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What is STEM Education?

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Credit: alphaspirit | Shutterstock

STEM is a curriculum based on the idea of educating students in four specific disciplines — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — in an interdisciplinary and applied approach. Rather than teach the four disciplines as separate and discrete subjects, STEM integrates them into a cohesive learning paradigm based on real-world applications.

Though the United States has historically been a leader in these fields, fewer students have been focusing on these topics recently. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 16 percent of high school students are interested in a STEM career and have proven a proficiency in mathematics. Currently, nearly 28 percent of high school freshmen declare an interest in a STEM-related field, a department website says, but 57 percent of these students will lose interest by the time they graduate from high school.

As a result, the Obama administration announced the 2009 "Educate to Innovate" campaign to motivate and inspire students to excel in STEM subjects. This campaign also addresses the inadequate number of teachers skilled to educate in these subjects. The goal is to get American students from the middle of the pack in science and math to the top of the pack in the international arena.

Thirteen agencies are partners in the Committee on Stem Education (CoSTEM), including mission science agencies and the U.S. Department of Education. CoSTEM is working to create a joint national strategy to invest federal funds in K-12 STEM education, increasing public and youth STEM engagement, improving the STEM experience for undergraduates, reaching demographics underrepresented in STEM fields, and designing better graduate education for the STEM workforce. The Department of Education now offers a number of STEM-based programs, including research programs with a STEM emphasis, STEM grant selection programs and general programs that support STEM education.

The Obama administration's 2014 budget invests $3.1 billion in federal programs on STEM education, with an increase of 6.7 percent over 2012. The investments will be made to recruit and support STEM teachers, as well as support STEM-focused high schools with STEM Innovation Networks. The budget also invests into advanced research projects for education, to better understand next-generation learning technologies.

The importance of STEM education

All of this effort is to meet a need. According to a report by the website STEMconnector.org, by 2018, projections estimate the need for 8.65 million workers in STEM-related jobs. The manufacturing sector faces an alarmingly large shortage of employees with the necessary skills — nearly 600,000. The field of cloud computing alone will have created 1.7 million jobs between 2011 and 2015, according to the report. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2018, the bulk of STEM careers will be:

  • Computing – 71 percent
  • Traditional Engineering – 16 percent
  • Physical sciences – 7 percent
  • Life sciences – 4 percent
  • Mathematics – 2 percent

STEM jobs do not all require higher education or even a college degree. Less than half of entry-level STEM jobs require a bachelor's degree or higher. However, a four-year degree is incredibly helpful with salary — the average advertised starting salary for entry-level STEM jobs with a bachelor's requirement was 26 percent higher than jobs in the non-STEM fields, according to the STEMconnect report. For every job posting for a bachelor's degree recipient in a non-STEM field, there were 2.5 entry-level job postings for a bachelor's degree recipient in a STEM field.

This is not a problem unique to the United States. In the United Kingdom, the Royal Academy of Engineering reports that the Brits will have to graduate 100,000 STEM majors every year until 2020 just to meet demand. According to the report, Germany has a shortage of 210,000 workers in the mathematics, computer science, natural science and technology disciplines.

Blended learning

What separates STEM from the traditional science and math education is the blended learning environment and showing students how the scientific method can be applied to everyday life. It teaches students computational thinking and focuses on the real world applications of problem solving. As mentioned before, STEM education begins while students are very young:

  • Elementary school — STEM education focuses on the introductory level STEM courses, as well as awareness of the STEM fields and occupations. This initial step provides standards-based structured inquiry-based and real world problem-based learning, connecting all four of the STEM subjects. The goal is to pique students' interest into them wanting to pursue the courses, not because they have to. There is also an emphasis placed on bridging in-school and out-of-school STEM learning opportunities.
     
  • Middle school — At this stage, the courses become more rigorous and challenging. Student awareness of STEM fields and occupations is still pursued, as well as the academic requirements of such fields. Student exploration of STEM related careers begins at this level, particularly for underrepresented populations.
     
  • High school — The program of study focuses on the application of the subjects in a challenging and rigorous manner. Courses and pathways are now available in STEM fields and occupations, as well as preparation for post-secondary education and employment. More emphasis is placed on bridging in-school and out-of-school STEM opportunities.

Much of the STEM curriculum is aimed toward attracting underrepresented populations. Female students, for example, are significantly less likely to pursue a college major or career. Though this is nothing new, the gap is increasing at a significant rate. Male students are also more likely to pursue engineering and technology fields, while female students prefer science fields, like biology, chemistry, and marine biology. Overall, male students are three times more likely to be interested in pursuing a STEM career, the STEMconnect report said.

Ethnically, Asian students have historically displayed the highest level of interest in the STEM fields. Prior to 2001, students of an African-American background also showed high levels of interest in STEM fields, second only to the Asian demographic. However, since then, African-American interest in STEM has dropped dramatically to lower than any other ethnicity. Other ethnicities with high STEM interest include American Indian students.

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