STEM Literacy – What It Is and Why You Need It

The definition of STEM literacy is not something that is easily found. Even when it is, many of them differ from one another. In the process of using my librarian skills and resources to find a reliable universal definition, I have decided to write this blog post to share my findings.

What is STEM literacy and why is it important? STEM literacy is the greater outcome of STEM education to find solutions to society’s demands for new advancements in science and technology. It is important for national security, and for a person to be a fulfilled, knowledgeable, productive citizen.

Currently, professional organizations don’t have an agreement on the definition of STEM literacy. Many definitions include economic and societal needs but miss personal needs. Most people need to be STEM literate. But, we shouldn’t confuse literacy with being literate because they are not the same.

What is STEM Literacy?

In our increasingly technology-driven world, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) growth is outshining others. To stay competitive on the global stage, our students must be prepared for tomorrow’s careers.

STEM education was created so that our youth can achieve a certain level of STEM literacy to be a well-functioning citizen in our technology-oriented world.

STEM skills are required by about 20 percent of all careers. Five percent are STEM-intensive careers, while 15 percent are STEM-infused, relying on one or more of the STEM disciplines. This means that 20% of the U.S. workforce will be using their STEM-expertise regularly.

Aside from these STEM careers, STEM literacy is needed to be an informed citizen. For example, citizens need to understand topics such as the science of vehicle emissions to be an informed voter. And with the increasingly digital world, citizens should have problem-solving skills to troubleshoot issues with technology. Our future is quickly requiring STEM literacy, so it’s safe to say that everyone can benefit from acquiring it.

Technologies are transforming every workplace to varying extents. Reforms in management regularly pass decision-making downward, so solid communication and analytical skills are crucial throughout the economy. Solid analytical thinking and decision-making skills are requirements of regular challenges such as health decisions, personal finance decisions, and understanding data on public policy decisions. These life skills are STEM skills.

Now that we have deduced that STEM literacy should be for everyone, the next question is, “What is STEM literacy?”

To start, we need to talk about reliable definitions so we can all be on the same page.

Defining STEM education

STEM education is a tactical undertaking to promote a strong understanding of the necessary knowledge and concepts that build the foundation of science, engineering, technology, and mathematics disciplines. It aims to help students cultivate problem-framing and problem-solving skills in the framework of STEM learning.

Active learning strategies are applied to develop thoughtful learning. Through STEM education, the connections of STEM across its disciplines and to other academic classes are reinforced, and students learn the importance of STEM skills in today’s careers.

Defining Literacy

Being literate used to mean being able to both read and to write, but now literacy covers more than that.

According to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), 21st century literacies includes the following abilities: 1) Build proficiency with the tools of technology; 2) Develop relationships with others to collaboratively and cross-culturally pose and solve problems; 3) Design and share info for communities around the globe to satisfy a variety of purposes; 4) Synthesize, analyze, and manage multiple streams of concurrent information; 5) Develop, evaluate, analyze, and critique multi-media texts; and 6) Assume the ethical responsibilities that these intricate environments require.

In addition to the NCTE definition, UNESCO says that literacy includes a continuation of learning in allowing individuals to participate in their community and society, and to advance their knowledge and potential. This is coupled with their four pillars of learning: learning to be, learning to know, learning to live together, and learning to do.

Literacy is now interlaced with traditional language processing, digital technologies, and social communication practices. Literacy is constantly changing with the development of new technology.

Currently, almost any communicative ability can be literacy. And so, with the rise of STEM in education, STEM literacy is now a conversational topic.

Defining STEM literacy

The National Research Council (NRC) defines STEM literacy as “the knowledge and understanding of mathematical and scientific processes and concepts required for personal decision making, participation in cultural and civic affairs, and economic productivity.” To be STEM, literate means possessing the skills to succeed in our technology-driven world. STEM literacy is ultimately less about distinct content and more about cultivating cognitive skills.

The definition of STEM literacy is a little different from STEM education because STEM education is an input – what is delivered to the student. STEM literacy is an outcome – what is developed inside the student, the attitudes, skills, and the knowledge they gain through STEM education. It is also more than the separately defined literacy silos of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. But, to get to a reliable encompassing definition of STEM literacy, we must first look at each discipline’s separate literacy definition.

Scientific Literacy

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the National Science Education Standards, scientific literacy is the knowledge and understanding of scientific processes and concepts required for economic productivity, participation in cultural and civic affairs, and personal decision making. It covers being able to use scientific knowledge and methods to understand and take part in decisions that affect science in technology, earth and environment, and life and health.

Technological Literacy

The National Assessment of Education develops assessments for proficiency in engineering and technology. Their definition of technological literacy involves the ability to evaluate, understand, and use technology and understanding technical strategies and principles required to develop decisions and accomplish goals. 

The International Society for Technology in Education adds being able to demonstrate innovation and creativity, collaborate and communicate, organize research and use information, solve problems, think critically,  use technology productively and effectively, and make decisions. 

