What is STEM
The simplest definition is what it stands for, which is science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. There are many organizations that are dedicated to this topic and they define this with their own objectives. The ultimate goal of STEM education is to encourage students to take an interest in STEM subjects at an early age. This should be beneficial to them when they enter the jobs market, and in turn it should benefit the greater economy. It is a simple definition with a straight forward goal.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has compiled a list of STEM designated degrees
. This list is intended for foreign students who are studying in the U.S. on a valid student visa so they may qualify for certain optional training programs. But this is also a good reference for American students, and it show that STEM can be integrated into a variety of interests.
Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are an important part of education in a competitive global marketplace. In 2009, the United States educational system received some sobering news. The Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) ranked 15-year-old U.S. high-school students 18th in mathematics and 13th in science. These results were based on data from 34 participating nations. Some of the nations with higher student scores included much smaller and far less wealthy nations like Estonia, Slovenia and Finland. It was apparent that the U.S. educational system needed significant improvement in these areas if the students who would be the workforce of tomorrow were to have a competitive edge in a globalized, high-tech marketplace.
National and state educational policymakers renewed efforts begun in 2006 to improve the overall mathematics, science and technology literacy of U.S. students. These efforts became known as the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM, initiative.
Although many of the nation's public schools had already begun a greater focus on mathematics and science as part of their core curricula, new academies as well as existing educational institutions took the focus one step further. Applying for, and receiving, government and private business grants set up for STEM education initiatives, these schools aggressively promoted the concept with the express goal of graduating students competent in a variety of STEM subjects.
Schools pursuing these goals explored a variety of approaches such as smaller class sizes of 10 to 12 students with a one-to-one student/computer ratio, inquiry-based teaching methodologies and an active partnership with technology businesses that provide real-world applications for STEM subjects. Other schools made electronic textbooks, Skype and video-conferencing an integral part of the educational experience. In the state of Washington, for example, private funding supports special scholarships for students who score particularly well in these subjects on state or college entrance exams. Scholarship recipients agree to further pursue these subjects in college and work in Washington's STEM-related industries for a specified period of time after graduation.
Whatever innovative approaches were put into place, the STEM educational blueprint was paramount: integrating technology into the daily educational experience, specially trained teachers who knew how to best present these subjects, inquiry-based interactive teaching methodologies and, of course, a robust curriculum with adequate knowledge assessment practices.
Because of the government and business funding initiatives, becoming a STEM-designated school can mean access to significant financial resources. However, the specific criteria for becoming a designated school vary by state. There is the basic educational blueprint to which all designated schools must adhere, but each state has its own approach how to best follow that blueprint. As previously stated, many new academies and specialized schools have been launched that are essentially STEM schools. However, existing schools are also adjusting their curricula and teaching methodologies to win this designation.
Even though the initiative has solid support at the state and national level, not everyone is totally on-board with the extreme focus on STEM subjects. Some of these critics feel that elected officials and their business leader allies are trying to use the STEM education process to bolster the U.S. economy. There is no doubt that the jobs of tomorrow will mainly require high-skilled, technologically advanced workers. However, the education system may result in more qualified workers than there are jobs for them to fill.
Despite the critics, it is unlikely that state and national policymakers will rein in efforts to promote the curricula in as many schools as possible. State, national and private funding dollars are increasingly earmarked for this initiative, and there is a great deal of hope that the collective investment of these entities will result in superior mathematics and science literacy in U.S. students.
PISA evaluations take place every three years, which means that the 2012 data is being assessed for a 2013 release. Proponents and investors supporting STEM education will be looking closely at that data to see if the education policy changes and investment strategies have had the desired effect. If they have, then one can expect to see an even greater emphasis on STEM education in U.S. schools.
Update: Read In Defense of America's STEM Students' PISA Test Scores
for an update on the 2012 PISA scores
Why STEM Education is Becoming Increasingly Important
Racial Disparity in STEM Education Fields