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What is STEM education and why is it important?



This article looks at many aspects of STEM education, both in k-12 education as well as the post-secondary arena. The article provides a historical perspective regarding the roots of STEM and then follows up with the contemporary aspects of STEM education. The “T & E” of STEM education are also explored. The article culminates with the roles teaches play in STEM education.
White Florida Association of Teacher Educators Journal 2014
Florida Association of Teacher Educators Journal Volume 1 Number 14 2014 1-9.
What Is STEM Education and Why Is It Important?
David W. White
Florida A&M University, Tallahassee, Florida
This article looks at many aspects of STEM education, both in k-12 education as well as the post-
secondary arena. The article provides a historical perspective regarding the roots of STEM and
then follows up with the contemporary aspects of STEM education. The “T & E” of STEM
education are also explored. The article culminates with the roles teaches play in STEM
What is this term they call STEM education? Most people are in the dark and moreover,
most educators and students are as well. When one hears the acronym “STEM” within an
educational setting, they may think along the lines of stem cell research or something dealing
with flowers (Angier, 2010). However, STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and
On January 25, 2011, the first sitting President of the United States spoke the words
“Science, Technology, Engineering and Math” in his State of the Union Address The President
Let's also remember that after parents, the biggest impact on a child's
success comes from the man or woman at the front of the classroom. In
South Korea, teachers are known as "nation builders." Here in America,
it's time we treated the people who educate our children with the same
level of respect. (Applause.) We want to reward good teachers and stop
making excuses for bad ones. (Applause.) And over the next 10 years,
with so many baby boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to
prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and
engineering and math (, 2011).
This was a milestone for STEM Education, but it is not a new concept derived by the
White House. STEM Education (in one form or another) has been around for decades; however,
legislators and educational administrators are now recognizing its importance. This research will
attempt to provide a clear definition of STEM through a historical narrative as well as
contemporary aspects in which STEM is being implemented.
The initial knee-jerk reaction of people who have heard of STEM (in an educational
setting) but don’t know the history and contemporary implementation of STEM education is that
STEM has something to do with science and/or computers. While science and computers are a
part of STEM, they are educational mechanisms and concepts that are used by STEM
stakeholders to implement and/or produce a STEM outcome.
Historical Aspects
STEM Education was originally called Science, Mathematics, Engineering and
Technology (SMET) (Sanders, 2009), and was an initiative created by the National Science
Foundation (NSF). This educational initiative was to provide all students with critical thinking
skills that would make them creative problem solvers and ultimately more marketable in the
workforce. It is perceived that any student who participates in STEM Education, particularly in
the K-12 setting would have an advantage if they chose not to pursue a post-secondary education
or would have an even greater advantage if they did attend college, particularly in a STEM field
(Butz et al., 2004).
Although the use of STEM concepts (historically) were being implemented in many
aspects of the business world; i.e., the Industrial Revolution, Thomas Edison and other inventors,
it was not being utilized in traditional educational settings. The use of STEM was primarily used
in engineering firms to produce revolutionary technologies such as the light bulb, automobiles,
tools and machines, etc. Many of the people responsible for these innovations were only slightly
educated and/or were in some type of apprenticeship. For example, Thomas Edison did not
attend college (Beals, 2012), nor did Henry Ford; although Ford did work for Thomas Edison for
a number of years. These “giants” of innovation used STEM principles to produce some of the
most prolific technologies in history: however, STEM in education was virtually non-existent
(Butz et al., 2004).
STEM Education was the result of several historical events. Most notable was the Morrill
Act of 1862. This Act was responsible for the development of land grant universities that, in the
beginning, focused mostly on agricultural training, but soon engineering based training programs
formed (Butz et al., 2004). For example, The Ohio State University was established in 1870, but
was originally named the Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College (Background of Ohio State,
2012). As more and more land grant institutions were being established, more and more STEM
Education training was ultimately being taught and eventually assimilated into the workforce.
Other historical events pushed STEM Education to grow and flourish. Two such events were
World War II, and the launch of the, then, Soviet Union’s Sputnik.
