From Beijing to Belarus, global workshop venues have introduced me to a diverse international audience who is very much interested in the role of STEM in the 21st-century classroom. Although attendees to my presentations represent a range of backgrounds, resources, sophistication, and needs, all want to dive deeper into the conceptual landscape that nests beneath the umbrella of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. It’s important for educators worldwide to understand what exactly the concept of STEM entails before covering it in their classrooms.
To best appreciate today’s worldwide attention on STEM education, let’s take a step back and explore its origins. Toward the end of the 20th century, the prospects of a poorly prepared science and engineering workforce exacerbated the need for comprehensive change. The foundations of this transformation would be laid down in new pedagogies and approaches that reflected what was being learned about effective teaching.
A New Approach to Teaching
Numerous documents were scripted that profiled a path that moved the teaching of science from passive acceptance of fact to the active construction of understanding. At its very heart of this change lay the shift from content-dense pontification to meaningful inquiry-based learning. These changes were embodied in curricula connections, higher-level thinking, and the practical application of understanding to the “real” world that existed beyond the classroom walls.
The drive toward increasing interconnectedness led to the expanded usage of the now familiar acronym, STEM. Although we’ve encountered it on multiple occasions, for a moment allow me to digress and explore the meaning of each of its components. This will help you as an educator explain STEM to your students, providing them with a general idea of how these disciplines are intertwined.
- First, the "S." Science is all about understanding our natural world. It is a structured endeavor designed to expand the knowledge base of our species. As most of us learned, its primary tool was something called the scientific method. Today, however, that term is somewhat out of favor. Instead, its procedure is assumed within a wider, self-directed methodology that nests within the practices of science.
- Next, let’s address the "T." Technology is the application of our scientific understanding. It is often profiled in industrial/manufacturing processes and their products. To some, it’s a physical solution, while to others, it’s an advancement in the knowledge base or problem-solving approach, both of which emerge from the engineering design process.
- Now, the "E." Contrary to widely held beliefs, engineering is not science. Engineering is all about problem solving. An engineer uncovers solutions to problems or develops something that meets an expressed need. Unlike scientists, engineers are not primarily concerned with adding to our global library of understanding. Instead, they uncover ways of applying that understanding to improving the human condition.
- And finally, there's the "M." For me, mathematics is mostly about patterns and pattern analysis. I realize my belief is somewhat biased and narrow in definition, but it emerges from my early years as a research scientist. Within the authentic laboratory experience, the primary use of math was to make sense of scientific patterns and develop an analysis on which further understanding was constructed. So although this distilled down definition may not seem far-reaching enough for some of my mathematics colleagues down the hall, for most STEM instructors it will suffice.