Ejiwale, J. (2013). Barriers to successful implementation of STEM education.
Journal of Education and Learning. Vol.7 (2) pp. 63-74.
Barriers to Successful Implementation of STEM Education
James A. Ejiwale
Jackson State University
The implementation of STEM education in schools across the globe is to prepare the future workforce with strong
scientific and mathematical backgrounds to enhance skills development across STEM disciplines. However, for
STEM education to achieve its goals and objectives, addressing the barriers to STEM education should start by
fixing the problems at the elementary, junior and senior high school levels; the grassroots and potential feeders to
colleges and universities. Since many nations including the United States of America is in dire need of the
workforce with adequate preparation in science and mathematics to help address the nation’s economy that is in
shambles, the barriers to its successful implementation should be identified and addressed. In this paper, (a) the
definition of STEM education and (b) some barriers to successful implementation of STEM education are discussed
Keywords: STEM education, meta-discipline, discipline-specific
*James A. Ejiwale, Associate Professor, Jackson State University, College of Science, Engineering, &
Technology, Department of Technology, Jackson, MS 39217
64 Barriers To Successful Implementation of STEM Education
The essence of STEM education is to prepare the 21st century workforce with STEM education
and its related activities so that students can take what they learn in the classroom/ laboratory and apply
it to their future jobs in the real world. Educators, industry and the business community should work as
a team to develop curricula that will enhance this expectation. More important, in addition to curricula
development, this collaboration between schools and professionals in the industry should include
internships, mentoring, the delivery of hands-on activities in the classroom to introduce the students to
careers across STEM fields and fundamental skills.
What is STEM Education?
STEM education is a “meta-discipline” and this means the “creation of a discipline based on
the integration of other disciplinary knowledge into a new ‘whole’ rather than in bits and pieces. It is an
interdisciplinary approach (Morrison, 2008; Tsupros 2008) to learning by integrating the four
disciplines into one cohesive teaching and learning paradigm. This integration that is aimed at the
removal of the traditional barriers erected between the four disciplines is now branded as STEM
(Morrison, 2008). According to Tsupros (2008), “STEM education is an interdisciplinary approach to
learning where rigorous academic concepts are coupled with real-world lessons as students apply
science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in contexts that make connections between school,
community, work, and the global enterprise enabling the development of STEM literacy and with it the
ability to compete in the new economy (Tsupros, 2009).”
According to Brown, Brown, Reardon & Merrill (2011), STEM education has been defined as
"a standards-based, meta-discipline residing at the school level where all teachers, especially science,
technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) teachers, teach an integrated approach to teaching
and learning, where discipline-specific content is not divided, but addressed and treated as one lively,
Barriers to successful implementation of STEM education
There is growing concern that the United States is not preparing a sufficient number of
students, teachers, and professionals in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics
(STEM). Although the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results show
improvement in U.S. pupils’ knowledge of math and science, the large majority of students still fail to
reach adequate levels of proficiency. Implementation of STEM education to prepare the 21
workforce will contribute to the improvement of the crumbled economic situations if well harnessed.
For STEM education initiative to be adopted by any society must be understood to avoid the risk of
compounding its societal problems. In addition, STEM educator should assume the new role of a
facilitator in the classroom or laboratory. As such, it is necessary to address and reduce the barriers to
successful implementation of STEM education. The following are some of the identified barriers to
STEM education that are attributable to the lost of interest in STEM disciplines by students who would
have become future scientists, engineers, and technologists: Poor preparation and shortage in supply of
qualified STEM teachers, lack of investment in teachers professional development, and lack of research
collaboration across STEM fields.
1. Poor preparation and shortage in supply of qualified STEM teachers
The quality of teacher preparation is crucial to helping students reach higher academic
standards. Unfortunately, many classrooms today are filled with under-prepared individuals because
they have received poor quality training or none at all. Many scholars have conducted research over the
past two decades with regard to the relationship between poor preparation of teachers in mathematics
and science and student achievement (Rule & Hallagan, 2006; Hibpshman, 2007). This work resulted
from two events, shortage of literature to identify reliable predictors of student achievement based on
global measures of teacher qualifications (Hill, Bowan & Ball, 2005) and about the components of
knowledge necessary for teachers to perform successfully (Shulman, 1986). However, it became known
to researchers that what was known about teacher competencies was insufficient to explain student
achievement (Hibpshman, 2007). This finding have led various organizations, such as the National
Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), the National Research Council (NRC), the National
Science Teachers’ Association, and the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences (CBMS) to
publish guidelines to guide the preparation of programs and certification of both elementary teachers
and secondary STEM teachers.