World War II
The technologies invented and implemented during WWII are almost immeasurable.
From the Atomic Bomb (and other types of weaponry) to synthetic rubber to numerous types of
transportation vehicles (both land and water), it was clear that American innovation was
flourishing. Scientists, mathematicians, and engineers (many from academia) worked hand-in-
hand with the military to produce innovative products that helped win the war and to further
STEM Education (Judy, 2011).
It must also be noted that the NSF was formed at the end of the WWII in an effort to not
only recognize the immense contribution of the talented men and women who created prolific
commodities, but to preserve the research and documentation of those commodities (Mervis,
In 1957, the (then) Soviet Union attempted and was successful in launching Sputnik 1.
This was a satellite that was the size of a beach ball and orbited the earth in about an hour and a
half. This was a technological milestone that started the “Space Race” between the United States
and the Soviet Union.
The significance of this event propelled the United States to look at initiating and
furthering technological advances in terms of space travel and exploration. “The Sputnik launch
changed everything. As a technical achievement, Sputnik caught the world's attention and the
American public off-guard” (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2008, p.1).
Sputnik became a national defense issue and in 1958, Congress passed the “Space Act” that
formed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA’s mission was to
“expand and improve” the United States space presence and to use science and engineering in
the most effective ways to complete that mission (Dick, 2008).
Since the birth of NASA, the space industry obviously has thrived and produced several
technological triumphs including putting a man on the moon; however, NASA has been
responsible for many STEM Education initiatives. Funding through NASA grants has been
responsible for bringing STEM Education initiatives to both pre and post secondary education
for the past five decades.
During summer 2010, more than 150 events, led by NASA Centers and 130
participating partners from across the Nation, engaged over 150,000 students in
NASA experiences. Of these, nearly 22,000 students received at least 40 hours of
STEM engagement and instruction (NASA 2012, p.12).
Sputnik’s effect on the United State’s demonstrative affect of the promotion of STEM
Educational endeavors (most notably NASA), in addition to STEM industry advancements is
Kelly (2012) states:
Americans were shocked when the Russians put the Sputnik satellite into space in
1957 and grabbed a lead in global technology. We responded with a massive push
to upgrade math and science education. The problem now is no less urgent. While
our interest has diminished, the rest of the world's has grown (p.1).
Although Kelly’s (2012) assertions may be true, the government and industry leaders are taking
steps to produce more STEM educators at all levels through scholarships and grants.
Contemporary Aspects of STEM Education
Although history has played and continues to play a part in STEM Education, there are
many variations and opinions of what STEM Education is and how it should be taught. This
section will attempt to wade through the complexities of STEM in education fields and how they
are imparted to students and other stakeholders.
STEM Fields Defined
The four strands of STEM; Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, have
been staple forms of all students’ academic careers; particularly science and mathematics. They
are defined as:
Science: the systematic study of the nature and behavior of the material and
physical universe, based on observation, experiment, and measurement, and the
formulation of laws to describe these facts in general terms (Science, 2012).
Technology: the branch of knowledge that deals with the creation and use of
technical means and their interrelation with life, society, and the environment,
drawing upon such subjects as industrial arts, engineering, applied science, and
pure science (Technology, 2012).
Engineering: the art or science of making practical application of the knowledge
of pure sciences, as physics or chemistry, as in the construction of engines,
bridges, buildings, mines, ships, and chemical plants (Engineering, 2012).
Mathematics: a group of related sciences, including algebra, geometry, and
calculus, concerned with the study of number, quantity, shape, and space and their
interrelationships by using a specialized notation (Mathematics, 2012).
Although these definitions are the well known usual and/or established descriptive terms
for STEM fields, there is obviously more to them. Science and Mathematics are at the forefront
of STEM Education mainly because these are the most recognizable fields that most people can
relate to in terms of academia. Technology and Engineering are the fields that are not only the
most underrepresented, but also the most underfunded in education, specifically in the k-12 arena
(Miaoulis, 2011). The question is how do those in education interpret and integrate into their
What about the “T and E” of STEM Education?
