STEM, an acronym first introduced by biologist Judith Ramaley in 2001, stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Viewed together, these subjects represent an important skill set for young generations to be prepared for the future of work.
We’ve seen huge growth of STEM jobs and growing demand for skills related to STEM topics since the early 2000s. Many schools have developed STEM-focused curricula to help students enter the workforce, too. But effective STEM education sets students up for success even before they graduate.
Let’s talk about why we need age-appropriate STEM education in K-12 schools, and how educators can give K-12 learners the STEM education they need to be prepared in today’s world.
The K-12 STEM landscape
Science and math have been key school subjects for decades, whereas technology and engineering have become increasingly relevant since the 1990s.
Far from being “just school subjects,” science, math, engineering, and technology represent key skills and career paths for today’s global economy. Many policymakers, parents, and businesses view STEM literacy as critical for economic success worldwide.
A 2018 study described the three biggest, inclusive goals of successful K-12 STEM programs: to increase the number of STEM professionals, strengthen the STEM-related workforce, and improve the STEM literacy of American citizenry.
But there are barriers to learners pursuing higher degrees in STEM fields. A 2013 survey from the Pew Research Center found that Americans believe students see these subjects as “too hard” and “boring.”
Currently, educators place a higher emphasis on STEM education for older, often high school-aged students. Since interest takes root young, it’s beneficial to introduce STEM concepts earlier. This can help make these subjects more accessible for high school and college students, since they’ve already encountered them in their elementary and middle school education.
Naturally, some STEM topics and concepts are more and less relevant at different grade levels. Administrators and educators must work together to incorporate STEM the right way in their K-12 student classrooms.
Why do we need STEM education in K-12 schools?
You might be wondering, why is STEM so important in 2022? There are many short-term and long-term benefits of K-12 STEM education.
Jobs in STEM fields continue growing faster than non-STEM fields, representing a lot of opportunity for young generations—but also risk of economic and gender gaps for those who don’t get exposure to STEM-related skills early enough.
STEM curricula can help keep kids’ attention.
Thanks to the pandemic, kids have experienced an enormous disruption to their lives and education that lingers—and many schools are still reckoning with pandemic-induced learning loss in 2022.
While educators look for ways to narrow the gap and keep learners engaged, you might look to research that shows STEM activities and projects can help children remain focused and curious for 45 minutes or longer.
STEM education can help students gain competitive skills for the workforce.
STEM subjects support student growth in necessary skills like teamwork, critical thinking, and creativity.
With research showing that high school students enrolled in STEM courses have the opportunity to build strong communication, collaboration, and problem-solving skills that correspond to the demand for them in growing fields like computer science, medical technology, and engineering, it’s no wonder The National Inventors Hall of Fame extols the benefits of STEM education, too.
It can ultimately help the U.S. stay competitive on the world stage.
STEM-focused schools are more likely to have more rigorous science and mathematics programs that support student success—and some research has shown that STEM education can support learning in other subjects, potentially promoting “academic success” across all subjects and age levels.
Early STEM education can help us narrow the gender and race gap in STEM careers and labor earnings.
Though there are now more women holders of college degrees than men in the U.S. workforce, women are still far less likely to graduate with a STEM degree or enter a career in STEM compared to men. Women make up only 28% of the STEM workforce, with some of the largest gender gaps in the fastest-growing and highest-paid fields like computer science and engineering. Women of color are even less likely to get the educational infrastructure they need to pursue STEM careers.
These statistics highlight the importance of early STEM education, as girls in school are equally or more likely than boys to achieve minimum proficiency in math and science before awareness of gender difference kicks in.
Teaching STEM in the K-12 classroom
How do we implement STEM education at the classroom level? The methodologies and strategies used to teach STEM concepts to K-12 children are as diverse as the children themselves.
That said, there are a few best practices for you to take to your school.
- Be enthusiastic, so your students can be, too!
- Give learners a framework like the Engineering Design Process (ask, imagine, plan, create, test, improve), which is used by “NASA’s best.”
- Incorporate topics that kids may already know about, and will likely interact with in the future, like artificial intelligence (AI) and the metaverse.
- Plan practical, hands-on activities that guard against distraction and give kids a rewarding way to show off their hard work.
- Mimic real-life scenarios that enable kids to apply their skills more widely in their lives and future careers (field trips are a great opportunity).
- Consider multidisciplinary approaches that integrate two or more STEM areas at once.
- Support maker-oriented programs like robotics, coding, and Maker Faires.
Get the resources your school needs
There’s no question about it: STEM’s real-world applications can help young learners develop essential critical thinking and problem-solving skills, build confidence, and narrow the gender and race gap in STEM skills that matter in today’s world.