And lastly, the International Technology Education Association includes being able to understand how technology is created in developing sophistication over time, how it is shaped by society, and how it shapes society.

Engineering Literacy

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, engineering literacy is understanding how the engineering design process develops technologies. This includes being able to apply mathematical and scientific principles creatively and systematically to practical ends, like the design, the manufacture, and the operation of economic and efficient machines, structures, systems, and processes. 

Additionally, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology includes the application of the natural sciences and mathematical knowledge acquired by experience, study, and practices to create ways to economically utilize the materials and the forces of nature to benefit humanity.

Mathematical Literacy

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) defines mathematical literacy as the ability to identify, understand, and engage in math. Also included is the capacity to generate well-founded judgments about mathematics’ role in an person’s life.

Mathematical literacy is defined by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics as the capacity to listen, read, communicate, and think creatively about mathematical representations, problem situations, and solutions to develop and expand comprehension of mathematics.

The literacy definitions for these separate disciplines all mention the importance of knowledge and understanding. Many also indicate the importance of application and evaluation. Two mention creating and applying abilities, skills, and knowledge to their goals. If you take a closer look, these definitions focus on economic and social needs. STEM literacy doesn’t mean acquiring literacy in the four disciplines. It also means more than putting together the number of overlapping interdisciplinary concepts, processes, and skills. 

STEM literacy is the combination of these literacy disciplines, where the total equals more than the sum of each of the separate parts. Expanding these ideas, only the PISA definition lightly talks about the needs of the individual. Nobel laureate physicist Leon Lederman addresses this feature when he describes STEM literacy as being able to accept and adapt to changes driven by new technology work, to foresee the multiple levels of impact of their actions, to effectively communicate complex ideas to a range of audiences, and to find measured, but creative, solutions to problems that are unimaginable today.

This is not STEM literacy for the purpose of learning, this is learning for the purpose of STEM literacy. Although these are essential elements, STEM literacy needs to go above processes and beyond content. Learning for STEM literacy may serve our economic and societal needs, but personal needs to attain fulfillment and be a knowledgeable, productive citizen should be discussed.

Defining STEM Literacy

Promoting and assessing STEM literacy has been taking big steps throughout the years. But, until the creation of effective assessments are adopted nationwide to provide specific numerical data, measuring the extent of technological literacy in the U.S. cannot be done.

As American keeps the STEM movement a priority, solid definitions and standards will need to be defined appropriately.

Expanding from the professional organizations’ definitions of STEM education and each of the STEM strands, allow me to present a description of STEM literacy:

A STEM-literate student –

  • Demonstrates and applies critical problem-framing and problem-solving skills in each of the STEM disciplines.
  • Shows a strong grasp of the fundamental knowledge and concepts that underpin the core disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
  • Shows an understanding of how STEM content pervades a variety of careers.
  • Expresses that technology is used to develop knowledge and ability.
  • Creates connections to the opportunities technology created for individuals.
  • Endures through productive struggle to achieve success in STEM-related work.
  • Uses sound reasoning to make informed decisions.
  • Expresses reasoning based in scientific and mathematical processes and concepts.
  • Evaluates information for accuracy and relevance. 

A student who identifies with these items can demonstrate communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity – 21st-century skills that are important to building tomorrow’s successful workforce.

Why is STEM literacy Important?

Children love action and are naturally curious about the world around them. They are drawn to how things work and how they can control or change the way things work. They enjoy planning and creating.

In childrens’ early years, playtime often involves making forts or hiding places out of chairs and blankets, dollhouses from shoeboxes, or castles from sand. These types of play lead them to become creative thinkers, problem solvers, and modifiers of their world. This is why games like Minecraft are so popular. They are parts of the engineering design process for problem-solving.

Our world has two parts: the human-made world, which is created through engineering and technology, and the natural world, which is explored by science. The International Technology and Engineering Educators Association describes technology as “human innovation in action.” Technology involves changing the natural world to satisfy the wants and needs of humans.

Engineering is the application of science and math concepts to solve realistic problems. Creative thinking, problem-solving, and modification of our world to satisfy the wants and needs are what engineers and designers as well as children do daily.

Simply put, we are born with a natural propensity for engineering. STEM education cultivates this in students to enhance STEM literacy, which further provides many benefits.

To develop life skills

Engaging students into design activities that teach them 21st-century results, like critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaborating and communicating ideas with group members. To improve their creative efforts, they learn to analyze, question, elaborate, refine, and evaluate their ideas to improve their efforts. The decision-making is based on the outcomes of their design and audience input.

To become better problem solvers

Students have the ability to view solutions in both innovative and conventional ways. Design and engineering-immersed students begin taking risks and start to see the opportunity that comes from something that didn’t work, which guides them towards imagining and creating a better solution. They can apply learning to various subjects and contexts.

To better understand the core curriculum

Students can use STEM activities to develop core skills and knowledge and gain a broader understanding of the subject they are studying.

To match different learning styles

The STEM teaching style can easily be modified to accommodate different styles of learning. Students find pride in their own self-learning. A lot of times, students that do not do well in traditional lecture environments become great in STEM teaching environments.