The “T and E” of STEM Education appears to be a stumbling block to producing a
meaningful STEM experience to k-12 education students. There are several possible reasons for
this and are as follows:
1) As mentioned Science and Mathematics are the most recognizable fields in STEM
Education and most educators in these areas feel comfortable teaching them.
2) Many educators that are not in the fields Engineering and/or Technology are
intimidated with processes that are associated with them.
3) Although Engineering is a recognizable word that most educators can somewhat
relate, many who are not in the field(s) are not sure what engineers actually do
in terms of education.
4) Many consider Technology as just a computer related field.
5) Many educators are comfortable in their fields and create “educational silos”
Technology and Education Defined
Technology Education has a long and rich history not only nationally, but globally as
well. As society evolved from the Agrarian Age, to the Industrial Revolution and now the
Information Age, through several paradigm shifts, Technology Education has grown and
expanded and is now in the midst of yet another paradigm shift. The current shift is aligning
science, engineering and mathematics with Technology Education in what is called the
integrative STEM initiative (Sanders, 2009). An extra emphasis on engineering specifically is
also being called for by many technology educators. Furthermore, the trend indicates that several
institutions of higher learning are changing the names of their programs to Engineering and
Technology Education.
In most dictionaries, technology is defined as “applications of tools and methods” or
something similar. To the general public, and especially in education, the term technology is
spelled “c-o-m-p-u-t-e-r-s,” equating “technology” to one technological tool. A computer is a
tool, but provides a very narrow view of the scope of technology as a whole. Computers are
definitely one form or type of technology, but technology is much, much more than computers
alone. Technology encompasses several different constructs that have been categorized by
several state and national programs, organizations and standards. They include: Bio and Medical
Technologies, Construction, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies, Electronics, Energy
and Power, Information Technologies and Transportation. Within these constructs are a plethora
of sub-technologies. For example, Energy and Power technologies can include sub-technologies
from automobile engines to green energy sources such as solar and wind energy.
Technology and Engineering Education Defined
The Technology for All Americans Project (ITEEA, 2011) that is sanctioned by the
International Technology and Engineering Education Association (ITEEA) which sets standards
for the study of technology and engineering, defines technology as “how humans modify the
world around them to meet their needs and wants or to solve practical problems.” Thus,
Technology and Engineering Education is problem-based learning by students utilizing math,
science, engineering and technology principles. These studies involve:
Designing, developing, and utilizing technological systems
Open-ended, problem-based design activities
Cognitive, manipulative, and effective learning strategies
Applying technological knowledge and processes to real world experiences using up-to-
date resources
Working individually as well as in a team to solve problems (ITEEA, 2011)
The Difference Between Technology Education and Educational Technology
As stated, Technology Education is problem-based learning by students utilizing math,
science, engineering, and technology principles. Educational Technology (also referred to as
Instructional Technology) is the use of technology to educate students. Seels and Richey (1994),
state: “Instructional Technology is the theory and practice of design, development, utilization,
management and evaluation of processes and resources for learning.” (p. 6) Thus, Educational
Technology uses technology (mainly computer-based) in pedagogical methods of instruction and
assessment. This can include the use of PowerPoint, Blackboard, digital assessment programs,
Web searches, DVDs and videos in addition other instructional multimedia.
Technology Education teachers may use educational technology to deliver lessons and
for assessment; however, the confusion between the two disciplines is clearly a problem for most
educators. The ITEEA and other leaders in Technology and Engineering Education recently
made a name change from “Technology Education” to “Technology and Engineering Education”
in an attempt to alleviate the confusion and have a solid identity within the educational
Overarching Goals of Technology and Engineering Education in Pre and
Post-Secondary Schools
The overarching goal for Technology and Engineering Education is to make all citizens
technologically literate (ITEEA, 2011). This can be accomplished through technology and
engineering education alone, but also by integrating math and science principles into
technology/engineering education programs. This is being done not only in the State level, but
nationally as well (Brown, Brown, Reardon, & Merrill, 2011).
