If you have a child in school or if you are an educator or a student, you are likely to have wondered why STEM education was created.
STEM has seen a rise in popularity within the past decade due to the role it plays in shaping the future. You may have even seen it on The Big Bang Theory, one of the most popular sitcoms on TV right now, or read a book on Andrew Yang or NASA.
When I began my career as a Youth Services Librarian, STEM had just been integrated into local schools’ curriculums. One of the main focuses of my job was to try to come up with fun programs for tweens that supplement what they learn in school. To do that, I realized that a good way to start was to research why STEM education was created.
Why was STEM Education created? In the early 2000s, several reports brought attention to the U.S. trailing behind other countries in student proficiency in STEM. The U.S. recognized that a future workforce would need STEM Education to succeed as a global leader.
STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, and math, centers around education in each of its disciplines. Although the acronym has been around since the early 2000s, the concept is much older.
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It Started With A Space Race
On October 4, 1957, a beach ball-sized steel sphere with four radio antennae, nicknamed “Sputnik,” went around the Earth in eight minutes, becoming the first artificial Earth satellite. Before its batteries died, it stayed in an elliptical low Earth orbit for three weeks after the Soviets had launched it. Then, before catching fire in the atmosphere, it continued its orbit for another two months.
Ham radio operators as well as every national security listening post around the world were able to easily detect its radio signal pulses.
This sparked a mission in the United States to shut the gap in the space race with the Soviet Union, starting with an American education revolution. This revolution was also to get America’s youth excited about and education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
The future of democracy and freedom through victory in the Cold War was at stake.
This competitive pressure continued to reverberate through the 1970s and 1980s when the initial Space Shuttle launch and the first PCs initiated interest in science and technology education. It continued into the dot-com and computer revolutions of the 1990s when children’s standardized test scores were starting to become a major concern, and the future of America’s scientific and economic leadership with it.
SMET Before It Was STEM
By the 1990s, concern about America’s proficiency in STEM led national education groups to offer guidelines to better prepare elementary school students. This led to SMET, the National Science Foundation’s original acronym for STEM.
In 2001, Judith Ramaley, then director of the National Science Foundation’s education and human resources division, “did not like the word” and suggested replacing the term SMET with the more pleasant-sounding STEM. The term started to grow through concerns that some STEM fields were expanding faster than the labor force from which they were fed. This has prompted government officials, educational institutions, corporations, trade associations, and others to take action to attract traditionally underrepresented groups, including women and minorities, to STEM fields.
“In STEM, science and math serve as bookends for technology and engineering. Science and math are critical to a basic understanding of the universe, while engineering and technology are a means for people to interact with the universe. STEM weaves those elements of human action and understanding into all aspects of education” – Judith Ramaley
The Reporting That Brought the Push For More STEM Education
In 2005, the U.S. National Academies put out a report titled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm.” This report showed that the U.S. proficiency in STEM was trailing behind other countries. It also emphasized that the U.S.’s competitiveness was dependent on a strong educational program that prepares innovative scientists and engineers to provide important innovations for a thriving U.S. economy in this technological age.
This type of reporting created a national public commotion for more powerful STEM education. Classrooms across the U.S. began to adopt a variety of STEM initiatives. Advisers allowed College-bound students to consider STEM programs more frequently. There was a big push to create pathways for students to go into STEM-related fields.
Diversity In STEM
Students who may not be able to afford a computer or WiFi have lower chances of developing skills like coding. Underfunded schools in low-income areas usually don’t have high-priced equipment for STEM learning programs or makerspaces. Compared to students in wealthier schools, these students are much less likely to experience hands-on activities in science. Students in the poorest high schools have the least access to computer science classes and lack science labs and materials for science and math.
In the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, women and minorities have been traditionally underrepresented. In 2000, African Americans, American Indians/Alaska Natives, and Latinos constituted 25 percent of the U.S. population.
A 1996 study suggested that girls start to lose confidence in themselves in middle school because of their belief that men are more intelligent in technological fields. What creates this misconception is the fact that men outperform women in spatial analysis, a skillset many engineering professionals believe are critical. Research shows that, with the same form of training, girls can develop these same skills.
To close the gap between the expanding umbrella of STEM jobs and occupations and the number of STEM-skilled workers available, the U.S. realized they needed to recruit more low-income students, women, and minorities.
Nationwide Programs Created To Promote STEM
“Reaffirming and strengthening America’s role as the world’s engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation is essential to meeting the challenges of this century, that’s why I am committed to making the improvement of STEM education over the next decade a national priority.” – Former U.S. President, Barack Obama
Educate to Innovate
In 2009, President Obama launched the nationwide campaign titled “Educate to Innovate.” The goal of this campaign was to move students to the top of the ladder in math and science achievement over the next ten years.
The “Educate To Innovate” program premiered a series of partnerships including foundations, leading companies, science and engineer societies, and non-profits dedicated to motivating and inspiring the youth in America to excel in math and science.
The partnerships sparked a large number of responses for a national campaign to raise American students to the top of the ladder in math and science in the next ten years. The commitments, worth over $260 million in financial support, were to apply creative and new methods of creating and maintaining student enthusiasm and interest in math and science, reinvigorating the pipeline of innovation and ingenuity important to America’s success that has long been at American economic leadership’s core.
Race to the Top
In 2009, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced a competitive grant by the United States Department of Education called “Race to the Top.” This $4.35 billion grant was to reward reforms and innovation in local and state district K-12 education. States competed for the grants and judges awarded them points for the following:
- Executing certain educational policies
- Instituting evaluations for teachers and principals that are based on performance and multiple measures of effectiveness of the educator
- Adopting common standards
- Adopting policies that did not prohibit the development of high-end charter schools
- Turning around the schools that are lowest performing
- Building data systems and using them