STEM, STEAM, and the Education in Between
If you read an article on what’s popular in education today, you’ll most likely find reference to the STEM curriculum; the interdisciplinary approach to teaching science, technology, engineering, and math. I’ve seen countless applications of STEM in schools around the world, and I’ve heard many success stories from districts that have implemented STEM programs into their schools. With STEM education becoming a household term, I ask what’s next?
To answer that question, I talked with Ted Wells, Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer with STEMConnector. STEMConnector is a consortium of companies, nonprofit associations, professional societies, STEM-related research and policy organizations, government entities, universities, and academic institutions concerned with STEM education and the future of human capital in the United States. We discussed the state of STEM and what we can expect in the future.
STEM has been around for quite a while, since the 1990s. Why do you think it has had such staying power for so long?
Ted Wells: STEM emerged as a national priority following the release of the National Academies report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm in 2007. The report identified several alarming trends that helped galvanize a broad base of stakeholders to support STEM education initiatives. When President Obama made STEM the focal point of his innovation policy, I think that helped create sufficient momentum to make STEM an ongoing priority for years to come. As long as STEM skills continue to drive innovation and command a premium in the labor market, the same group of stakeholders will continue to remain interested.
In gross generalities, science turned into STEM, then STEM turned into STEAM. What’s next? Is there something right around the corner that is going to replace STEM?
TW: I don’t think there is anything wrong with adding letters to STEM, but we can’t lose sight of the core. Additional elements to the acronym can be quite useful. For example, in the case of STEAM—A for Art—creative environments are extremely good mediums for exploring STEM fields, and for developing resiliency and problem-solving skills. This summer, I visited the Boy Scout Jamboree where they had built an enormous tech-forward maker space for scouts to design, tinker, and build in an unstructured environment.
Other modifications, such as adding an “R” for reading or an “H” for health, are similarly valuable for reinforcing key foundational skills or career applications. The big picture is important with this movement, and I think as we stay focused on employer/educator collaboration; equity across demographic divides; and innovation, we will stay on track.
Why is there such a high achievement gap in this country, and how can STEM programming help solve the problem?
TW: There is a growing achievement gap in both urban and rural America. In most cases, structural patterns of intergenerational poverty are very difficult to break, and are quite adept at self-preservation. One of the main areas of focus for the STEM movement is increasing access to resources that seems to make an impact in improving STEM outcomes. These resources include, but are not limited to, high-quality teachers, technology, mentors, enrichment programs, and work exposures. The focus on STEM for these communities is based on the fact that STEM careers—particularly for entry level work—pay better than most other jobs. Landing a career in the knowledge economy is essentially a good step in breaking out of poverty cycles.
Is higher education shaping STEM in high school? Conversely, is STEM in high school affecting higher education?
TW: Definitely. There are many examples of connections influencing higher education to K-12 and vice versa. First, through innovative dual enrollment programs, high school students are able to enroll in community colleges and earn STEM credits. This enables high school students to access post-secondary resources such as labs and manufacturing equipment earlier in their academic careers. These experiences can help inform students’ career understandings and aspirations, and develop critical foundation skills. Additionally, students can develop skills that enable them to acquire employment more lucrative than they could otherwise obtain as a student.
STEM in higher education is also influencing K-12 through both in-service and pre-teacher preparation programs that focus on teaching student-centered and inquiry-based STEM curriculum. Teachers are encouraged to be proficient in pedagogy, as well as content.
What are some of the top STEM schools in the country where the design of the program really explored connectivity to the work environment?
TW: There are lots of great STEM schools popping up all over the country. A couple models that have scaled well are the Metro Early College High School run by Battelle and the P-Tech Schools started by IBM. Both schools take innovative approaches to instruction and focus on career exposure so that students can make informed choices about their education and employment futures. Another school that I really admire is the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, which provides students a very unique opportunity to work on a farm in an urban environment. A compelling research study called Opportunity Structures for Preparation and Inspiration (OSPrI) in STEM, led by Dr. Sharon Lynch at The George Washington University, has given schools the ability to assess how effectively they create these experiences.
I’ve read several headlines recently that coding is the next language we need to be teaching our children— Mandarin or Spanish. Do you agree and how does this impact STEM?
TW: No. I think that we have created a false analogy around computer languages and foreign languages. They are fundamentally different skills and should not be conflated. Moreover, sacrificing foreign language exposure for computer science only creates a new disadvantage for students who will be working in an increasingly globalized workforce. We do need more students to have access to computational thinking opportunities. Coding fits under this umbrella but it is a tool, not an end destination.
What's next for STEM?
TW: Big question. I think that we will continue to see an emphasis on STEM as technology becomes an increasingly indispensable proficiency in the workforce. Also, here in the U.S. and in many developed countries, we are up against some challenging demographics as the Baby Boomer generation exits the workforce.
I would like to see more fluidity between healthcare professions and the STEM movement, as they currently seem very siloed. We have seen some engagement from nearly every group in the healthcare community (drug makers, medical device manufacturers, insurers, suppliers) with the notable exception of providers. I would love to see that change, and I think it will.
As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked Ted “What’s next for STEMConnector?” and I found his response very exciting. He told me:
I helped found STEMconnector just over six years ago. It has been the fastest and shortest period of my life. So much has happened and it has been such hard work but it has been so much fun. We recently brought on a new CEO, Leslie Cruz, who is helping us branch into new markets, and consolidate and package some of the great work we have done through the years. It is a very exciting time to be a part of this organization.
We are currently in the process of producing the State of STEM, a groundbreaking report that will be released at the end of the first quarter in 2018. The report is the product of an exhaustive series of interviews with key stakeholders in the STEM ecosystem. The full report will be a benefit exclusively for STEMconnector members and will include an interactive system map that will be released later in 2018. We think that this report will be a great benefit to the community and will help promote a systems approach to this complex challenge.
Does your school have a success story related to STEM education? What do you believe is the future of STEM? Please share your comments below.