STEM Skills – What You Need To Know

Growing up in the 21st century requires the STEM skills needed to succeed in the future. As educators, we should not only prepare our students but arm them with the essential skills that will help them flourish in their careers and life.

STEM skills are critical thinking, statistics, engineering-design thinking, problem-solving, creativity, argumentation, intellectual curiosity, data-driven decision-making, flexibility, and collaboration. STEM skills can be improved by introducing concepts early and having students explore STEM careers firsthand.

Classrooms today are focusing on STEM education because there is a rapidly increasing demand for these skills. But, enhancing STEM skills may require more than just great teacher involvement.

What Are STEM Skills and Why Are They Important?

Critical Thinking

Being successful in STEM not only depends on the ability to think critically but also to apply concepts to solve a problem. To find solutions to problems, students must use their critical thinking skills. In STEM, this is much more than solving word problems. 

Learning STEM effectively requires analysis of information, design evaluation, reflective thinking, development of ideas, and proposing creative solutions. Becoming an independent, critical thinker requires these vital skills. 

Project-based learning to challenge students to solve real-world problems, holding classroom debates, and giving students time to think about their experiences are great ways to develop their critical thinking skills.

Statistics

One of the most important disciplines for students to study is statistics. This course can be applied to all STEM fields. Truly understanding statistics is understanding probability and error rates. These concepts are applied to almost any type of problem that needs solving in STEM. 

Engineering-Design Thinking

In STEM, using engineering-design thinking is crucial to problem-solving. This kind of thinking consists of identifying the problem, researching solutions, building prototypes, testing, redesigning, testing again, and further iterations as needed. Each step brings you closer to the solution. 

Problem-Solving

The notion of modern skills is what binds the STEM movement together. A skill that every student needs is the ability to problem-solve. Everybody will face problems every day, but some may be more complex than others, like doing taxes.

Employers and society need problem solvers because it’s one of the types of skills that matter. Most STEM professionals may not directly use advanced mathematics like calculus taught in school, but the way it teaches people how to problem solve is significant.

STEM problems require productive work to come up with real and appropriate solutions. They also require fast work to analyze problems as they are presented. 

To improve problem-solving, students will need lots of opportunities to practice. Try giving them real-world problems to solve. They will get better with more practice. 

Creativity

In the future, being innovative is what will set students apart from others. More opportunities to be creative will allow students to become more comfortable with sharing their ideas. 

Because of the nature of STEM, students should be prepared for jobs that don’t even exist yet. Building a strong foundation of universal STEM skills (like creativity and problem solving) will help students succeed in the workforce.

In STEM, failed attempts are positive experiences that offer more profound learning opportunities.

Creativity can be complicated and simple at the same time. We don’t always have to teach outside of the box. Sometimes, the problem has to be looked at from a different perspective. Teachers can ask open-ended questions to develop this.

In science and math, teachers can show students different models so they get a range of ideas of how bringing together one idea might look. Or, teachers don’t have to show a model at all and instead, leave it open-ended so students come up with a solution on their own. You can ask students why they think it is, so they reflect and explain what they did to solve a problem. This supports creativity and teaches collaboration.

One of the many ways that we can make sure students are being innovative and using their creativity is by teaching them to think outside of the box. To nurture their creativity, teachers should give their students many opportunities to be innovative. They should allow students to run with their ideas if they have them. Teachers should ask open-ended questions and let students use their own ideas to come up with their own solutions.

Argumentation

The act of arguing is supporting a claim using evidence. In STEM fields, this means using critical thinking and analytical skills to find patterns in data, attempting to determine what the patterns mean, then using the data to back a claim. This skill is used in all disciplines. For example, in elementary school science, children are given a variety of noisemakers, such as whoopee cushions and tuning forks, to experience collecting data. Then, they are able to use that data to be able to argue that vibrations cause sounds.

Intellectual Curiosity

The days of having the same role in an organization forever are over. These days, people will have a role for two years then move on to a different role.

Aside from mastering content, workers need to be innovators, learn from failures, and keep moving on. They need to look across disciplines and ask questions that build connections. People must be lifelong learners and have intellectual curiosity drive them to figure things out.

To effectively solve problems, STEM requires active, hands-on participation. Students drive solutions and should ask questions, propose ideas, develop and test solutions, and make decisions after analyzing the data to understand how to polish ideas further.

Data-Driven Decision-Making

The ability to interpret data is the ability to make a decision based on scientific data. Choosing a career in STEM or not, students should know how to use data to make informed decisions in their lives.

Students develop this skill by collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data on an assortment of different things like reading graphs, tables, and charts, then analyzing the data. Students should practice this skill frequently to make data interpretation easier for them in the future.

Flexibility

These days, everyone needs a broad set of skills to adapt to new situations and demands. The need to manipulate data well by using quantitative skills. They need the ability to communicate clearly.

People who were skilled in the manufacturing jobs they had now need a new set of skills late in their careers to be applicable in the job market. They need to know quality control, technology, and statistics. The understanding of systems and programming is necessary to make sure automated production technology is operating accurately.

Flexibility is the ability to adjust to new situations. Students will use this skill a lot in their lives.

To develop this skill, teachers can give their students real problems to solve in class. These problems should have students draw from different areas of skill and knowledge.

An easy way to foster this skill is to use an assortment of different test formats. For example, on a single test, have students switch between multiple-choice, essay, and true or false questions. Students that can do this efficiently are considered to have excellent flexibility skills.

