowledge of science and mathematics.

Note that these are not the only criteria, but according to the National Research Council, these elements should all be present in K-12 STEM curricula. Also keep in mind that technology in STEM involves creating devices to satisfy human wants and needs. It’s not a discipline in the strict sense of the word. Engineering includes a process for solving problems and integrates science and math content to devise technologies. 

STEM Schools, Plus and Minus

So what’s going on in the way of STEM in middle schools this year? I found some schools that do, indeed, have programs that meet the STEM criteria. The Engaging Youth through Engineeringprogram (right) provides integrated STEM curriculum modules to all middle schoolers in Mobile County, AL. And STEMWorks lists a group of other STEM initiatives that have meet some or all of thedesign principles developed by Change the Equation.

In reality, however, the schools implementing STEM programs with fidelity are few and far between. Most of the schools fall into one of two categories:

STEM Minus schools (STEM-). In these schools the STEM programs leave out one or more of the four STEM ingredients. Admittedly, the challenge of connecting the four (three disciplines + technology) is hard. If the job of teaching STEM falls to just one teacher, that person may lack in-depth content knowledge in both science and math to provide the necessary rigor and integration needed.

Note, however, that STEM lessons don’t necessarily teach the specific content in math and science – they may apply content that has already been taught. The key point is whether a STEM program applies math and science concepts to solve an engineering challenge and provide students with opportunities to integrate learning.

Here are examples of some STEM- schools I found.

Schools that focus only on digital technology and technical skills. Some schools are focusing on an engaging new initiative – coding – and yet claim to be teaching STEM. Those schools are actually teaching one STEM-friendly component that may be incorporated into STEM curriculum. These schools meet few if any of the Criteria for STEM programs.

anne boy surrounded by numbers► Schools focused only on offering advanced math and science coursework. Again, these schools are teaching a component of STEM – the “S” or the “M” – and not an integrated STEM curriculum. After all, schools have been teaching science and math for well over a century. Developing rigorous math and science knowledge is a goal of STEM; however, this approach scores a minus on five of the six Criteria for STEM programs.

► Schools focused on Maker Education initiatives. This worthwhile initiative involves kids in a great deal of personal exploration and innovation based on their interests. When correctly implemented, the Maker approach makes for highly engaged learners. Maker projects, however, are not intended to substitute as STEM programs. They frequently accomplish Criteria #2 and #3 and touch on other criteria to some degree. But their goals and focus differ from STEM.

► Schools focused on robotics. These schools may or may not offer true STEM programs, depending on whether or not the robotics program meets the STEM criteria. Some robotics classes are highly directive, with kids following a prescribed procedure for building robots. Some are a great deal like Maker projects, with students having freedom to create robots that interest them but without an intentional focus on math or science content. Students may work in teams or they may work alone. So to determine if your robotics program is a STEM program, or simply a good program through which students can create and invent, take a look at theCriteria for STEM programs.

STEM Plus schools (STEM+). A great many programs that can be identified as STEM+ involve other disciplines. Probably the best known example is STEAM, which adds the arts to the original four ingredients of STEM. (Not a bad idea, since understanding how to create attractive and appealing products is important in the engineering world. When included strategically, arts fit naturally.)

Then we have STREAM (+ reading and art), STEMM (STEM + Medicine), STEMSS (STEM + social studies), and even STREAMSS (STEM + just about everything.) It would be difficult to tell if these STEM+ programs meet STEM criteria because the program elements are scattered throughout the curriculum.

Remember, STEM as originally conceived is intended to get kids up to speed on science and math using an engineering design approach, emphasizing teamwork and real-world problems.


So Where Does STEM Stand?

A recent Education Week topic asks, Is STEM Too Broad a Category? I have that concern when we see  other coursework becoming part of STEM. Can juggling other coursework give short shrift to STEM subjects that were the initial focus of the initiative? And, we already have a perfectly fine initiative that does integrate all subjects –project based learning (PBL). Are we trying to reinvent PBL and call it STEM – possibly to the detriment of math, science, and the other subjects as well?

Goals for STEM 2015

If I had to develop a goal for STEM schools and programs in 2015, I’d recommend something like this:

Research, study, identify, and implement effective approaches for improving STEM teaching and learning in your school. Decide what STEM will be in your school and remain true to the basic criteria of STEM programs.

A lot of good STEM stuff is going on in schools. Share it, and let’s keep talking about what STEM should be and why it deserves its own place in our ever-expanding school curriculum.


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