What Does S.T.E.M. Stand For? A Call to Action
by Howard Weiner on July 21, 2015
It’s hard to argue the importance of STEM education in today’s world. Look around, and you can see that most of the desirable, high-paying jobs in today’s world require some proficiency in technology. Simple tech literacy is no longer enough if you expect to work in a fast-growing field. But I would argue that STEM education hasn’t come through on some of its promises, which is why I issue this challenge: What does STEM stand for?
The cheeky response to this call-to-action is to take it literally. For those who don’t know, STEM stands for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.” The topic has been getting a lot of attention lately, from crisis to backlash. Some say that “The United States is losing its competitive edge in math and science while the rest of the world soars ahead,” while others worry that too much focus on STEM is risky. It’s hard to tell the STEM facts from fiction, but the debate is a healthy one.
Challenges in Education
Maybe by categorizing it, we’re actually contributing to the problem. Does STEM education mean that you have to pursue a career in technology? As Stephen F. DeAngelis wrote in STEM Education: Why All the Fuss?, “Educating students in STEM subjects (if taught correctly) prepares students for life, regardless of the profession they choose to follow.”
For instance, STEM training teaches students how to approach a problem, devise a solution, and test it with unbiased rigor. The very same discipline and skill set could be applied to running a business, designing a website, running a political campaign, or creating public health policy. When you teach students how to think for themselves and give them a framework and process for doing so, you empower them to do so much more.
I appreciate the efforts of some to try to transform S.T.E.M. into S.T.E.A.M., by adding an ‘A’ for the Arts. The intention is good, though the STEM acronym seems too entrenched to change.
Student Retention Issues in STEM
Despite the importance of STEM education, it’s hard to hold on to students. Of those seeking a bachelor’s degree in a STEM program, 48% drop out or transfer (with even worse rates for associate degree candidates). That says to me that it doesn’t matter what the demand is—we’re likely to lose half of our students one way or another.
I’ve longed believed that there are two ways that we can make a difference:
- Make the curriculum more interesting, and
- Provide real time support in remediation.
We can’t let students get bored and/or lost. While some people decry this as the rise of “student as customer,” it’s simply a reality that’s not going away. The smart institutions know that they are competing for students now, and are more willing than ever to make sure they are delivering the best value to their “student customers.”
It’s good to see some others who share my view. In an article by Doug Holton, Two Courses That Made a Difference in Student Retention, there’s a great summary of a report issued by the Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). Among the points:
- High‐performing students frequently cite uninspiring introductory courses as a reason for switching majors.
- Low‐performing students with a high interest and aptitude in STEM face difficulty in introductory courses due to insufficient math preparation and help.
Student Retention Strategies
So, is STEM going to stand for more than just a set of curricula? Is it going to evolve to meet the needs of a changing demographic? I certainly hope so. We simply have to do better. Attracting passionate students and then keeping them engaged and fired up throughout shouldn’t be difficult. Here’s a starting point:
- Science: Visual learning technology is going to get increasingly important. So much of what scientists do now is modeling, which requires smart interfaces and lots of hands-on work. Let’s see more doing and less reading about doing. The rise of maker-spaces give some credence to this.
- Engineering: Relies heavily on math, so let’s make sure that students have the remediation they need, and more importantly—when they need it. Let’s get away from the idea that your course materials consist of a single Statics and Dynamics textbook. The course content should be wrapped in a layer of just-in-time mathematics support.
- Technology: It’s hard to build curricula for technology courses because it changes so rapidly. That’s not a good enough excuse in today’s world, though. There are hundreds of great articles and how-to’s published online every day. We have to devise new systems around new tools to help students navigate this dynamic realm.
- Mathematics: While neither the content nor the teaching methods have changed very much over the past 100 years, the tools have certainly changed. Thank goodness, because mathematics education is the cornerstone of the entire building. We know where students need support, so let’s start giving it to them. The “textbook” concept is way overdue for an overhaul.
Of course, I could go on. I’m sure you could, too. My role in this is helping administrators and institutions meet the new challenges in education with excitement—and a strategy. What’s yours?
Let me hear from you in the comments below or via Twitter.