A fun way that students can develop flexibility is by playing educational apps on an iPad or a tablet. A lot of these apps cause users to play differently at each different level. Aside from learning to be flexible, students will also use their critical thinking skills to solve problems to get to the next levels.

Collaboration

Significant challenges aren’t usually solved by individuals working alone. Learning to work productively in a collaborative team is part of working on STEM problems.

How to Improve STEM Skills

The most significant focus of STEM is teaching. Efficient teaching strategies are crucial to make learning more engaging. To make the process of learning more efficient and lively, teachers should use new techniques and change according to student feedback.

It can be said that today’s educational model isn’t exactly a good enough implementation. Classes need to be more interesting. Student engagement comes from the correct kind of instructional practice. In this regard, STEM has a lot of ideas to offer.

Enhancing current engagements doesn’t only make classes interesting, but also causes curiosity. Complex scientific phenomenon can be taught using everyday objects. For example, this STEM activity for fourth graders explains the phenomenon of heat by having students pretend to be molecules. Then it instructs them to create a “Moon Thermos” using styrofoam, sand, and tin foil. This doesn’t just make it fun for students, but it also forces teachers to be more creative. This results in a strong feedback circle making both the teacher and students better with each run.

Give students frequent opportunities to take part in logical arguments

Successful teachers give students numerous opportunities to take part in logical arguments as they learn to develop and refine explanations for their observations. This allows students to design and conduct practical investigations, connect them to core knowledge, and work from a curriculum related to meaningful problems.

Consider the environment

Besides teachings, we should consider the environment in which students cultivate their minds with STEM. Problem-solving with engagement, then realizing the theory they just learned happens in real life, is important to create a better intuitive conceptual approach. So, students should be provided with the right kind of environment at home and school where they can grow their problem-solving skills.

Have students work in diverse collaborative groups

Collaborative projects give students a feel of solving problems with teammates. This starts the process of learning leadership and how to be more productive in a team. Having a diverse group with various backgrounds increases flexibility skills by learning how to adapt to cultural differences.

Use educational technology

In this age, technology is as important as papers are. Students need to use technological enhancements in their education and apply them in their curricula. Teachers should not overlook this role of technology. I have seen many conventional-minded parents and teachers go against educational technology because of their difficulty in learning it. This makes it difficult for schools to adopt it. Educational technology can be integrated into education seamlessly and help students learn more via technology. Early adaption to technology allows students to be ready for a workforce that requires flexibility and an array of skills.

Engage parents

There has been enough said about the importance of student and teacher interactions for effective STEM learning. But, learning shouldn’t stop at schools. Students need to continue learning at home too. This invites the role of a parent in learning STEM skills. Parents have a substantial role in influencing the child. Children learn a lot of their parents starting at a young age. Regular parent-teacher interaction is critical in making sure that the development of the student’s problem-solving skills is on track.

In 2017, the National Academy of Sciences published “Utility-value intervention with parents increases students’ STEM preparation and career pursuit,” which investigated the involvement of parents in student motivation to study STEM disciplines and pursue a STEM career. In the study, parents learned strategies for talking to their children about two brochures and access to a website that were given to them that discussed the importance of STEM education. The research found that the students whose parents talked to them using the brochures and the website were found more likely to take one more semester of a STEM course compared to students whose parents did not receive the brochures or access to the website. It also found that students’ science and math ACT scores were 12 points higher.

Give teachers applicable resources

Materials designed to help students see how they can put their STEM skills to use in the real-world are valuable. Students need resources that provide practical experiences and teach them the value of science and math in every field.

An example of having great resources is Northwestern University’s STEAM program in which elementary and secondary schools are teamed up with faculty members that train them on how to implement STEAM programs at their schools.

Partner with tech companies

Because schools are full of future talented employees, companies should be willing to make a memorable appearance on career day. Through partnering with schools, employers can make students aware of careers they didn’t even know existed. This newfound awareness can motivate students to work on their STEM skills to pursue a job that requires them.

Start early

These strategies should not be limited to middle or high school students. It’s never too early to teach children how to become creative, scientific thinkers. Research has shown that STEM education should start in early childhood. In early childhood, neural connections are being developed, which makes it the optimal time to introduce STEM concepts. This can also be useful in eliminating stereotypes, like the belief that STEM fields apply more to boys than girls.

That’s why Lego Education adds guides with their products that they serve schools. Lego sets are used by teachers to build engaging lesson plans that spark the interest of students new to STEM. This makes introducing tougher subjects less painful.

Visualize success for students

Teachers and employers can talk about the importance of pursuing a STEM career, but students should understand their value from getting a firsthand look at these jobs. Visualizing success in a STEM field shows students that the skills they are learning are important outside the classroom.

That’s why Manufacturing Day was started. Each year, students and teachers visit manufacturing plants to see and understand the importance of the industry. An open-door policy between manufacturing plants and schools engages students.

Encourage students to be scientists and mathematicians

There are endless possibilities for getting students involved in STEM experiences, and different difficulty levels for different grades can be adapted. I have compiled a continuing list of STEM Activities for different grades that takes also takes Next Generation Science Standards into account. These activities depend on how teachers facilitate and structure them, allowing students to use the scientific method and engineering design process on their own and asking questions that will stimulate critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

These strategies are not designed to work overnight. Developing the next generation of leaders will, of course, take time. Collaborating will STEM professionals in a massive step in the right direction. When students are exposed to these skills and experiences, they won’t just become more interested in science and math; they’ll be inspired to be the force of innovation and change in the world.

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.