The 2007 Academic Competitiveness Council (ACC) report indicate that “postsecondary
degrees in math and physical science have steadily decreased in recent decades as a proportion of all
Ejiwale, J. (2013). Journal of Education and Learning. Vol.7 (2) pp. 63-74. 65
STEM degrees awarded. Although degrees in some STEM fields (particularly biology and computer
science) have increased in recent decades, the overall proportion of STEM degrees awarded in the
United States has historically remained at about 17% of all postsecondary degrees awarded.” In the
study conducted by Seymour & Hewitt (1997), 74% of students successfully graduating from their
STEM programs identify poor instruction as a major obstacle. According to the Monk (1994)
Longitudinal Survey of American Youth found that how much a teacher knows about his subject has a
positive effect on students’ learning. More important, this study found that an increase of one
mathematics course for a teacher with modest mathematical training was associated with a 1.2%
increase in student achievement for high school juniors but that the addition of further courses beyond
five had a diminishing effect. In addition, the author stated that the number of courses in a teacher’s
background had a positive effect on students’ achievement in AP courses but not in remedial courses.
Posamentier & Maeroff (2011) noted that who teaches in STEM programs matters. The
authors asserted that a typical elementary school teacher that has minimal preparation in any STEM
field tends to lack confidence in his/her knowledge of the subject and may bequeath this anxiety to
students. The study conducted by Goldhaber & Brewer (1998) found that earning a subject-specific
degree had a positive effect on student achievement in both mathematics and science. According to the
recent NRC report on teacher preparation concluded that too little information is known about the
preparation of Science teachers, citing a 2003 survey showing that 28 percent of the U.S. public school
teachers who are teaching science in grades 7-12 lack a minor or major in the sciences or science
education (Ingersoll & Perda, 2010, p. 146). In an earlier study by these authors, a 2008 study showed
that 40 percent of mathematics classes in high-poverty secondary schools were taught by out-of-field
teachers, whereas 83 percent of classes are taught by teachers with mathematics or mathematics
education degrees in schools that serve the fewest low-income students (Ingersoll et al, 2008).
According to the 2010 report of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and
Technology (PCAST), the turnover yearly in the STEM teaching force particularly in mathematics and
science disciplines could reach 25,000. In addition, the report indicate that within the first five years of
teaching, more than 40 percent of teachers decide they no longer want to teach due to lack of
professional support. Since teacher turnover takes a long time, those already in classrooms must
undergo a great deal of professional development. In addition, novice teachers should be educated
differently to become specialists in each STEM field so as to synergize the efforts of two or more
subject specialists as team pairs of teachers.
To ensure that potential STEM teacher graduate from college and have a full mastery of their
teaching subjects, the curriculum should be expanded to expose them to the nitty-gritty of subject
content. In addition, the standard in teaching methodology and courses such as sociology, philosophy
and psychology that are relevant to the mastery of education as a program should not be lowered.
According to Hibpshman (2007) & Deines (2011) state's science standards and other STEM disciplines
should be reviewed. The knowledge base for teaching to supply qualified teachers such as science
standards are to be written to be 'more cross-cutting' and involve more 'science reasoning' rather than as
previous stand-alone concepts (Clark et al., 2008; Aleman, 1992). The ambiguity of being controversial
when it comes to standards for STEM disciplines that may lead to focusing on one particular area and
forget there are other areas other than one discipline should be avoided. Board members should give
"serious consideration" to adopting the national standards that would give guidance to school districts
for their science and other STEM discipline curriculum choices. In addition, this process should be
made transparent for getting input on the drafts of the standards. In addition, each participating state
board of education should be allowed to nominate representatives of business and industry to review the
drafts of the science and other STEM disciplines’ standards.
