What Is “STEM Education”?

By Hans Meeder

I spoke at a conference on STEM education this week and I asked the group to discuss and shout out definitions of STEM education.  I received a variety of good answers, such as problem solving, collaboration, and persistence.  Then I asked the group if their school district or community organization or college had actually tried to create a working definition of STEM education.  From what I recall, no hands went up.  Based on several workshops I’ve given on the topic, this by far is the norm.  Folks are running after something important called STEM, without actually having a common definition of what it is.

In my research, I have actually identified five meanings that people bring to the term “STEM education.”

  1. Core STEM subject knowledge and skills –  STEM means just that – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, and the core knowledge and processes within each of those disciplines.
  2. Core Methods of Inquiry, Exploration and Problem Solving – STEM means the ability to frame problems and solve problems.
  3. Active Learning –  STEM involves certain teaching methodologies, like problem-based and project-based learning (also referred to as “active learning” strategies).
  4. Career Focused STEM – STEM is about helping students understand and explore the world of careers and how STEM is infused to a variety of career options, not just the well-known careers like scientists, engineers, and computer programmers.
  5. Integrated STEM -STEM is about drawing the connections between traditional STEM courses and other academic and elective disciplines, emulating the real-life mash-up of knowledge and skills that happens in the world of work.

So, with those five valid and important perspectives on STEM education, let me offer a proposed definition of STEM education that honors and reflects the spirit of each of the perspectives.

STEM Education is a thoughtful, well-planned endeavor to:

  • Develop a solid grasp of the fundamental concepts and knowledge underpinning the core disciplines of science, engineering, technology, and mathematics;
  • Help students develop critical problem-framing and problem-solving skills in the context of STEM learning;
  • Apply active learning strategies to develop deep learning;
  • Help students understand the role of STEM skills and knowledge in modern careers; and
  • Strengthen the connections across STEM disciplines and to other core academic and elective classes.

Feel free to take this definition and make it a point of discussion with your colleagues and partners. Once you agree on a good working definition of STEM, I believe the other pieces of your STEM strategies will start to make more sense and align with one another.

Good luck!

(In my next blog, I’ll share a definition of STEM Literacy.)