STEM education offers students one of the best opportunities to make sense of the world holistically, rather than in bits and pieces. STEM education removes the traditional barriers erected between the four disciplines, by integrating them into one cohesive teaching and learning paradigm. Morrison and others have referred to STEM as being an interdisciplinary approach. “STEM education is an interdisciplinary approach to learning where rigorous academic concepts are coupled with real-world lessons as students apply science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in contexts that make connections between school, community, work, and the global enterprise enabling the development of STEM literacy and with it the ability to compete in the new economy.”
This author contends STEM education is greater than any interdisciplinary paradigm. It is actually trans-disciplinary in that it offers a multi-faceted whole with greater complexities and new spheres of understanding that ensure the integration of disciplines. This concept is further reinforced by the fact that new innovations and inventions today tend to be made at the boundaries of these four disciplines, where they naturally overlap. Biochemistry, biomechanics, biophysics, biotechnology, and bioengineering are representative of the overlapping of the discipline we know as biology.
Why STEM Education Now?
With the publication of Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Future (National Academies Press, 2005) our nation became more aware and began to address the mounting concern about having enough scientists, engineers, and mathematicians to keep the United Sates in the forefront of research, innovation, and technology. “In a world where advanced knowledge is widespread and low-cost labor is readily available, the advantages of the United States in the marketplace and in science and technology have begun to erode. A comprehensive and coordinated federal effort is urgently needed to bolster competitiveness and pre-eminence of the United States in these areas.” This congressionally requested report made four recommendations along with actions that federal policy-makers should take to create high-quality jobs and focus new science and technology efforts on meeting our nation’s current and pressing needs, especially in the area of clean, affordable energy. The four recommendations were:
- Increase America’s talent pool by vastly improving K-12 mathematics and science education;
- Sustain and strengthen our nation’s commitment to long-term basic research;
- Develop, recruit, and retain top students, scientists, and engineers from both the United States and abroad;
- Ensure that the United States is the premier place in the world for innovation.
In April 2009, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine, revisited their 2005 study by convening a national convocation on Rising Above the Gathering Storm Two Years Later: Accelerating Progress toward a Brighter Economic Future. During the event the committee took stock of what has occurred since 2005. Some major accomplishments have transpired, including the passage of the bipartisan America COMPETES Act (August, 2008). In addition, actions by several states and by the private sector have added to the momentum of the STEM education initiative.
Missing the Mark
What changes have actually occurred in the K-12 classrooms in this country since 2005? Have we seen far reaching innovations in curriculum and program design and in the structure of schools that would add to this STEM movement? Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding “No.”
American high schools still remain highly departmentalized, stratified, and continue to teach subjects in isolation, with little to no attempts to draw connections among the STEM disciplines. Having worked in and visited numerous school districts within the past three years the author has observed many well-meaning curriculum developers and classroom teachers who indicate they are implementing a STEM program. This implementation usually resembles actions in which science, mathematics, and technology teachers plan and teach cooperatively. This may be a start; however, it misses the mark!
If this is the extent of STEM program and curriculum development, then there really is no program or curriculum, as the program and curriculum will disappear (if there ever was one) when the teachers change teaching assignments, transfer, retire, or leave the profession. This represents personalization and not institutionalization. Many educators have not yet come to the realization that STEM education is more than simply a new name for the traditional approach to teaching science and mathematics. Nor do they understand that it is more than just the grafting of “technology” and “engineering” layers onto standard science and mathematics curricula. As a result, there is little to no thoughtfully planned and implemented STEM curriculum in secondary schools. While many would argue this is a start to realizing STEM education within secondary schools, it is a far cry from actually planning, writing, and implementing an innovative, trans-disciplinary STEM program.
What is happening at the elementary and middle school levels? Teachers at these levels are ill-prepared to teach the STEM disciplines of science and mathematics, as revealed by the low numbers of highly qualified teachers. For now there are no national STEM standards or STEM teacher certification. If this is the case, are we really serious about STEM education and do we have it as a national priority? The vision of STEM education, as advocated by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine, is far from becoming a reality in the United States and will not be realized until the goals of STEM education are better delineated, the meta-discipline of STEM education is better defined, innovative STEM education programs and curricula are developed, and teachers are professionally educated to deliver new STEM programs and curricula. In other words, the form, which includes program and curriculum design, and function, which are the desired results of STEM education are still largely undeveloped.