Understanding STEM Education’s Scions, Offshoots And Nodes
Deviation And Evolution Perspectives Of A Broader, Popular Movement
STEM as an acronym has a long, complex history that can make it difficult to reach consensus on exactly what this important educational movement is all about, but there are some basic features that many can agree on. The Congressional Research Service provides a solid definition:
“The term ‘STEM education’ refers to teaching and learning in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It typically includes educational activities across all grade levels — from preschool to post-doctorate — in both formal (e.g., classrooms) and informal (e.g., afterschool programs) settings.”
This sounds straightforward enough, but over the years there has been plenty of disagreement about where STEM comes from and where it’s going. I’ve already explored some of the “lost history” of the movement, but understanding the past is only part of the story. It’s also important to take a look at the current state of STEM to get a sense of where the future may lead.
STEM Versus STEAM: A Closer Look
One of the biggest points of confusion swirls around the alphabet soup of acronyms in STEM education. For example, take the two most common terms: STEM and STEAM.
STEM focuses on providing robust science, technology, engineering and math education. It’s been gaining momentum for more than two decades, and many schools have embraced the principles of encouraging scientific inquiry to solve real-world problems.
STEAM is a growing offshoot of the STEM movement that adds art into the mix. The idea is that artistic thinking is part of a well-rounded education and that encouraging creativity can also enhance engineering and technological designs. For example, a well-designed app will function to solve a problem with technology, but its stylistic composition enhances its functionality for the user. STEAM proponents also point out that the arts can enhance the communication skills scientists need to express their ideas.
It’s perfectly understandable that advocates of the arts want their subjects to receive equal attention as the STEM movement grows. But it’s also important to note that the best STEM curricula naturally integrate the type of creativity and design thinking implied by the “A” in STEAM. As students learn to investigate issues and hypothesize outcomes, they also are encouraged to think creatively to engineer solutions to problems. There’s actually not such a hard line between arts and sciences when it comes to robust STEM learning.
Other STEM Offshoots And Acronyms
To add to the confusion, the STEAM acronym has different meanings for different groups. Though the “A” most commonly stands for arts, it can also stand for aerospace, agriculture, astronomy and applied mathematics. What’s more, STEAM isn’t the only offshoot of the original STEM movement. There are also nearly a dozen additional acronyms competing for parents’ and teachers’ attention, including:
• ESTEM (STEM with an environmental focus).
• STEMIE (STEM, plus invention and entrepreneurship).
• STEMLE (STEM, plus law and economics).
• METALS (STEAM, plus logic).
• STREM (STEM, plus robotics).
• STREAM (STEAM, plus reading).
• GEMS (Girls in engineering, math and science).
• STEMM (STEM, plus medicine or manufacturing).
• MINT (math, informatics, natural sciences and technology).
Future Nodes Of Development In STEM
While not every one of these scions will be useful for every educator, there are two submovements that I believe have the potential to grow into important branches of STEM education as a whole.
Parents often encourage STEM education for their children, so it’s no surprise that they are driving the ever-expanding market for STEM toys and games. But they also want their children to have time away from addictive screens. Enter STEM Without Screens, a movement that toy expert Chris Byrne forecasts a growing trend of “games, activities, puzzles and much more that will incorporate STEM- or STEAM-based curricula in the context of a fun play experience.” These new offerings foster scientific thinking with real-world game boards, puzzle pieces and other physical and tactile benefits that offer true hands-on learning.
For example, Gridopolis is a 3-D construction game that allows players to build their own boards. Designer Dave Schultze is a proponent of STEM Without Screens who cites a “hunger for interaction” as a driving force behind his work for children. Gridopolis fosters creative and strategic thinking without the distractions of being online. Botley is another screen-free option for children ages 5 and up. The award-winning toy includes a remote coding module, cards and detachable arms to create a world for a robot to navigate. For children, ages 10 and older, Bildits is a unique STEM construction toy from Lebanon that I predict will be a big hit when it becomes more widely available.
STEM In Libraries
Azedah Jamalian, founder of The GIANT Room, has studied the ways libraries can actively support STEM learning. In a collaborative research study with the School Library Journal and littleBits, Jamalian found that 61% of middle school libraries now incorporate maker spaces that have transformed information centers into innovation hubs.
According to Jamalian, the best programs combining STEM learning and libraries provide three things: access, innovation and community. Librarians hold a key position in a school to solve equity problems when it comes to access to technology and information, and they are at the center of the one space in the school that every student and teacher can use. This makes the library a natural place to build areas where students not only find information, but then also use that information to solve problems together.
While the various dimensions of the STEM movement can feel complicated, they also demonstrate how the basics of science, technology, engineering and math are integrally connected to a whole range of other subjects. That’s not surprising, considering that STEM is the underpinning by which we can understand the world around us and respond intelligently to problems in the future. It’s therefore inevitable that STEM will continue to inspire new developments in education.
This article was originally featured in Forbes Community Voice™ on November 5th, 2019 and updated for Medium on February 29th, 2020.