STEM Education’s Lost Decade And Tenor
Contemporary Insights Into A Popular, Global Movement
STEM education, in the often overused figurative sense — is like planting an imaginary tree. We sow seeds in the hopes that children and adults will one day reap the benefits of robust experiential learning opportunities that do not just impart facts, but rather cultivate a way of minds-on, critical thinking and problem-solving skills. But not all trees are grown directly from seed. Instead, we plant a sapling by removing it from a pot, hardening it off and placing it into the ground.
If you’ve ever done this, you’ve seen what a delicate mess a tangled root ball can be. Part of preparing a plant to thrive involves tending to its roots to foster strong growth. For STEM education, I believe it’s incredibly important to further examine its historical roots to understand where we’ve come from — which will help fortify the movement for future generations.
We too broadly talk about the importance of STEM, so it should come as no shock that not everyone has the same definition — or is even convinced that it can be defined at all. There’s also anxiety amongst teachers and parents who feel overwhelmed by such abstract subjectivity, along with the difficulty of the subject matter and often do not know where to begin.
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One reason for this anxiety is the fact that STEM is everywhere, and many forget to use it in context. It’s now accepted as a blanket term to describe verticals other than education or simply the subjects it shares its letters with — for example, STEM careers or STEM toys. So, let’s keep our definition clear and concise, focusing on the word after STEM. In this case, it can be defined as follows:
“STEM education is teaching and learning in science, technology, engineering and math.”
I’ve revised a popular definition to append:
“It includes both pedagogical and andragogical activities across all developmental levels — from pre-school to post-doctorate — in both formal and informal settings, which has grown into an international movement to serve the greater good.”
Of course, those who practice it should be mindful of the existing initiatives and cultural nuances of their communities. In this way, we can define STEM education while tailoring it to meet the needs and expectations of its beneficiaries.
So, when did STEM officially begin to appear in print? Britannica credits the National Science Foundation (NSF) for coining the term in 2001. The group made the switch to STEM in the early 2000s from the less artful and mechanical SMET, which they had been using briefly up until that point to talk about the same subjects.
But that’s not the whole story. An examination of Google’s NGRAM and Google Scholar for specific mentions of “STEM education” in publications reveals its inception beginning in the early 1990s.
Further research shows that in 1996, the publication Hispanic Engineer published an article about a “STEM Institute” designed to introduce rigorous STEM education to high school students through advanced college coursework. The program was developed by Dr. Charles E. Vela, Founder of the Center for the Advancement of Hispanics in Science and Engineering Education (CAHSEE) and sponsored by NASA and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) in 1992–1993.
Of course, an educational revolution of this magnitude doesn’t just appear on the scene without many championing it. According to his early-internet biography page, Morton M. Sternheim founded the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s STEM Education Institute in 1994 which managed the STEM Teacher Education Collaborative (STEMTEC). Meanwhile, bacteriologist Dr. Rita Colwell, who served as the first female director at the National Science Foundation, funded STEM initiatives while using the term in an interagency capacity — along with her colleague Dr. Judith Ramaley. They also had an early ally in Michigan Congressman Vernon Ehlers, who co-founded the STEM Education Caucus in 2005 with former Representative Mark Udall. Ehlers was a passionate supporter of science, who helped launch STEM education into the public consciousness.
What STEM Isn’t
Now that we have a slightly clearer idea of its history and better means to define it in context, it’s time to understand what STEM is not. Despite what some marketing campaigns would have you believe, it’s not a clever toy robot or a slickly packaged coding curriculum. No tech company, venture capital firm or individual — no matter how wealthy, influential or well-intentioned — owns STEM. It can’t be bought or sold.
This is because it is a state of mind and ultimately a social justice issue that transcends society with its potential to benefit everyone everywhere. Any products we consider for use in STEM teaching and learning should serve as aides to a higher order of thinking. Gadgets serve this mindset, but a solid understanding of it doesn’t shape itself around a single purchase.
This is particularly important because there is an attempt to move STEM education toward a narrow set of subjects and into the hands of the few, away from the creative interdisciplinary studies and the altruistic intentions that makes the movement so rich. Inclusivity in STEM requires us not only to focus on underrepresented groups, but we must also focus on lesser-known subjects that do not have the lobbying dollars behind them.
Metaphorically, genuine advocates of this movement should assume the role of the arborist. Once the roots are watered and each developing branch is given proper attention, the tree will continue to flourish for years to come. By ensuring everyone feels like that they can be a part of STEM, this worldwide, educational phenomenon has unlimited potential.
This article was originally featured in Forbes Community Voice™ on July 25th, 2019.