What Is STEM Education And Why Is It Important?

I think you’ll agree with me that it’s difficult to define what STEM education is and why it’s important. There are plenty of websites out there stating the elements of the acronym but not explaining what it truly is and why it’s taught as a separate curriculum. The resources that do go further than the acronym are often too complex to understand for the general reader.

What is STEM education and why is it important? STEM is more than an acronym that stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. It is an interdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning where its subjects build upon and relate to each other. STEM gives students a venue for applying concepts to real-world problems while teaching them the foundational skills needed to succeed in an increasingly dynamic global labor market.

It is important to note that while STEM is essential to prepare current students for a future career, its benefits extend beyond that. Our economy and national security is at stake if we do not emphasize the importance of STEM education as early as early childhood. To understand why, an excellent place to look is at the beginning. 

Who Invented STEM Education?

In 2001, the National Science Foundation (NSF) used the acronym SMET to refer to careers in or integrated knowledge from science, math, engineering, and technology. American biologist and assistant director of education and human resources at NSF, Judith Ramaley, rearranged SMET to form STEM. 

When Did STEM Education Begin? 

In the early 2000s, science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines started to become more integrated after several key reports were published. One report, in particular, Rising Above the Gathered Storm, released in 2005 by the U. S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, addressed societal problems by highlighted the links between continued innovation, knowledge-intensive jobs requiring science and technology, and prosperity. U.S. students were falling behind at achieving in the disciplines of STEM compared to other countries. The report forecasted significant repercussions if the U.S. could not compete in the global economy resulting from an unprepared workforce. So, we paid attention to areas seen as being critical to continuing U.S. prosperity: math, science, and technology research, economic policy, and education.

Concerns in the U.S. were reinforced through findings of international studies such as Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), an international comparison of the knowledge of fourth and eighth-graders in math and science, and Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an assessment of skills and knowledge of 15-year-olds. PISA results in 2006 showed that the U.S. ranked 21st out of 30 countries because it had a relatively large proportion of underperforming students in knowledge and scientific competency.

These comparisons started discussion over the education and workforce needs of the United States, leading to the formation of a bipartisan congressional STEM Education Caucus. The Caucus addressed that the country’s knowledge-based economy is driven by constant innovation coming from a dynamic, well-educated, and STEM-skilled workforce.

What Is STEM Education? 

To foster a diverse STEM workforce, schools, libraries, and other community organizations provide a variety of programs and activities to make STEM education experiences available. In 2012, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), released a report that defined STEM education as:

“Teaching and learning in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It typically includes educational activities across all grade levels—from pre-school to post-doctorate—in both formal (e.g., classrooms) and informal (e.g., afterschool programs) settings.”

Educators who are aimed at improving math and science instruction use different approaches to K-12 STEM education. Some teachers integrate project-based activities that require the application of skills and knowledge in specific areas. Extracurricular activities have students work together in groups that compete against each other based on different tasks such as building robots or engineering bridges. Some instances allow students to work with professionals in STEM fields, where they are permitted to job-shadow or work as interns.

Why Is STEM Education Important? 

Between 2000 and 2010, the growth of U.S. STEM jobs was three times that of non-STEM positions. But, gaps in race and gender were still a problem. Employers still had problems finding qualified STEM-skilled workers. While some programs were successful in guiding groups that were underrepresented into STEM careers, such efforts were not common, leaving many students without effective STEM education. 

Around the world, not having a precise definition of STEM made it challenging to agree on what professions qualify as STEM careers. Some organizations acknowledged any job depending on skills from any STEM field to be a STEM job. But, government agencies used different criteria for labeling STEM jobs.

Despite their differences in defining what STEM is, all groups agree that workers in STEM occupations are crucial in driving economic growth and competitiveness through innovations that focus on challenges the world faces and creates different jobs. STEM education is designed to develop a foundation in students that will help them smoothly transition into a dynamic labor market where they are needed to meet these demands. 

What Are the Benefits of STEM Education?

Preparing students to be successful in their careers is emphasized in STEM education. The knowledge and skills gained go beyond what they will need to be advantageous in their careers.

1. It helps you stay current

Technology is always changing. Since we live in a technology-based society, we are in contact with it every day. Keeping up with technology through STEM education helps us stay up to date with vital knowledge. 

2. It allows you to be innovative

Other skills acquired through STEM education include creativity, leadership, decision-making, acceptance of failure, critical thinking, problem-solving, and more. No matter what career path students plan to follow, these skills will help them be innovative. 

The basis of innovation is critical thinking and challenging standards. Innovation is an essential component of economic growth. The potential to change the world lies in critical thinkers. Just take a look at inventors who have made our world what it is today. 

3. It helps you make a difference

The ability to create an impact on a large number of people is a side-effect of STEM education. As technology advances, turning ideas into inventions become easier. Finding cures, building shelter, and inventing ways to speed up communication are examples of things that have already made a difference. So, when future technology and STEM education are paired, the possibilities we have to make a difference for tomorrow become endless. 

4. It prepares you for college

Problem-solving and critical thinking are not just real-world skills gained from STEM education. They are also valuable skills needed for test-taking. Students with STEM education score higher on SATs and take fewer remedial classes when they start college.

5. It boosts confidence

Meeting challenges and solving complex problems are ways to boost confidence tremendously. STEM education takes it a step further. STEM classes require students to communicate their findings, defend their positions, and have meaningful discussions. When you can do this, you exude confidence.

6. It teaches 21st-century skills

STEM education teaches more than math and science concepts. A variety of skills, including creativity and 21st-century skills, are developed through hands-on learning with real-world applications. 

Examples of 21st-century skills:

  • Communication
  • Productivity
  • Initiative
  • Flexibility
  • Social skills
  • Technology literacy.

7. It gives you a higher income

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), STEM occupations earn a median wage of nearly $76,000, which is more than double the median salary of $35,080 for all workers.

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.