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Filling in STEM Gaps
By John Freeman Posted:August 7, 2014 0 Comments
STEM is a buzzword that has taken the education field by storm. There are schools specifically devoted to these subjects, hundreds of grants to extend student opportunity in these fields, and more public attention focused on this area than at any time in the history of the United States ( But, when people talk about STEM education, many have a skewed view of what is actually being discussed. For many, STEM education means providing students access to technology. It also means doing more hands-on learning activities like experiments, field trips, and student-led projects. But while these sorts of things steal much of the STEM spotlight, it has led to a lack of regard for some areas of STEM that are equally important.

One major area that is overlooked by many schools is the "e" in STEM. Engineering trails all other STEM subjects in its availability to students. Doug LeMaster stated in an editorial recently that students are not being exposed to engineering due to a dated way of looking at school curriculum ( The basics of US curriculum were decided at Harvard University in the late 19th century. At that time, most engineering was agricultural and was learned at home on the farm. With the explosion of practical engineering in the 20th century, nothing has been done to realign science teaching on a broad scale to better inform students about engineering and science facts that have a direct bearing on their lives. LeMaster pointed out that while most students are taught about insect anatomy and bird migrations, few are taught how basic tools and machines work. Few students are exposed to the inner workings of such simple things as motors, faucets, and spray bottles even though students interact with these items on a constant basis. While some programs do teach students about engineering, schools that lump STEM education under their current science offerings fail to adequately explore engineerings vast impact on a student's world. In fact, some may be so bold as to say that schools vastly over-emphasize life sciences in current science classrooms. In many areas, there is a glut of life science trained workers while engineering and technology jobs go unfilled ( If engineering is to be on par with other STEM subjects, a realignment of what students learn and when must become part of the national curriculum conversation.

Engineering is not the only subject that needs to be redefined in typical STEM conversations. Technology in the STEM classroom cannot just be exposure to technology. Teaching students to use computers, laptops, and tablets is admirable, but it is nothing new. Schools have long embraced students using technology to better themselves and their education. If technology is to evolve as a larger part of schoolwork inside the STEM classroom, then it needs to have a functional component. Students need to learn not just how to use a tablet but why it works. They should understand the fundamentals of programming and computer hardware rather than just how to put together a Powerpoint or a poster. Technology cannot just be a tool in the exploration of other subjects. Instead, it must be a subject of its own that students devote time and energy into understanding and mastering.

Another area that STEM education does not explore enough is the applicability of the information and skills gained through STEM. While students of all ages may be taught about technology and the wonderful uses it has in communication, information gathering, health, and many other subjects, their education about how and when to use these skills is more sparse ( STEM education, especially through technology, provides the human race with tools that it has never had before. However, different problems require different tools to solve. Thus, it is not enough just to teach students the how of STEM, teaching them why things work and how to make the decision to employ these skills is equally important. This becomes even more important when one starts to consider the ethical implications that STEM has. In biomedical research, where is the limit of what is acceptable? In communication, where is the ethical line of privacy that students should respect? In information gathering, is there a point where students can go too far? These questions are ethical and philosophical which may make some consider excluding them from the STEM classroom, especially in earlier grades. However, if students are going to be exposed to these concepts, they should be equally exposed to the ethical considerations that underpin conscientious use of these subjects. STEM does not exist in a vacuum, and students should be expected to use their consideration when approaching these subjects.

The explosion of STEM education is a good thing. However, many people, especially in the general public, get hung up on the big picture idea of STEM and they link it to easy-to-digest chunks that they have some frame of reference for. Science means experiments. Technology means computer use. And because most people don't have a framework for programming, engineering, or ethical information application, these things tend to get pushed to the side. However, they are no less important than anything else in helping to educate this current generation of students. Bridging the STEM gap means filling in these holes so students are adequately prepared for the world they are entering.