What is STEM Education?

The new buzzword in Indian Education circles is STEM. It’s an Acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics and was first used in the year 2001, at the National Science Foundation (USA) while referring to careers in these disciplines or a curriculum that integrated knowledge and skills from these fields.

Since then it is a term that has gained popularity, yet remains shrouded in ambiguity as to its very definition and implementation! There has also been a degree of confusion by its use for all that is even remotely linked to one or combinations of these four disciplines. There are STEM specializations, STEM schools, STEM curriculum, STEM careers…….

J.A. Vasquez, Cary Sneider and Michael Comer, in their landmark book ‘STEM Lesson Essentials – Integrating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics’ (published by Heinemann, 2013) have come up with the most comprehensive, operational definition of STEM education:

“STEM Education is an interdisciplinary approach to learning that removes the traditional barriers separating the four disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics and integrates them into real-world, rigorous, and relevant learning experiences for students.”

The main goal of STEM education is for humans to be able to work and prosper in a world that is increasingly being dominated by technology. In short, all people should acquire STEM literacy. This is important for an individual’s growth and well being, progress of a society, and an advantage for a nation’s competitiveness in a globalised economy.

Science and mathematics have been a part of school curriculum for a long time. STEM does not imply that Engineering and Technology become additional subjects and increase the already overburdened teachers and students. STEM requires that engineering and technology be intertwined with existing science and math to provide more meaningful and interesting lessons. After all, STEM disciplines do have a lot of areas that overlap, borrow and apply concepts and principles from each other. So, why teach them separately, and hope that the students will somehow, someday, see and make the necessary connections between them? For connect, they must. There is no way that science and math can be meaningful and engaging if there is no real world connection. Engineering solves real world problems using the design process; Technology modifies the natural world to fulfill human needs and desires; and the basis for both these disciplines is science and math. The lesson ‘Properties of Air’ in grade 5 science gets a whole new dimension when the working of a vacuum cleaner (technology) and making a toy vacuum cleaner (engineering) is introduced as part of the lesson.

One important thing to take note of is that STEM itself is not a curriculum. It is more a way of organizing and delivering classroom teaching which is relevant and meaningful. One of the guiding principles of STEM education is focus on integrating two or more of the disciplines to help students see the connections among concepts in seemingly diverse fields- for eg: ratios (math) can be used to better understand a lesson on Gears (physics). Or, a lesson on microorganisms (Biology) can have inputs from making beer or pharmaceuticals (technology). The list of examples is endless.

STEM Education also helps to acquire skills necessary for the 21st century. Most information is just a click away and available to everybody. What will be the differentiator is the ability to use that information to creatively and collaboratively solve problems and also be able to effectively communicate ideas and solutions.

STEM education is not something new. Many teachers down the ages have naturally integrated principles and concepts of these disciplines because they recognized the value in doing so. Now that such a teaching method has got a name and has entered the popular imagination of educators, there is hope that more and more students can now benefit from it.

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