What is STEM Education?
STEM should be much more than just the use of science, technology, engineering, and math. However, so often in our schools we create experiences focused simply on one portion of this word, and call it STEM. Even the word itself projects its identity as four separate entities a student should engage in. As a student, STEM should feel like an integrated process with all of the parts working together to develop their understanding of how the world works along with how to solve its problems. The use and creation of information is vital to students now; no longer the access to information. The heart of STEM is the student’s learning process supported by the instructional strategies of the teacher. The teacher becomes a guide creating experiences for the students which allow them to figure out the world through scientific practice and apply their learning to problems they identify. In order to solve these problems students will need deep conceptual understandings in science and freedom to be creative. They will also need technology capable of supporting their design for their solutions paired with the math needed to understand the problem. It is not science, technology, engineering, or math - it is an inclusive learning process.
Using STEM as a learning process rather than a collection of content, allows the teacher to create an instructional sequence that incorporates all dimensions of the school system. In order to develop a conceptual understanding in science, students will have to read, research and communicate their ideas through writing. They will have to analyze information through mathematics. They will have to design tools and utilize technologies to further their research. This process of figuring out the world builds both the student's skills and content knowledge as well as providing them with the tools to solve other problems. This is a delicate interplay of development. The problems a teacher proposes to students can only be solved at levels consistent with the other sides of their learning progression. Many of these problems require high levels of mathematics or deep conceptual understanding of scientific ideas. In addition, research analysis, and evaluation of ideas are founded in reading and writing. Students must gather and obtain information to develop their solutions or explanations. This requires them to evaluate information and summarize it at an appropriate level with purpose to their solution or explanation. This looks very different throughout the grades but should exist in K-12. Comprehension, synthesis, summarization, emotion, context, and analysis of viewpoints must all be taken into account in the process of reading/research. Students must be able to comprehend and summarize information at a complex level in order to communicate solutions to these problems making reading and writing an integral part of the process.
STEM in the educational system should focus on the practices, skills, and habits of thinking that allow an interplay between figuring out the world and solving its problems. A practical approach to this method is having teachers create instructional sequences where students engage with scientific phenomena or mathematics problems and utilize scientific/math practices in order to figure out the way the world works. In order to structure the student’s thinking during investigations and problem solving, teachers need to use frames which allow students to organize their thinking. There are concepts that cut across all of the educational areas commonly known as cross-cutting concepts, such as Cause and Effect, Stability and Change, or Patterns. Utilizing these common threads allows us to structure student thinking and integrate across all areas. This development of deep conceptual understanding through practice and cross cutting concepts will require the use of reading, writing, mathematics, and the use of technology. The teacher can then expand on the student’s understanding by posing a relevant problem whereby students use that information as they find solutions. In order to do this all of the disciplines will be needed again.
STEM education is much more than an after school robotics club, an industry partner presentation, or a fancy electronic device. It is, and must be, a coherent instructional sequence allowing student creativity and curiosity in figuring out the world; where students apply their learning to relevant, real life problems while simultaneously integrating all educational disciplines.