Rich History of STEM Education in the United States


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The combined curriculum of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics wasn't always known as STEM. The story of this acronym is young, but the U.S. pursuit of education and innovation in science and technology has a rich history. Taking a look back at the history of STEM education and innovation can provide a glimpse into what's in store for the future.

The Early STEM Years

STEM's development traces back to the Morrill Act of 1862, which created land grant universities to promote agricultural science. The Act later established engineering programs as well. When more land grant institutions emerged, STEM training expanded beyond education and began penetrating the workforce.

World War II brought about unprecedented advancements due largely to military, business, and academic collaborations. This period yielded such innovations as synthetic rubber, improved transportation, and atomic weaponry, all of which helped win the war.

The 1950s ushered in the Cold War and the space race. In response to Russia's launch of the Sputnik satellite, President Eisenhower inaugurated the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958. NASA's establishment didn't necessarily mark the beginning of U.S. interest in science, but it brought more national attention to science education. President Kennedy's promotion of scientific advancement contributed to the 1969 moon landing.

The United States continued to see more technological developments throughout the 1970s and 1980s. This period saw the first computers and cell phones. The first artificial heart and first space shuttle landing invigorated the call for enhanced science education.

The STEM Acronym and Curriculum

At the turn of the twenty-first century, a consensus emerged that U.S. students' achievements in the STEM disciplines were falling short compared to other industrialized countries. The year 2001 saw a push to address the shortfall. The National Science Foundation (NSF) created the acronym SMET to reflect the standards in science, math, engineering, and technology that educators would follow to teach K-12 students problem-solving, analytical thinking, and science competencies. That same year, Judith Ramaley, NSF Director of Education and Human Resources, changed the acronym to STEM.

In that same year, Arizona's governor, Janet Napolitano, spearheaded the acquisition of public and private grant funding to support STEM education. Six more states followed suit and secured funding to ensure that every student graduated high school with core science proficiencies. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act also passed in 2001, authorizing state-level standardized testing to maintain high academic standards.

Despite state and nationwide efforts to bolster science education, U.S. students were still falling behind. In 2009, President Obama established the Educate to Innovate Initiative. Its goal involved "moving American students from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math achievement over the next decade." The Initiative included preparing 100,000 STEM teachers by 2021 and called for increasing federal funding toward STEM education.

Two notable developments occurred in 2015. One was the STEM Education Act of 2015, which added computer science to the STEM curriculum and provided more teacher training. Congress also passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This legislation replaced NCLB, modifying standardized test usage and expanding the federal government's role in K-12 public education.

Enhancing Diversity in Science and Technology

From 2000-2010, STEM jobs grew three times the rate of other occupations. However, experts have identified gender and racial gaps in science-related fields. Educators and employers have understood the need to increase the number of women and ethnic minorities in STEM. In 2017, President Trump signed the Inspire Act, which directed NASA to encourage women and girls to pursue aerospace careers.

Countries worldwide have worked to broaden marginalized groups' representation and participation in STEM research, education, and industry. For instance, the United Nations (UN) observes February 11 as International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The UN cites that only about 30 percent of all female students in higher education choose to study in STEM disciplines.

The STEM curriculum and concept continues to flourish and change. Schools increasingly provide application and problem-solving experiences to create more awareness of STEM among students of diverse backgrounds. Some educators advocate for the inclusion of arts and humanities, suggesting that the acronym be changed to STEAM. Other educators argue that a STEM curriculum should include the history of science, particularly the contributions of women scientists.

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