The Rising Popularity of STEM: A Crossroads in Public Education or a Passing Trend?

The Rising Popularity of STEM: A Crossroads in Public Education or a Passing Trend?
STEM schools are cropping up across the country, and parents are rushing to get their kids into these schools. We’ll explore the concept behind STEM, some of the schools dedicated to this mode of learning, and public schools that are incorporating STEM studies into their regular curriculum.

Education is an evolving process that consistently introduces new theories and practices in accordance with the most recent research available. One of the latest introductions into the world of education today is STEM education, which focuses on the core subjects of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Is STEM offering a whole new approach to education that will bring American students into the 21st century, or is it merely another passing ebb and flow in the education tide? While only time will tell with certainty, there are definite reasons to take a closer look at this new approach that is sweeping across many school districts today.

What is STEM Education?

The process of STEM education is about much more than simply incorporating these four subjects into a core curriculum. The key to successful, effective STEM education is integrating these disciplines into a single “meta-discipline.” According to a report at CurrTech Innovations, STEM can be defined as the “creation of a discipline based on the integration of other disciplinary knowledge into a new ‘whole’. This interdisciplinary bridging among discrete disciplines is now treated as an entity, known as ‘STEM’.”

A report at InTech explains that “a successful STEM education provides students with science, math, and engineering/technology in sequences that build upon each other and can be used with real-world applications.” The concept of STEM was first introduced by Judith A. Ramaley, the former director of the National Science Foundation’s education and human resources division. Since 2001, the acronym has been a regular part of the vocabulary used in the world of education.

Why is it Important Today?

According to, the National Science Foundation estimates that 80% of the jobs available during the next decade will require math and science skills. According to 10-year predictions by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, InTech reports that 15 of the 20 fastest-growing fields will require significant math and science preparation. The United States must produce workers proficient in these fields to stay at the cutting edge of science and technology throughout the 21st century.

Unfortunately, the country is not currently at the forefront in these areas of study. InTech reports that eighth-graders in the United States outperform students in Singapore, Chinese Taipei, the Republic of Korea, Hong Kong SAR, Estonia, Japan, Hungary, and the Netherlands. In math, U.S. students are currently outperformed by students in Singapore, the Republic of Korea, Hong Kong SAR, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Belgium, Netherlands, Estonia, Hungary, Malaysia, Latvia, the Russian Federation, the Slavic Republic, and Australia.

Recent figures show that only 29 percent of high school graduates tested ready for higher education in science, and just 43 percent are considered prepared for college-level math courses. This has translated into fewer students majoring in fields that require a significant amount of math and science, which is slowly evolving into a shortage of skilled workers in these fields. If the trend continues, many predict there will be a significant employment shortage in important industries like science and engineering in the not-so-distant future.

President Obama has addressed this need directly by creating the Educate to Innovate campaign. This bipartisan campaign stresses studies in math and science through partnerships with businesses, universities, non-profit organizations, foundations, and government agencies. The campaign aims to bring America back to the forefront in these fields so the country can remain competitive in a global market throughout the next century.

The Benefits of STEM Education

In addition to the benefits STEM provides to the U.S. workforce overall, there are individual benefits students who graduate from a STEM program enjoy. Some of those benefits include

  • Promotes equality in education (STEM benefits both male and female students equally)
  • Teaches independent innovation
  • Allows students to explore subjects at greater depth
  • Helps students develop critical thinking skills

In addition to these benefits, students who graduate from STEM programs often find that they are better prepared for the rigors of a college curriculum that will jumpstart them on a rewarding and well-paying career in the fields of science or engineering. Recent data at lists some of the following reasons why students choose STEM over other fields of study:

  • Good salary right out of school
  • Intellectually challenging
  • Good job potential
  • The student is passionate about the field of study
  • Students performed well in these subjects in primary and secondary grades
  • To make a difference
  • The U.S. needs qualified workers in these fields

Because STEM education has many potential advantages, the idea has received support from government leaders, educators, business members, and students alike. However, a new approach to education, like STEM, has its share of hurdles to mount.

Potential Drawbacks of the STEM Model

One of the largest drawbacks to the STEM model is that it does not provide clear-cut guidelines for educators to follow as they develop their own STEM education models within their schools. To succeed, STEM must become an intricate dance between engineering and technology concepts layered into core math and science subjects. According to the CurrTech report, many high school programs remain highly departmentalized, and curriculum integration is solely left up to the teachers who currently teach those subjects. When teachers transfer or retire, the integration is disrupted and must be started anew with the next teacher to fill the position.

At the elementary level, STEM progress becomes even more dismal, as few teachers qualified to teach in the areas of math or science are found in primary schools. Currently, these programs have no national standards for STEM education or teacher certification. As a result, STEM education is somewhat disjointed and inconsistent throughout the country, leaving parents and students unsure of what type of quality STEM education is actually being offered at their local schools. Many students graduate from a STEM program only to find they are no better prepared for college studies than those who did not participate in STEM. It is clear that standards must be in place, but how do they come into being?

