More than a buzzword (or buzz acronym?) STEM education has drawn a lot of debate among researchers, government funders, and teaching professionals. But what is STEM education, and why is it important? Below we’ll explain what STEM is and why it’s important that all school-age kids should be offered its benefits.
The acronym “STEM” stands for “science, technology, engineering, and math.” These fields teach essential 21st-century skills to students who will grow up to develop machines, design buildings, discover medicines, and solve the mysteries of the universe in our lifetimes.
The need for STEM education is increasingly urgent. According to a report by the University of Texas at El Paso, citing a 2018 White House report, the U.S. produced only 10 percent of the world’s science and engineering graduates in the past 15 years. On top of that, only 20 percent of high school graduates were ready to undertake a STEM major when they got to college. Yet our collective future depends on talented people who can tackle enormous scientific and engineering problems as the 21st century progresses.
Recently, STEM has added the letter “A” to represent the arts. Arts education has proven positive for student performance and offers them creative outlets to express their individuality and talent. Whether STEM or STEAM, these fields of study are essential to quality education for all children.
STEM Makes Math Accessible
One of the reasons STEM education is so important is that it takes a hands-on approach to help kids develop problem-solving and analytical skills applicable to any future field. In the process, kids who dislike math will gain exposure to it in practical ways that surreptitiously build their skills at calculating, measuring, and using their innate creativity to find solutions to everyday problems.
STEM Is Interdisciplinary
Science and art have shared a deep connection throughout history, and currently, technology permeates every aspect of 21st-century life, including the arts. Kids have taught themselves how to make and edit TikTok videos, use tablets to create hand-drawn artwork, and make music using computers. Dancers, sculptors, painters, singers, and instrumentalists all use technology every day to create, record, and refine their creations. STEM education is essential to help all kids flourish.
STEM Builds Teamwork Skills
Most scientific discoveries could not have been made without the assistance of an entire team of people working together to solve a problem—even if history only credits one person. Research has shown that creative solutions and innovations arise in teams in which the members push and challenge each other to try novel approaches to solving problems or inventing something new. Each student brings a unique skillset and point of view to a team project that can make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Perhaps most importantly, career success depends on the ability to work with people who have different backgrounds and abilities. Many businesses will elevate collegiality over extreme competence—even genius—because a team that gets along with each other is ultimately more productive.
STEM Offers the Chance To Fail and Try Again
The scientific method assumes failure before success in experimentation and discovery. STEM teaches methods of exploration that expose students to failure, offering them the opportunity to learn from it and try again.
Kids who tend to give up after one setback will discover a safe environment where failure, trying again, and failing again is anticipated and expected. They’ll learn how to record what they did and how they did it and analyze it to figure out what went wrong and what alterations they could make in their experiment to get better results next time.
STEM Teaches the Value of Testing Assumptions and Taking Risks
“That will never work” is the mantra of the naysayer who dampens a team’s ambition to advance in creating new products, discovering new medicines, or building new machines. The only way to find out whether something works or not is to try it.
STEM education teaches how to test a hypothesis even when others deride their ideas. Creative solutions to problems often come from the person with the idea no one else is willing to try. STEM education encourages scientific and technological experimentation that reveals data that can lead to discovery.
STEM Builds Planning and Management Skills
A project with a due date requires planning and time management. When a group of kids must work together to build a robot, create a Rube Goldberg machine, or make a poster presentation, they must make a plan, adapt it, and work together to achieve their goal within the allotted time.
This process mimics the expectations of many 21st-century jobs. STEM education equips kids with the ability to break down a problem into manageable steps, schedule a project’s progress, and overcome setbacks in order to complete the work on time and correctly.
STEM Builds Curiosity and a Sense of Wonder
Human civilization has advanced because there were people constantly asking “Why? and “How?” The recent growth in distrust of science is concerning and could imperil us all in the long run. The recent film Don’t Look Up illustrates the monumentally destructive potential results of keeping our heads in the sand, refusing to acknowledge what’s happening in the natural world and the Earth’s cosmic neighborhood. STEM teaches kids to keep asking questions, to be skeptical of easy answers, and to prioritize impartial observation as a way to gather data that will inform problem-solving.
STEM also helps kids understand the vastness and wonders of the Earth, the solar system, and the universe beyond. The awe inspired by a glimpse of the night sky on a clear night unobstructed by light pollution can’t be overstated. Kids who develop an appreciation for the wonders of nature and the stars go on to become successful scientists, engineers, technologists, artists, and mathematicians who contribute to humanity’s understanding of itself.
How Can Schools Get Started With STEM?
STEM Education doesn’t have to be expensive or terribly complicated. Begin by letting your students ask questions, define problems, and create innovative solutions limited only by their imaginations. Even schools with limited resources can create STEM programs with inexpensive microscopes and everyday materials found in the home or in the local environment.