The overarching goals of Technology and Engineering Education in k-12 education
The overarching goals of Technology and Engineering Education in post-secondary
schools are to produce certified Technology and Engineering Education teachers that are
equipped with the knowledge, skills and dispositions to be effective educators and leaders.
What is a STEM Educator?
STEM can have different meaning to different people. STEM in higher education is
somewhat straightforward. A student enrolled in a STEM related program, other than teacher
education, is in a stand-alone STEM field. For example, if a student is majoring molecular
biology, they will enter the STEM workforce as a scientist. They may or may not be exposed to
technology, engineering or mathematics that specifically pertains to their field, but chances are
they will be exposed in some way shape or form. Therefore, integration in terms of STEM may
or may not occur; however, it must be noted they are within a STEM field.
This is not the case with teacher education. Consider a High School Science Teacher that
just teaches science, but does not integrate technology, engineering or math into their curriculum
or that do not collaborate with other STEM faculty. Although this teacher is in a STEM field the
fact that they do not integrate or collaborate makes them just a science teacher, not a STEM
educator. This is true with all teachers with the STEM field who teach k-12 education.
The consensus of the literature indicates that integrative and/or collaborative STEM
education is a viable endeavor that will introduce k-12 students to STEM concepts (Barakos,
Lujan, & Strang, 2012; Brown, Brown, Reardon, & Merrill, 2011). These concepts may lead to
the student perusing a STEM major in higher education and ultimately chose a STEM career
within the workforce. Barkos et al. (2012), stated:
Perhaps for the first time since the launch of Sputnik, educators broadly agree on
the value of STEM education for ensuring America’s edge in the global economy.
Yet teachers, administrators, and policy-makers find themselves confused about
what it means to successfully implement STEM programs and initiatives (p.2).
It appears the there is a great need for all stakeholders to come to an agreement of what STEM
education is and how the dissemination regarding education might be standardized?
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Author Note
David W. White, Ph.D. is a Technology Education Program Coordinator at Florida A&M
University, Tallahassee, Florida.
Copyright (2014), David W. White and Florida Association of Teacher Educators
Article Citation
White, D. W. (2014). What is STEM education and why is it important? Florida Association of
Teacher Educators Journal, 1(14), 1-8. Retrieved from
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Resumen La educación "STEM" (acrónimo de Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) es la integración de las ciencias con un enfoque de enseñanza basado en la interdisciplinariedad de la tecnología, ingeniería y matemáticas. En los últimos años esta educación ha tenido creciente interés en el proceso de asimilación de conocimientos para eliminar barreras tradicionales, y así enfocarse en la innovación de procesos aplicados de diseño de soluciones. La instrucción en el área de robótica implica el desarrollo de proyectos de interés del alumnado que integran conocimientos teóricos que pueden resultar complicados de entender. En este trabajo se desarrolla un brazo robótico controlado mediante una interfaz gráfica en LabVIEW como apoyo en la enseñanza basado en el modelo STEM y que también puede ser usado para la difusión de la ciencia, logrando que el alumno comprenda conceptos como la cinemática (por mencionar alguno) y tenga las bases para desarrollar un proyecto mecatrónico integral.
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This chapter aimes to provide theoretical and practical knowledge on how humor-based STEM education can be implemented.