To develop awareness of design and engineering career possibilities

Integrated engineering and design activities help students become aware of the knowledge and skills needed in engineering and design careers. Real understanding of the knowledge and skills that will be required in the 21st-century job market. As students start to learn about engineering and design thinking and skill environment, they need to be shown how different career choices need or benefit from exposure to this knowledge and skills. Furthermore, knowing the requirements of possible careers helps students navigate towards their future efficiently and excitedly.

How to Cultivate STEM Literacy

There isn’t just one correct way to cultivate STEM literacy. But, practitioners can call on best practices in the field of Integrative STEM Education. STEM activities offer students the opportunities to practice STEM literacy skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, communication, and flexibility. When paired with reflection and iteration with the help of strategically-planned partnerships and parental support, students’ STEM literacy will increase.

Engaging in hands-on STEM education can have an impact on the lives of students. There are some influences that can affect the learning experience, including past skills, interest, creativity, hands-on learning, and motivation. Partnerships allow educators to create innovative teaching approaches by exposing students to STEM concepts through educational activities and experiments from outreach initiatives. The parents, community, and education system are all responsible for preparing a future STEM-literate workforce.

Create partnerships

STEM literacy can be achieved through hands-on learning within partnerships with local school systems, scientists, STEM organizations, STEM clubs, and the workforce. These types of initiatives may help in focusing on one of the nation’s biggest priorities for preparing a technological workplace.

While the National Science Board (NSB) says that the U.S. has the most innovative, technologically capable economy in the world, STEM education is failing to make sure that all American students acquire the knowledge and skills needed to be successful in the 21st-century workforce.

In order to help the nation stay technologically competitive in the global workforce, it is important to strengthen the bridge between secondary schools and higher education. Partnerships are one of the main objectives for strengthening the bridge between high school and higher education. Developing partnerships increase STEM literacy through mentoring, active learning, and reinforcement of STEM concepts learned in the classroom. 

Educators need to take advantage of the current opportunities that can change the way STEM concepts are taught to ensure STEM learning is transformative. Schools should look for partnerships with STEM experts in the community, local institutions, and local organizations. This creates unique opportunities that will help increase STEM literacy. Resources like these can also be useful in deepening STEM concepts taught in class. For example, after covering erosion in the classroom, the teacher might invite a local coastal engineer to demonstrate how erosion affects the shoreline using a hands-on activity. Afterward, the local professional can describe their role in preventing damage to homes and towns near the water.

Student performance and STEM literacy can be reached through the use of practical applications in monthly activities and workshops. Educators should locate local, state, and national agencies that have special funding allocated towards creating opportunities through partnerships to help achieve this goal.

Educate parents

Parents can achieve higher engagement and better child outcomes when they receive instruction on how to interact with their child. Teachers should share strategies with parents because when parents are involved, children gain more confidence and become more engaged in class.

STEM is for everyone. Parents should become aware of this when they are with their children. To start, they can talk about how things like architecture, auto mechanics, and construction all use STEM skills. Parents can also guide children’s curiosity through experimentation and discovery at home where children can practice essential skills like observation, measurement, and analysis. Students become more confident and comfortable with STEM skills as parents support their children’s learning this way.

Students need to recognize STEM in all parts of their lives. They need opportunities to practice the skills in situations that give feedback. This can happen at home, in school, and even on the playground. It doesn’t matter where it happens; it just matters that it happens.

Evolve STEM learning

It may seem like an extreme concept, but education objectives must evolve from learning for STEM literacy to STEM literacy for learning. When the importance of STEM education is taken into account and how STEM can shape the future, this makes a lot of sense. But for this to happen, four conditions need to be taken into account by the teacher.

First, the four STEM areas cannot be seen as separate silos of content. The disciplines should be integrated into one whole new discipline.

Second, pedagogy and content also must blend. Less emphasis should be put on verifying and demonstrating science content, and more attention should be put on investigating and analyzing science questions. This means that covering content should be less of a concern, while the emphasis on helping a student learn should be increased.

Third, the beliefs, attitudes, self-confidence, motivation, and self-esteem of students must be considered. To value STEM, a student’s self-identity must be cared for.

Fourth, students need to operate STEM technologies efficiently and without any help.


The cultivation of children’s’ STEM literacy helps guarantee that our society will have informed citizens and qualified STEM workers. Put clearly, STEM-literate people use science, technology, engineering, and mathematics concepts to explore complicated problems and develop innovative solutions. We shouldn’t ask whether to cultivate STEM skills, but how to cultivate STEM skills.

Children learn from who and what is around them. Parents and teachers have the most influence on who they become. Their interactions will shape and form the child; these relationships need to be utilized to cultivate STEM literacy.

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. Nowadays, he's spending countless hours in front of the computer as a web developer. Nearly every evening after work, you’ll find him either reverse engineering (breaking) a gadget, building prototype robots, or working on personal coding projects, but when he's not, he's here researching and writing about all things related to STEM on STEMcadia.