Reflections on STEM education

Definitions of STEM

There is no single, agreed definition.

In higher education institutions, STEM seems to be a convenient way to refer to 4 major academic disciplines – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. The faculties of Social Science and Medicine are usually regarded as distinct from STEM.

From the perspective of government ministries, particularly immigration and labour, STEM refers to professions including scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians but also occupations that necessitate some STEM knowledge and/or skills. These days, that means many types of workers including people in social scientific and medical disciplines.

From the perspective of educators, the definition of STEM that I favour is “An interdisciplinary approach… that removes the traditional barriers separating the four disciplines… and integrates them into real-world, rigorous and relevant learning experiences” (Vasquez, Sneider & Comer, 2013). Integration is the special characteristic that marks out STEM as distinct from traditional subject teaching.

Origin of the term ‘STEM’

The acronym first appeared in 2001 and is associated with the National Science Foundation in the USA where STEM is perceived as a national priority. The reasons for this go back to the 1950s. The USSR’s launch of Sputnik and early lead in the Space Race precipitated heavy investment and promotion of science and engineering by a panicked America. Since that time, there have been successive top-down interventions from government to promote development of this vital economic sector. For example, in 2011 Congress passed the Race to the Top bill. Gradually, use of the term ‘STEM’ has spread around the world and many other national authorities have instigated top-down STEM initiatives or rebranded prior, similar initiatives as ‘STEM’.

Purposes of STEM education

  • Economic
    • To foster interest in STEM careers
    • To cultivate future innovators and inventors, and hence…
    • To remain globally competitive and to be able to participate in international endeavours.
  • Societal
    • To help citizens participate and thrive in a highly technological world
  • Educational
    • To deepen conceptual understanding
    • To develop valuable transferable skills

STEM educational approaches

Papert’s Constructionism is worthwhile reading about if you are a STEM educator. Although his approach is consistent with the more well-known Constructivism, Papert shifted the focus from internal construction to external creation. LEGO’s Mindstorms robotic products are a good example of the application of Papert’s ideas about learning. In fact, Mindstorms is named after one of his seminal texts. A word that sums up his approach is BRICOLAGE, translated as tinkering, i.e. playing about and making changes until one gets it right. There is even a newly-appointed Professor of Play at Cambridge University, as evidenced by this job advertisement:

LEGO job

International comparisons of STEM – Attitudes and relative success

The table below shows % of respondents who agreed with positive statements.


Australian Council of Learned Academies  [STEM Education in the USA]

Positivity towards science and technology appears to vary considerably. For example, Indians seem to be less optimistic than South Koreans. (Please bear in mind that these are not results from a single survey but collated results from several surveys conducted between 2001 and 2010.)

With reference to two example developed economies – Japan and the UK – the output of STEM-related research differs considerably.


Australian Council of Learned Academies  [STEM Country Comparisons: Japan]

The above table shows that Japan’s researchers produced almost 70,000 papers in one year. The figure for the UK was even higher at 75,914. The latter was achieved with just 200,000 research staff in the UK compared with 650,000 in Japan. Moreover, the citation impact of British research articles was greater. So, it might appear that the UK was more successful. However, Japan’s efforts were much more fruitful in terms of turning research findings into patent applications and eventually into viable products. To me, this shows the complexity of the challenge of promoting a national STEM sector. There are more variables than just getting young people interested in STEM careers and providing quality STEM training opportunities.

Technologies for STEM projects

Currently trending technologies include 3D printing, robots, drones and inexpensive computers like the Raspberry Pi. In future, may we expect to see VR, virtual labs, and the Internet of Things coming to the fore?

However, STEM projects can be achieved with much less expensive resources if the following definition of technologies is accepted:

“Any modification of the natural world made to fulfil human needs or desires” [US] National Research Council

For instance, a freely downloadable STEM lesson from Young Engineers ( requires only cardboard, paperclips, corks, fabric and toilet rolls.


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