STEM Learning – What You Need to Know

If you’re like most people, you are likely to have seen “STEM,” “STEM Aligned,” or “STEM Learning” appear in a variety of places, and wondered why it’s so popular these days. Newspaper and magazine articles, movies, T.V. shows, and toys are examples that all seem to have different interpretations of it. Not too long ago, I didn’t quite get what all the fuzz was about, so I decided to do some research. 

Why is STEM learning essential, and how can we teach our children and students STEM? STEM learning is essential because it develops critical thinking and problem-solving foundations that are helpful in future careers and real-life situations. On a larger scale, it helps keep our country stay competitive in the world arena. The skills learned from STEM will help fill the increasingly high demand for it in the STEM field workforce. Great STEM lessons possess specific characteristics that help make learning STEM fun and useful.

If you want to become a great STEM teacher, one that creates lessons that are efficient, effective, and engaging, it is definitely possible. It is merely a result of adding a few things to your curriculum. I am nowhere near being a STEM professional educator, but years of researching STEM to be able to facilitate fun STEM programs, I am certainly more knowledgeable. There are undoubtedly more reasons why STEM learning is essential, but today I want to share the top most important ones, then go over how to create an excellent STEM lesson

STEM Learning is Crucial

STEM is an interdisciplinary approach to teaching science, technology, engineering, and math. Instead of teaching the four subjects separately, STEM combines them into a connected, real-world based learning model. It allows students to apply concepts to real-world problems while providing a foundation of skills they need to succeed in an active global labor market.

The U.S. has long been a leader in STEM fields, but recent reports have shown that fewer students have been focused on them lately. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the percentage of high school students that are interested in a career in STEM is only sixteen percent. Twenty-eight percent of freshmen in high school say they are interested in a STEM field, but fifty-seven percent of those students will lose that interest by graduation.

STEM careers are some of the fastest growing and best paid, and usually have the highest potential for job growth. The best way to ensure America’s success in keeping up with STEM output is to make sure its students are well educated in STEM subjects. A well-rounded curriculum builds a solid STEM foundation needed to expose students to science, technology, and math throughout their educational careers.

In 2009, to motivate students to do better in STEM subjects, the Obama administration started the “Educate to Innovate” campaign. This campaign also included a fund called “Race to the Top” to improve student achievement by improving teacher effectiveness and bringing STEM professionals into the classroom to inspire students. The goal of “Educate to Innovate” was to move American students to the top of the international arena in math and science.

In 2018, the White House released its 5-year STEM education strategic plan, Charting a Course for Success: America’s Strategy for STEM Education. This plan was mostly developed by the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) Committee on STEM Education (CoSTEM) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and is intended to guide activities and investments in STEM education.

The reason for all these programs is to fill a demand. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that between 2018 and 2028, the number of STEM occupations will increase by 8.8 percent. That is a lot when you compare it to the 5 percent growth of non-STEM occupations. 

Higher education is not required by all STEM jobs. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only 21.7 percent of entry-level STEM jobs require a bachelor’s degree, 1.9 percent require a master’s degree, and 2.5 percent require a doctoral degree. But, in terms of salary, a four-year degree is very helpful. Entry-level STEM jobs that require a bachelor’s degree is 26 percent higher than non-STEM field jobs. There are also 2.5 times more entry-level job postings for a STEM field bachelor’s degree recipient than a non-STEM field bachelor’s degree recipient.

We don’t find this problem only in the U.S. In the U.K., the Royal Academy of Engineering reports that there is a 59,000 per year shortage of STEM graduates. According to the report, the U.K. could forgo 141 billion pounds worth of growth in the next decade if we do not take the steps needed to address the digital skills gap.

STEM Teaching and Learning

The curious and impressionable nature of young students make it possible to instill a lasting desire to follow a career in STEM. By the time they enter the workforce, they will have enough skills and knowledge to make significant contributions to America’s STEM industries.

We must always see these subjects as high in demand, so it is important to have teachers that are knowledgeable enough to teach STEM. Teachers who take a non-traditional path to getting certified as a teacher have an advantage if they are transitioning from a STEM field or have majored in one.

Administrators who have studied engineering, calculus, physics, biology, or any other STEM subjects are high assets to their schools. They are the ones who have the power to shape schools and districts, so they must care about promoting STEM awareness.

Since STEM is relatively new, there aren’t many other reliable STEM resources. So, to get an idea of how to best integrate STEM into a curriculum, it helps to have a good understanding of what traditional math and science education looks like.

