What is STEM?

What is STEM

What is STEM? Where did the term come from? Why is it so important in the modern world? All of these are good questions, ones that this post addresses.

The short answer to this question is that the STEM acronym stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and these disciplines have been identified as the foundation of innovation and economic growth in the United States. Technology companies, engineering service firms and scientific research organizations contribute heavily to the country’s wealth and security. However, government agencies like the National Science Foundation have noted the decline of the unique skill set that is needed to keep the U.S. as a top market for innovative products and services. Recently, government agencies at the federal, state, and local levels have joined forces to promote technical literacy at all education levels. Here are some examples of the promotion of technical literacy within early childhood development, primary schools, and secondary schools.

History and Background of STEM

According to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Dr. Judith Ramaley created the term “STEM” while she was working at the National Science Foundation. In her role as the Director of Education and Human Resources Directorate, she noticed that the acronym “SMET,” the precursor to STEM, seemed to emphasize math and science over the other STEM subjects, technology and engineering.

The reality is there is a connection between all of the STEM subjects, something that Dr. Ramaley wanted to emphasize. Her suggestion to changing the acronym from SMET to STEM addressed this shift in mindset.

It should also be noted that while it may seem that STEM only includes the hard sciences, like chemistry, biology, and astronomy, the word includes so much more. “Soft sciences,” like psychology, anthropology, economics, and archaeology, are also included in the STEM acronym.

Early Childhood Development of Math and Science Skills

Findings of education researchers have resulted in vast improvements in the ways that teachers, parents, and local communities approach the early learning environment. For instance, educators now realize the importance of experiential learning opportunities to capture a student’s attention and cement learning concepts. The application of experientially based curricula is a trend that has been adopted by early childhood educators as well as those who teach students at the university level. Preschool instructors currently use the technique in a variety of ways to introduce integrated math and science concepts to their young students. Some of these teachers create outdoor classrooms where they allow their students to investigate and collect natural objects like rocks, flowers, or bugs; the teachers then encourage their children to think about mathematical concepts as they add to their collection or lose some of their finds. Educators have found that these outdoor experiences help children to remember traditional classroom instruction about the basics of math and science.

The ideal result of this new, interactive approach to early learning is that preschool and kindergarten age students are better prepared to learn more advanced math and science concepts at the primary school level.

Bringing a Technical Perspective to Primary School Education

Primary school teachers are getting widespread support for their efforts to incorporate age-appropriate, technical topics into their classroom discussions. Traditionally, they have used specially crafted activities for their students as a basis to ask them questions about any number of subjects. Now the emphasis is on asking questions about design and experimentation that lead to the absorption of math, science, and engineering principles. Parents, community organizations, and local businesses have been enlisted to help these educators in as many ways as possible to promote activities for early technical literacy through the Educate to Innovate Initiative. Even public universities help promote the initiative by offering primary school teachers additional, subject-specific training.

Secondary Schools Specialize in STEM

When students reach their middle and high school years, many are ready to focus most of their academic schedules to the pursuit of science, technology, engineering, and math topics. Teachers of middle school students include technical projects into their lesson plans so that students can conduct guided research, experiments, and prototyping. Many of the country’s high schools like High Technology High School in New Jersey and Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia are known to be centers of academic excellence for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Many high schools that do not have a technical specialty still offer students advanced placement courses in math and science.

While many people in the past have shied away from studying STEM subjects in college, that trend is changing. Nowadays, 32% of the baccalaureate degrees that students earn are earned in STEM fields. These degrees are in subjects like biological sciences, engineering, earth and atmospheric science, psychology, computer science, and more. Additionally, many of the advanced degrees that are conferred are in STEM subjects. 21% of them are master’s degrees and 54% of them are doctoral degrees, according to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

Innovative Ways to Incorporate Technology Into the Classroom

While all STEM subjects are important, educational technology plays a special role in this equation. These days, instructors and students alike use technology in order to augment their learning experiences. In other words, they use technology to help them to better understand other STEM subjects like math, science, or engineering, as well as non-STEM topics like art or English. Technology is both a STEM subject and a media tool for learning other subjects.

In recent years, teachers have introduced video games, like Minecraft, as a teaching tool to great effect. According to EdSource.org, teachers can use Minecraft and other video games to teach computer science and coding, as well as academic subjects like history or foreign languages. The beauty of bringing game-play into the classroom is that it appeals to students who might otherwise feel bored in class. Some have even likened video games to “well-written textbooks.” However, they’re much more interactive and engaging, which is a key reason why they are such effective learning tools.

Educators who love video games as a teaching tool appreciate the qualities that are unique to video games. It’s sometimes difficult to determine how well a student has really mastered a subject. This requires testing and retesting. However, the structure of many video games is such that players cannot advance to the next level until they master the level they are on. This provides educators with a much more solid assessment of a student’s skill levels.

Some games, like Minecraft, offer users more opened-ended game-play in that these users can take the foundation provided by the game and create their own educational games and simulations within the confines of the game. This makes them ideal for instructors of all stripes, regardless of what subjects they teach.

Other games, like Dragon Box, have been created with more specific uses in mind. In the case of Dragon Box, players use the game to learn more abstract and advanced math concepts, making games like this ideal for the STEM classroom. If that weren’t impressive enough, US News and World Report highlights a game, FoldIt, created by the University of Washington, which solved a key problem in AIDS research. This educational video game combined key concepts in science and technology to deliver ground-breaking, real-world results.

Challenges to Implementing Technology in the Classroom

Few would argue that investing in educational technology is important. However, that doesn’t mean that implementing educational technology in the classroom is without its challenges, which often arise from a lack of funding. This funding shortfall affects students personally, as well as teachers and even school districts.

It’s nearly impossible to have a discussion about STEM without mentioning what’s known as the digital divide. This refers to people’s ability to access communication and information technology. More specifically, the issue with the digital divide pertains to the difficulty that some regions and demographics have when it comes to accessing technology.

When the term “digital divide” was initially introduced in the 20th century, it referred to a lack of access to telephones, according to Tech Target. Today, the term refers to those who have access to broadband Internet (and the tools necessary to access the Internet) and those who don’t. Many times, this shortfall comes as a result of budget. In lower-income areas, students may not have access to the Internet at home nor a computer.

Very often, those who do not have home access to a computer can correct this shortfall in the library’s or the local community center’s computer lab. That said, recent COVID-19-related events have demonstrated the weakness of this approach. With many students and teachers ordered to remain at home, the access to technology that these students would have gotten at the library or community center goes away.


Statistics show that many students who enroll in technical or scientific related majors at the university level often change majors because they find the work too challenging. Early childhood, primary school, and secondary school STEM-related course work helps to make sure that students are prepared to enter technical programs at the university level without heavy reliance on remedial training.

Additionally, there is new hope for STEM teaching methods that may make learning these subjects more engaging. Many educators are now turning to educational technology to bolster their lessons. In particular, educational video games have really shown promise, particularly in the STEM classroom.

However, for all of the advances made in promoting STEM education, there is still a question of access. The digital divide, which is a technology-related problem that affects all areas of learning, including in STEM, disproportionately affects lower-income communities.

Students who have little to no access to the Internet and to educational technologies, like tablets, video games, and the Internet, come into the educational and work worlds at a disadvantage. The effects of this shortfall have far-reaching consequences. In this respect, the question “What is STEM?” takes a backseat to other, more pressing questions, like “How can all students access science, technology, engineering, and math in order to compete in both the academic and work worlds?”