The 2010 PCAST report “Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Science, Technology, Engineering, and
Math (STEM) Education for America’s Future”, indicate that many of the highest paying professions
for recent college graduates are related to STEM fields. More important, most proficient STEM students
in colleges are attracted to careers other than teaching. As a result, other means of attracting and
retaining the best-trained STEM students to the teaching profession should be devised. For
effectiveness, this strategy should be unique and differ from those required to recruit teachers in other
For a pool of teachers that will be dedicated to teaching in STEM fields, being equipped with
deep content knowledge in STEM and strong pedagogical skills for teaching their students are two
essential attributes they should possess to be able to help students achieve deep understandings of
STEM for later utilization in their lives and careers. Unfortunately, not many teachers in STEM
classrooms possess these attributes. Curriculum for STEM teacher preparation should emphasize these
two attributes. In addition, teachers should be motivated to participate in professional development to
help them achieve deep STEM content knowledge and mastery of STEM pedagogy.
66 Barriers To Successful Implementation of STEM Education
2. Lack of investment in teachers professional development
The lack of investment in the professional development of teachers for strong knowledge base
has been attributed to poor student performance. As inspired teaching inspires students, new teachers
need professional internships for clinical training following completion of degree. The National Council
on Teacher Quality reported that all but a quarter of the student-teaching practices program in 134
educational schools earned a “week” or “poor” rating (Sawchuk, 2011). In addition, the report also
contended that too many elementary-level teachers are being prepared for graduation by colleges.
More important is the need for mentoring new educator’s work by expert mentor educator to
make sure they learn to teach effectively. Making the matter worse is that many school districts assign
new teachers into the toughest class with no assistance during their first critical months of teaching.
However, when a school district includes mentoring by an experienced teacher, opportunities to
collaborate with colleagues and get assistance in managing assignments, this will allow them to learn to
According to Hibpshman (2007), ongoing professional development activities in mathematics
and science should be extended to improve the content knowledge and skills of elementary teachers and
mathematics and science teachers at the middle and high school levels. Mervis (2011), asserted that
“anything that dilutes those ingredients—budget cuts, poor teacher preparation and professional
development, a disregard for low-achieving students, to name three factors—will lower the chances of
success.” Herrick (2011) opined that now is the time to make significant investments in science
education, with long-term sustainability as the ultimate goal to ensure that teachers are well-equipped.
Failure to implement this will lead to poor teaching methods and unresourcefulness which have failed to
increase the curiosity and self-guided inquiries on the part of the learners (Nwanekezi et al., 2010).
3. Poor preparation and inspiration of students
The 2011 STEM Report from the Department of Commerce indicate that job opportunities in
science, technology, engineering, and math fields (STEM) are increasing in America. This report state
that STEM workers earn 26% more on average than their non-STEM counterparts and it provided data
to support the need for a highly educated STEM workforce. However, giving the poor preparation and
inspiration of students to pursue STEM programs, how will the employers be able to recruit and hire the
highly skilled employees needed?
According to a new STEM study released by Microsoft and Harris Interactive, most college
students studying for degrees in science, technology, engineering or math make the decision to do so in
high school or before. However, only 20 percent say they feel that their education before college
prepared them “extremely well” for those fields. The survey which also asked both college students
pursing STEM degrees and the parents of K-12 students about attitudes toward STEM education, also
found that male and female students enter the fields for different reasons: females are more likely to
want to make a difference, while males are more likely to say they’ve always enjoyed games, toys or
clubs focused on the hard sciences.
The 2010 PCAST report concluded that too few U.S. students are proficient in STEM and that
too few of those who are proficient pursue STEM fields. For example, of all ninth graders in the United
States in 2001, only about 4 percent are predicted to earn college degrees in STEM fields by 2011. The
loss of potential STEM talent begins well before high school. In both mathematics and science, the 70
percent of eighth graders who lack proficiency face a mounting barrier as they experience increased
difficult in STEM subjects due to lack of a solid foundation in basic skills such as algebra. More
important is the fact that among the minority of students who are proficient in STEM in eighth grade, 60
percent decide during high school that they are not interested in these subjects and only about 40
percent actually enter STEM majors in colleges. According to the report, these two recommendations
will suffice to address these challenges. On the one hand, students must be prepared to have a strong
foundation in STEM no matter what careers they pursue. This preparation should involve building
shared skills and knowledge. On the other hand, students must be inspired so that all are motivated to
learn STEM subjects so that many of them will be excited to enter STEM fields. This will be feasible
through meaningful experiences that speak to students’ particular interests and abilities.