Science

Science is taught to students starting in elementary school then on through high school and after. In elementary school, teaching science is more observational than it is analytic or specific. Fundamental aspects of astronomy, geology, ecology, and biology are introduced to elementary school students through general readings and observation of the world around them. Middle school students start studying astronomy, biology, and geology in more depth. High school is where the serious examination of science begins. In high school, students take classes focused in both chemistry and biology, with elections available in astronomy, meteorology, geology, physics, and other fields.

Biology

Biology is the study of life (or living organisms). Throughout elementary, middle, and high school, it is taught in various stages with different focuses. Introductory biology usually explores anatomy and the functions of the body and dips into ecology and how living organisms interact with their environment. Biology in high school gives students a more in-depth analysis of topics compared to middle and elementary school. Lab exercises, research assignments, exams, readings, and lectures allow high school students to explore biotechnology, microbiology, and biomedical issues. Also, Advanced Placement biology courses cover organisms and populations, heredity and evolution, and molecules and cells.

Chemistry

Chemistry is the study of matter, the properties of matter, how and why substances separate or combine to form other substances, and how energy reacts with substances. It is a foundation for more advanced parts of astronomy, biology, geology, and more, which makes it one of the most important sciences. Chemistry students study atoms, atomic structure, and how compounds are created.

We explore chemistry topics through everyday applications of chemistry and simple chemical reactions. Most high schools in the U.S. require students to take introductory chemistry.

Chemistry instructors teach the mathematical reasoning behind chemistry principles. The focus of introductory Chemistry curricula is the mathematical analysis of chemical reactions, stoichiometry, and chemical bonds and compounds. Students explore the periodic table of elements and chemistry equations. A.P. Chemistry teaches a more in-depth analysis of math concepts.

Physics

Physics is the natural science that studies the motion and behavior of matter through space and time, and the related entities of force and energy. Physics isn’t usually taught in elementary schools because of its complexities and advanced nature. But, elements of physics are put into general science lessons given to younger students. 

In elementary and middle school, students start learning about the basic principles of physics, including kinetic energy, friction, and gravity.

In high school, physics is usually offered to students after they have finished introductory chemistry and biology. High school physics starts to add mathematics through physics formulas and equations. Curriculums typically start with general theories of motion, including kinetic energy, force, friction, and acceleration. More advanced motion is covered later.

Math

In the U.S., mathematics is taught to students at around five or six years old. Children are taught basic math in elementary school, becoming more complex as students age. Many schools offer several levels of math classes depending on student aptitude.

Basic arithmetic: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division is taught to students in elementary school. In middle school, these concepts are expanded to study basic algebra. Around the time they enter high school, students will have completed some form of pre-algebra. In high school, algebra 1 and 2 and geometry are included in freshman and sophomore math curriculums. Algebra 3, aka trigonometry, can be studied around junior year. In senior year, students are taught pre-calculus or calculus, which is only offered at an honors level.

Algebra

Algebra is a branch of math that deals with symbols and concepts that come from them. Algebraic structures, equations, polynomials, and terms are subjects that are included within algebra.

All 50 states in the U.S. require students to take algebra in several stages. The general stages are pre-algebra, algebra 1, and algebra 2.

In elementary school, the concept of variables representing numbers is introduced.

In middle school, pre-algebra introduces students to the basic concepts of variables and polynomials.

Algebra 1 is usually introduced in high school, but some districts allow honors students to start it. In high school, algebra 1 and 2 must be completed before moving on to trigonometry or pre-calculus.

Geometry

Geometry is a branch of math that focuses on questions of shape, size, properties of space, and relative positions of figures. Measurements, such as circumference, area, angles, length, volume, etc. are used in geometry. 

Geometry is usually introduced in high school, but sometimes honor students may start it in the eighth grade. Geometry taught in elementary school builds off the general arithmetic that is taught to them earlier. High school geometry usually starts in sophomore year. Geometry lessons are usually taught through questions that need step-by-step proofs developed by the student.

Trigonometry

Trigonometry, aka algebra 3, takes up the latter part of high school math. In trigonometry, students study the relationships between the sides and angles of triangles as well as the motion of waves and trigonometric functions.

Calculus

Calculus is an advanced level math only taught to high school students. All levels of trigonometry, algebra, and pre-calculus are incorporated into calculus. Integrals, derivatives, functions, limits, and infinite series are its focuses. Students should have a solid foundation in math to grasp various calculus concepts. 

After finishing algebra and trigonometry, high school students start studying the different stages of calculus. Pre-calculus is the most taught form of calculus. Because of its advanced content, calculus is usually only taught in honors-level classes.