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Nesta pesquisa, buscamos compreender as percepções, motivações e vivências sobre a construção de um senso de pertencimento e de identidade científica de jovens mulheres em projetos orientados por equidade de gênero na educação em ciências, tecnologias, engenharias e matemática (STEM), desenvolvidos em escolas públicas do estado do Rio de Janeiro, a partir do aporte teórico dos estudos feministas da ciência e interseccionalidade, da literatura sobre equidade e inclusão na divulgação científica, e da educação em STEM. Para tal, mapeamos os projetos contemplados nas chamadas públicas “MCTI/CNPq/SPM-PR/Petrobras nº 18/2013 Meninas e Jovens Fazendo Ciências Exatas, Engenharias e Computação” e “CNPq/MCTIC nº 31/2018 Meninas nas Ciências Exatas, Engenharias e Computação” e selecionamos quatro projetos no estado do Rio de Janeiro: “Tem Menina no Circuito”, “Meninas Olímpicas do IMPA”, “Estudo da composição mineral de cabelo relacionada com o uso de tratamentos químicos estéticos” e “Meninas nas ciências exatas da Baixada Fluminense”. Por meio de abordagem qualitativa e análise de conteúdo, realizamos entrevistas com cinco coordenadoras, aplicamos 73 questionários, realizamos 20 entrevistas com as jovens e quatro grupos focais com 25 jovens envolvidas. Categorizamos a vivência das jovens em sua dimensão individual –no que se refere às motivações, aos interesses, à identidade científica e à perspectiva de carreira futura; dimensão familiar – incentivo, reconhecimento, crenças e expectativas de familiares; dimensão escolar – reconhecimento da comunidade escolar, melhora no desempenho e intervenção nos espaços escolares; dimensão do projeto – representatividade de gênero, raça, classe e território, desenvolvimento de autoestima e autoconfiança, formação de senso de pertencimento, e metodologias de ensino aprendizagem ativas; e dimensão social – trabalho doméstico no cotidiano das jovens, e vivências de discriminação de gênero, raça, classe e território. Identificamos a capilaridade dos projetos no país e o aumento da liderança feminina a partir de 2018. Apontamos para a dimensão social, formativa e pessoal na narrativa das coordenadoras sobre a importância dos projetos, na atuação em áreas de vulnerabilidade social, na formação de futuras docentes, e na relação universidade-escola, e para a incorporação de uma perspectiva feminista interseccional nas políticas de equidade de gênero na educação e divulgação científica. Sobre o estereótipo de cientistas, houve uma compreensão em parte estereotipada do/a cientista – como inteligente, criativo/a e racional –, porém surgiram elementos pouco mobilizados no imaginário social, como colaboração, sociabilidade e paixão. Argumentamos que os projetos se tornam “contra-espaços” nos quais mulheres que estão à margem encontram espaços de resistência e de possibilidades, a partir da posição única que ocupam e, ao se sentirem incluídas e pertencentes, possam reivindicar sua presença legítima a partir de uma posição interseccional.
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In many ways, the push for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education appears to have grown from a concern for the low number of future professionals to fill STEM jobs and careers and economic and educational competitiveness. The proponents of STEM education believe that by increasing math and science requirements in schools, along with infusing technology and engineering concepts, students will perform better and be better prepared for advanced education or jobs in STEM fields (often referred to as the STEM pipeline). The lasting result would be that the United States would again rise to the top of international rankings. While the outcome remains to be seen, many in the field of technology education have taken the idea of STEM education and have attempted to either integrate more math and science into their courses or highlight the ways in which those concepts were already being integrated. The believed benefits of doing so are that students experience real-world problems making more connections to STEM fields and the ever-changing workforce, sparking interest in STEM fields. Creating these links earlier in the students' educational careers could potentially result in an increased number of students entering into fields associated with STEM. This article presents the results of a survey that explored the current teacher and administrator perceptions of STEM education. The research concludes that: (1) STEM education is not well understood; (2) there is not a clear vision for STEM education even amongst those who believe it is important; and (3) there is little evidence that STEM education exists in the school in this survey, based on the lack of collaboration that exists. (Contains 3 figures.)
The size and adequacy of the federal workforce for carrying out scientific, technical, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) activities are ongoing concerns in many policy circles. Experts both inside and outside of government have voiced fears that this workforce is aging and may soon face a dwindling labor pool, a problem that could be compounded by skill shortages in key areas and growing numbers of non-U.S. citizens obtaining STEM degrees in the United States. The authors assess the condition of this workforce, based on the best available data, while focusing on three main areas: trends in the U.S. STEM workforce overall that might affect the federal STEM workforce, workforce-shaping activities in the federal STEM workforce, and legislative and programmatic mechanisms for influencing that workforce.
This report describes the results of the evaluation of the Technology for All Americans Project, Phase 1. In addition to providing a brief description of the project being evaluated, this report includes a description of the evaluation methodology, findings, and conclusions.
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