What Is “STEM Literacy”?

By Hans Meeder

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines “Literate” as “having or showing knowledge about a particular subject.”  Having literacy is simply the state of being literate.

So in thinking about STEM Literacy, our work in STEM education is built on the premise that, to be a well functioning worker and citizen in our modern, technology-driven world, all young people will need to achieve a certain level of basic STEM Literacy.

Depending on how narrowly or broadly STEM careers are defined, we can surmise that perhaps 20 percent of careers are either classic “STEM-intensive” careers (5% that are science, engineering, mathematics) or “STEM-infused” (another 15% that rely heavily on content from one or more of the STEM disciplines.)  Based on these workforce analyses, it is not unreasonable to say that about 20% of U.S. workers will be utilizing their STEM-expertise on a regular basis.

But, to varying degrees, every workplace is being transformed by enabling technologies, and management reforms continually transfer decision-making downward, so strong analytical and communication skills are essential throughout the economy.  We also know that the challenges of thinking through personal financial decisions, data relating to health decisions, and understanding research relating to public policy (and hence voting) decisions, all require strong analytical thinking and decision-making skills.  Even parenting a child with special needs requires an understanding of the scientific method to distinguish solid research-based interventions versus quackery.  All these life skills are really STEM skills.

Thus, we can surmise that STEM-Literacy-for-All is a common-sense educational and societal goal.  So, the next question is, “What is STEM Literacy”?

As I noted in my last blog, we need to begin the conversation with good definitions so we can rally around and be moving in the same direction.   I already offered up my proposed definition of STEM education as:

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.

Drawing from this definition of STEM Education, let me offer a definition of STEM Literacy.  The definitions are slightly different because STEM Education is an input – what we deliver to the student.  STEM Literacy is an outcome – what is developed inside the student, the knowledge, skills, and attitudes they take with them as a result of participating in STEM education.

A STEM-literate student will —

Demonstrate a solid grasp of the fundamental concepts and knowledge underpinning the core disciplines of science, engineering, technology, and mathematics;

Demonstrate critical problem-framing and problem-solving skills, and apply them appropriately in each of the STEM disciplines;

Demonstrate an understanding of how STEM content infuses a variety of careers, including those that require less than a bachelor’s degree;

Demonstrate an understanding of the role of persistence and productive struggle in attaining success in STEM-related work.

Again, take this definition – discuss it, pick it apart, reorganize and reframe it, as long as it takes to get it right. Getting clarity about your definition of the outcome, STEM-Literacy-for-All, will give your STEM efforts much greater clarity and effectiveness.

Let us know if you have suggestions for tweaking these definitions, or want to share a different approach to defining STEM Education and STEM Literacy.


P.S.  – By the way, take a look at the STEM Leader Guide which provides a good foundation for thinking about the STEM challenge and your role as a STEM Leader.