The difference between STEM and traditional math and science education is STEM’s blended learning environment. Students learn computational thinking and problem-solving in real-world applications. STEM learning is best started at an early age.

Elementary School

STEM learning in elementary school is very important. It consists of introductory level STEM courses. It focuses on awareness of the STEM fields and occupations. This first step is based on real world-based problems and inquiry and connects the STEM subjects. Like STEAM, the goal is to spark interest in the following courses.

Middle School

STEM learning in middle school gets more challenging. There is still a focus on awareness of STEM fields and occupations, as well as its academic requirements. At this level, students start to explore STEM-related careers, especially underrepresented groups.

High School

STEM learning in high school focuses on a rigorous and challenging application of the subjects. Pathways to STEM fields and occupations are still available, as well as post-secondary education and employment preparation.

A lot of the STEM curriculum aims at gaining the attraction of underrepresented groups. For example, female students are much less likely to follow a college STEM major or career, and this is increasing. Male students are also more likely to follow technology and engineering fields, while female students go for science fields. According to collegefactual.com, the number of STEM graduates in 2016 was 63 percent male and just 37 percent female.

Historically, Asian students have shown the most interest in the STEM fields. Before 2001, African-American students also showed great interest in STEM fields, second to Asian students. But since then, that interest in STEM has dramatically dropped lower than any other ethnicity. American Indian students also display a high level of interest in STEM.

STEM Learning Objectives

As we have determined, STEM learning does not simply mean learning these four subjects separately. Therefore, a STEM classroom moves students away from learning disconnected bits of phenomenon and memorization procedures and toward exploring and questioning the interrelated aspects of the world. This sets the stage for the learning objectives of STEM, which include problem-solving, soft skills, and collaboration.

Problem Solving

Sitting at the core of STEM is problem-solving. Problem-solving is critical thinking, creativity, and inquiry while engrossed in a meticulous standards-based curriculum that involves real-world and open-ended problems. High levels of critical thinking is necessary when working with information that doesn’t have a predetermined outcome. When students are able to create original solutions to these problems, they are willing to do more critical thinking. This will also allow students to go beyond making connections on the surface and discover underlying concepts and techniques to problems. Employers aren’t just looking for technical expertise, but they are also looking for those who can use it to troubleshoot, problem-solve, and perform abstract reasoning.

Soft Skills

Much of education is aimed towards creating hard skills, such as technical knowledge and skill, but both colleges and employers are looking for people with both hard and soft skills. Soft skills include a willingness to learn, integrity, friendliness, social grace, positive attitude, and work ethics. Written communication has been found to be the most important skill required of high school graduates entering a technology or engineering program. Following written communication is oral communication and a strong work ethic. Techniques that teachers can use to develop their students’ soft skills include

  1. Working in teams
  2. Organizing their thoughts
  3. Communicating with team members
  4. Solving a problem
  5. Orally presenting their findings
  6. Evaluating their success through a written document.

This type of learning activity stretches student development of soft skills by working outside of comfort zones.

Collaboration

Collaboration is a process where individuals negotiate and share meanings about the problem-solving task at hand. It stresses teamwork over individuality. Collaboration coordinates activities, resulting in attempts to create and keep a shared interpretation of a problem. The goal of collaboration is not to have students finish tasks in a group but rather to teach them how to work together to complete tasks. Teachers should show students how to fulfill specific group roles and work together effectively. High expectations and deadlines enhance working in a group, forcing student efficiency and capability. Also, group diversity brings in a variety of viewpoints used to come up with ideas and promote creativity for problem-solving.

Creating Great STEM Lessons

STEM is actually more than linking its subjects. It’s a movement that aims to advance the scientific and mathematical foundations required of students in order to be able to compete in the 21st-century workforce.

Beyond that, this movement gets students ready for specific jobs. STEM develops a collection of skills that students can use in all areas of their lives. STEM isn’t just a separate class; it combines different subjects along an existing curriculum.

Some STEM lessons can seem like science experiments because they are in some ways. They are both based on inquiry and hands-on. But, “real” STEM lessons have significant differences.

The following is a list of six characteristics of a great STEM lesson. It is best used in collaboration with other teachers to develop lessons that include technology and engineering to what students are learning in math and science (bonus if you can add other subjects as well).

  • Great STEM lessons incorporate problems and issues that can happen in the real world. Students focus on finding solutions to economic, environmental, and social issues. 

