STEM — The What, The Why, and The How

DIY. Learning by Doing. Hands-on Learning. Experiential Learning. These expressions are quite the rage these days for expressing the importance of a four-letter word: STEM. Governments are initiating programs, schools are opening specially designed labs, and introducing courses. The world seems to depend on STEM to move forward. But, what exactly is STEM, anyway?

The What

Going by the generic definition that pops up on googling, STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics — the disciplines which help the economy to thrive and ensure a healthy society. But, what does it really mean?

STEM: an amalgamation of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics

STEM, more precisely STEM education is an amalgamation of the four above mentioned disciplines in such a way that one is able to relate to the real world and develop skills such as curiosity, creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving and innovation skills. These skills are imperative to keep up with the pace at which the world is advancing.

The Why

Let’s, however, step back for a second here; if children study these disciplines rigorously as subjects in schools then why integrate them? The reason behind this is that nothing in the world functions purely based on only one of them. Mathematics is the language that science uses to express itself. When these two marry, they give birth to technology and engineering, the fields that use their parents, i.e. science and mathematics, to create products and services that attend to our needs. These disciplines, therefore, are more connected, than separated. Moreover, studying these disciplines in an integrated form helps children visualise the world and understand it better, which would in turn help them develop a sense of responsibility towards it and contribute to its amelioration.

We will always have STEM with us. Some things will drop out of the public eye and will go away, but there will always be science, engineering, and technology. And there will always, always be mathematics.
-Katherine Johnson, Physicist & Mathematician, NASA

The immediate question that pops up is: ‘If it is this important, then why isn’t STEM as prominent as it should be?’ The answer lies in its awareness among the masses and the availability of right and sufficient resources to implement it. In numerous countries, neither are the persons truly aware of STEM, its importance, and its advantages, nor has an effective system been developed (yet) to efficiently incorporate STEM into the existing curriculum in schools to make help pupils develop the required skills. As a result, the gap between the number of existing STEM jobs, which keeps on multiplying, and the number of graduates with the required skill set has been widening since long, slowly transforming into a gorge which may become difficult to traverse if this continues. According to Pew Research Center, only about half of the graduates with a degree in a STEM field end up choosing a non-STEM career despite the fact that STEM workers earn 24% to 25% more than their non-STEM counterparts with a similar education level.

Percentage of graduates in STEM jobs vs. those in non-STEM jobs

The How

The battle’s not lost yet. With increase in cognizance of its benefits schools, institutions, and governments across the globe have begun taking steps in the right direction with initiatives to spread awareness among people, to find ways for developing curriculum that can be used in educational institutions, and to train and prepare educators for efficaciously educating pupils and transforming them from passive consumers of technology to active contributors to the same.

Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States, launched the Educate to Innovate campaign in 2009 to motivate and inspire the youth of America to excel in science and mathematics. Likewise, in a bid to make its impact on the world with a vision to cultivate 1 million children in India as neoteric innovators, NITI Aayog, the think tank of India, has established a network of Atal Tinkering Labs (ATLs) under the Atal Innovation Mission (AIM) with the objective to endorse STEM system of education across India.

ATL workshop by STEMpedia at A.G. High School, Ahmedabad, India

However, just making available the technology and resources that enable pupils to learn about the four disciplines as one isn’t enough. It is equally important to make experiential learning an integral part of STEM education for it constitutes an inevitable part in the process of becoming a fully educated person. It not only helps one relate to the real world better but also helps in developing skills that open doors to a plethora of opportunities in the different STEM fields. This would in turn help in increasing the ratio of qualified graduates to the existing STEM jobs.

In a Nutshell

STEM education is the need of the hour for transforming the young minds into innovators of tomorrow. However, we’re still quite far from fully realising this dream of the modern-day world. Efforts need to be increased manifoldly, educators need to be made more capable, and children’s potential needs to be tapped in at the right age and in the right manner for making the picture we hold in our mind a reality and place it before our eyes. The world needs more of STEM to stem this increasing gap between technological advancements and the human competency necessary for understanding them.