Defining the function and focus of STEM

One solution to the problems facing STEM education today is developing a world standard that would provide schools at all levels the guidance and direction required to produce capable and qualified STEM students. According to CurrTech, these students should possess the following characteristics:

  • Problem Solvers
  • Innovators
  • Inventors
  • Self-Reliant
  • Logical Thinkers
  • Technologically Literate

CurrTech also reports that standards to produce these results actually exist already through the National Science Education Standards, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Standards, and the National Education Technology Standards for Students. However, integration and implementation of these standards will require expertise and resources. That is where support from the federal and state governments comes into play.

Government Support for STEM Education

The good news is that government support for STEM education has been growing slowly but surely, particularly with the advances made by the federal government since President Obama took office. However, state governments are also getting into STEM mode as they band together to bring STEM education into nationwide schools. According to a recent report on the National Governor’s Association website, the NGA recently released a guide, “Building a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Education Agenda.” The guide offers an overview of creating STEM education that school districts nationwide can follow.

“STEM education is a powerful foundation for individual and societal economic success,” Bev Perdue, the governor of North Carolina, stated on the website. “Governors have been working hard to improve education and to ensure the United States does not lag behind.”

Toward that goal, the NGA recommends that states take the following actions to improve the quality of education within their schools:

  • Adopt rigorous math and science standards and assessment tools to evaluate those standards
  • Recruit and retain more classroom teachers qualified in STEM subjects
  • Provide a more rigorous classroom curriculum for STEM students
  • Use informal learning to expand math and science studies outside the classroom
  • Enhance the quality and support of STEM teachers
  • Establish goals for institutions of higher education to meet STEM employment needs better

In addition to the work of the states in improving STEM education in their own schools, the federal government is hard at work providing resources and support to schools that are interested in advancing STEM education.

New STEM Education Office Proposed for Federal Government

A recent article in U.S. News and World Report explains that U.S. Representative Michael Honda has proposed a new bill called the STEM Education Innovation Act of 2011. The bill, which has been introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives, would create a new Office of STEM Education within the current Department of Education. The new office would be headed by an assistant secretary of STEM education, working with businesses, stakeholders, and researchers in STEM fields to develop a competent and qualified American workforce for the 21st century.

According to the article, the passage of this bill would “equip schools across the country to enthrall and educate the students of today so they can become the Sally Ride or Steve Jobs of tomorrow.” The office would support a state consortium on STEM education to create the best STEM practices that would help students prepare for future jobs. It would also explore ways to increase participation in STEM education, particularly for underrepresented communities in STEM industries. The office would also grant funding to outside entities committed to promoting STEM education with education technology innovations.

Funding STEM

Any new program requires significant resources to develop, and STEM education is no exception. Because many believe in the power of STEM, there are willing donors to the cause of advancing STEM education across the country. A recent report at Education Week cites several sources of grants that will specifically go to fund STEM through the National Science Foundation and the Gates Foundation.

The National Science Foundation has provided two grants to advance STEM education in various ways. The first, consisting of $1.35 million, will be used to create a new type of science lab in schools that more effectively bridges the gap between simulated and real-world environments.

“Many science classrooms use simulations to demonstrate scientific principles and theories,” Jennifer Chiu, an assistant professor of STEM education at the University of Virginia’s Curry’s School of Education, told Education Week. “However, students have trouble making connections between the simulations and the real world.”

The second grant, totaling $13 million, will be a competition under its Computing Education for the 21st Century program. This grant will come in three waves, which will be distributed over three years. The goal is to have a rigorous computing curriculum integrated into 10,000 high schools across the country.

The Gates Foundation is also providing a $3 million grant to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Education Arcade to design and build a multi-player online game to help high school students learn complex subjects like biology and mathematics.

“The genre of games is uniquely suited to teaching the nature of scientific inquiry because they provide collaborative, self-directed learning situations,” Eric Klopfer, associate professor for Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Education Week. “Players take on the roles of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians to explore and explain a robust virtual world.”

Finding a STEM Program

Parents who are interested in enrolling their children in a STEM program may find that it is easier said than done. Because STEM is still a relatively new concept in education, there are still few actual STEM schools. However, if you are fortunate to have a STEM school in your area, there are some questions to ask to ensure the program is a quality one:

  • What are the standards used for mathematics and science?
  • What are the teachers' credentials for teaching math and science subjects?
  • What types of assessments are used to track student progress?
  • How much time is focused on these subjects each week?

By researching STEM schools before enrolling your student, you can rest assured the program you choose will offer the education your child needs to progress into a lucrative and exciting future in the world of STEM.

Questions? Contact us on Facebook @publicschoolreview.

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