One of my greatest victories came out of one of my biggest failures. I ordered a programmable drone for a tween STEM program I have been promoting at the library. But, I failed to read the reviews. After one small crash just a few days before the program, one of the motors got damaged. This made it unable to fly correctly. Also, the manufacturer stopped selling spare parts. I found a motor on Amazon that had the closest dimensions to the original motor in order to fit in the body. Unfortunately, the shaft was too small, not allowing the propeller to stay on. The program was the following day, so it was too late to cancel the program. So, knowing how much tweens love challenges plus how excited they were to fly a drone, I came up with an idea. First, I raided our craft cabinet and got as many random items that I could find. Then I brought the items along with the broken drone to the program. I challenged the tweens to find a way to keep the propeller on using the random mix of children’s arts and crafts supplies and office supplies I laid in front of them. The tweens, who never knew each other before the program, worked together. They ultimately got the drone to work great using strands of feather and sticky tack. Everyone won. 

  • Great STEM lessons are guided by the engineering design process(EDP). The EDP leads students from identifying the problem to developing a solution. This process starts with students defining the problem, doing background research, coming up with ideas for different solutions, making a prototype, then testing, evaluating, and redesigning it. This process is a cycle that is repeated until they have found their best solution.. Or if class time runs out.

The tweens that participated in my drone program used the EDP without even knowing it. First, they identified the problem of the motor shaft being too small for the propeller. Next, they researched by taking a look at how the three other motors worked. They explored the materials to come up with different ideas for a solution. Their prototype involved just a piece of pipe cleaner that wedged between the propeller and the motor shaft. They tested it by turning it on, but the propeller wouldn’t spin because the pipe cleaner was touching the body, which slowed down the propeller so much that the drone couldn’t even get off the ground. Subsequent prototypes were sometimes too loose, making the propellers fly off mid-flight. A few more rounds of the EDP brought them success using a couple of fake feather strands and a bit of sticky tack.. I wish that I was that smart when I was their age.

  • Great STEM lessons allow hands-on inquiry and open-ended questions to immerse students. Unlike traditional science lessons where there is usually just one definitive answer, STEM is open-ended. There are many paths for students to explore to find solutions. Students generate solutions based on hands on inquiry. They control the whole process with their own ideas. Students collaborate and share their ideas.

My drone program was originally going to have set instructions on how to program it. I was not familiar with STEM at the time, but the box said “STEM Aligned” on it. Knowing what STEM truly is now, it’s safe to say that that drone is a terrible STEM activity (unless a motor breaks, or course). Tweens had their own ideas and investigated possibilities by themselves, but in the end, it was a combination of their ideas that got the drone to work. 

  • Great STEM lessons acknowledge the importance of teamwork. Getting students to participate in teamwork can be hit or miss since it involves a wide array of skills and personalities to work well together. But even if it ends up seeming wrong, students will learn essential soft skills that almost every job looks for.
  • Great STEM lessons incorporate science and math lessons students are currently being taught. This involves working with other teachers to understand their lessons. Integrating math and science lessons allows STEM to reinforce concepts.

Bringing art into the mix can get more students interested in participating in activities. After all, that’s why STEAM was created. Collaborate with your students’ art teacher to create a lesson or activity that students will enjoy doing while learning at the same time.

  • Great STEM lessons don’t have just one correct answer. In STEM, particularly in the EDP, failure is part of the lesson. It is a crucial part of learning. This is what makes traditional science lessons different from STEM lessons. A Science lesson usually has one answer or result while a STEM lesson has multiple.

Note that this is a list of characteristics that create a great STEM lesson. It doesn’t mean that if a lesson doesn’t include all characteristics, it’s not a STEM lesson. It also doesn’t mean that STEM lessons that include less of these characteristics are inferior to others. Sometimes it’s too difficult or unnecessary to add them all. In high school, for example, STEM is way past the general foundations stage emphasized in elementary school. It is narrowed down and focused more on careers at this point.

STEM Lesson Resources

The following sites are generally used to provide STEM lesson ideas:

If you can’t find any lessons you like, revisit your course objectives, think of a real-world challenge, and create your own lesson. Check out my STEM Activities page for some ideas that align with national standards.

Jason Velarde

Jason Velarde is the guy behind STEMcadia. He has been involved with libraries for over 15 years, starting as a Circulation Desk Clerk, working his way to becoming a Youth Services Librarian. Nearly every evening after work, you’ll find him either reverse engineering (breaking) a gadget or building prototype robots, but when he's not, he's here researching and writing about all things related to STEM on STEMcadia.