To accomplish this, the report states,“convene a national panel to collect, evaluate, and develop rigorous K-12 materials that would be available free of charge as a voluntary national curriculum. The model for this action is the Project Lead the Way pre-engineering courseware.” The work of the committee is most laudable; however, it still falls far short of providing an operational definition of world-class standards and concomitant curriculum.
Part of the underlying problem is the lack of a clear definition of what the implementation of STEM education should accomplish. There have been attempts to define the desired results (function) of STEM education, including the four recommendations outlined by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine; but still little to no consensus exists. These four recommendations begin to define the function of STEM education; they do little to describe what it should look like (form) in the classroom. Morrison (2006) outlined several functions of a STEM education. She suggested that students should be:
- Problem-solvers — able to define questions and problems, design investigations to gather data, collect and organize data, draw conclusions, and then apply understandings to new and novel situations.
- Innovators — creatively use science, mathematics, and technology concepts and principles by applying them to the engineering design process.
- Inventors — recognize the needs of the world and creatively design, test, redesign, and then implement solutions (engineering process).
- Self-reliant — able to use initiative and self-motivation to set agendas, develop and gain self-confidence, and work within time specified time frames.
- Logical thinkers — able to apply rational and logical thought processes of science, mathematics, and engineering design to innovation and invention.
- Technologically literate — understand and explain the nature of technology, develop the skills needed, and apply technology appropriately.
What standards would be used to develop such a trans-disciplinary STEM curriculum? What world-class standards, as called for in Rising Above the Gathering Storm, should be used?
Fortunately, such standards already exist in the form of The National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996); the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Standards (NCTM 1989 and 2000); the National Education Technology Standards for Students (ISTE, 1998, 2007); and the Standards for Technological Literacy (ITEA, 2007). These standards represent a national consensus of the scientific, mathematical and engineering communities of what constitutes quality education, and the educational systems needed to support that education. They were reviewed by thousands of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, along with dozens of professional societies before being released. They are as world-class as any standards. Many of the criticisms leveled at these standards are in their interpretation by the various state departments of education and not on their desired results or intent. Consequently, an exemplary, trans-disciplinary STEM curriculum should be driven by these four sets of standards.
What are the barriers to STEM education in the United States?
There have been a number of barriers to realizing STEM education in public schools in the US. Helping to create these barriers have been many misconceptions, including:
- STEM education is just another “fad”in education and will soon go away
- Colleges will not accept credits for high school courses called STEM.
- Technology means additional computers and hardware for schools and students.
- Technology means the ability to use and apply word processing, spread sheets, and PowerPoint.
- All inquiry is open-ended.
- Hands-on learning and inquiry is the same thing.
- STEM education does not include laboratory work or the scientific method.
- All STEM educated students will be forced to choose technical fields because they do not have a liberal arts foundation.
- Mathematics education is not part of science education.
- STEM education addresses only workforce issues.
- Technology education and engineering are disparate and troublesome.
- Technology Education teachers cannot teach science or mathematics.
- Engineers cannot teach science and math.
- Technology and engineering are additional courses to be taught and layered as are science and mathematics courses.
- STEM education consists only of the two bookends — science and mathematics.
Until these misconceptions are addressed and corrected, the form and function of STEM education in the United States will remain ill-defined and amorphous.
What about the “T and E” in STEM education?
One of the misconceptions identified as a barrier to STEM education was “STEM education consists only of the two bookends — science and mathematics.” This is true today in most K-12 schools in our nation, and is largely due to the lack of understanding of how “T and E” fit into the trans-disciplinary nature of STEM education.
The engineering component of STEM education puts emphasis on the process and design of solutions, instead of the solutions themselves. This approach allows students to explore mathematics and science in a more personalized context, while helping them to develop the critical thinking skills that can be applied to all facets of their work and academic lives. Engineering is the method that students utilize for discovery, exploration, and problem-solving. According to the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE), “Engineering design, by its very nature, is a pedagogical strategy that promotes learning across disciplines.A K-12 engineering curricula introduces young students to relevant and fulfilling science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) content, in an integrated fashion through exploration of the built world around them.”
The technology component allows for a deeper understanding of the three other components of STEM education. It allows students to apply what they have learned, utilizing computers with specialized and professional applications like CAD, CAM and computer simulations and animations. These and other applications of technology allow students to explore STEM subjects in greater detail and in practical application.