According to Laboy-Rush (2011), “When teachers expose students early to opportunities to
learn math and science in interactive environments that develop communication and collaboration skills,
students are more confident and competent in these subjects. This not only makes higher education
more attainable for students, but also contributes to a well-prepared society.”
4. Lack of connection with individual learners in a wide variety of ways
According to the 2008 CRS Report for Congress titled Science, Technology, Engineering,
Technology and Mathematics (STEM) Education: Background, federal policy, and legislative actions,
Ejiwale, J. (2013). Journal of Education and Learning. Vol.7 (2) pp. 63-74. 67
“When compared to other nations, the achievement of U.S. pupils appears inconsistent with the nation’s
role as a world leader in scientific innovation. For example, among the 40 countries that participated in
the 2003 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the U.S. ranked 28
in math literacy
in science literacy.”
To enhance students’ performance in STEM programs, individual learners should be connected
to a wide variety of ways to improve learning in STEM fields (Darling-Harmond, 1994). Current
research in project-based learning demonstrates that projects can increase student interest in STEM
because they involve students in solving authentic problems, working with others, and building real
solutions (Fortus, Krajcikb, Dershimerb, Marx, & Mamlok-Naamand, 2005). In addition, through an
integrated approach to STEM education focused on real-world, authentic problems, students learn to
reflect on the problem-solving process (Aleman, 1992; Darling-Hammond, 1994; Fajemidagba et al.,
2010). More important, students learn best when encouraged to construct their own knowledge of the
world around them (Satchwell & Loepp, 2002). It is through integrated STEM projects that this type of
learning can occur.
Some approaches to connect individual learners in a wide variety of ways are after-school
programs; STEM contests, design and building; and summer programs.
After-school programs – since many learners participate in out-of-school programs and most
of these programs have no particular connection to STEM, adaptation could be made possible
by providing instructors in these centers with engaging materials with preparation and
guidance on how to use those materials to enrich experiences in STEM.
STEM contests – is an out-of-class STEM contests that can reward creativity and problem
solving. In my college, there is yearly science fair that brings students from junior and high
schools together to show case their projects in this fair so as to introduce them to a community
of like-minded peers. Other example of STEM contests that could be implemented to make
STEM education more meaningful, challenging and interesting to students are the Siemens
Competition in Math, the Intel Science Talent Search and International Science and
Engineering Fair, the FIRST Robotics Competition, and more. To involve the participation of
all students regardless of their social status, poor or affluent students should be equally
encouraged and supported with funding for entry fees, materials, and travel expenses to
participate in those programs as needed. In addition, teachers designated to engage and support
these students should be adequately trained, supplied with materials, and supplemental pay.
Designing and building – which is another form of out-of-class is another program that is
suitable for stimulating student’s interest in STEM program. This is an excellent opportunities
for extended projects based on inquiry, construction, and discovery for learners. For example,
the bridge building contest enables learners to use hands-on, inquiry-based investigations,
designing and building to solve problems. In addition, student’s communication skills are
developed by presenting to other class members. In addition, this is an opportunity for learners
to develop technical, creative, critical thinking skills that are necessary to perform well in
Summer programs – keeps young learners occupied while learning. Funded programs by the
National Science Foundation support summer programs to engage both students and teachers
in STEM activities. This is an in-depth class or research project for student and teacher
participation during the summer with the objective of building the interest of science-oriented
high school students and professional development for the teachers.
5. Lack of support from the school system
The study published by the Education Alliance at Brown University stated that in order for
growth to occur in the school systems, it is necessary that the structures and thinking on how to conduct
the business of education must be altered (Unger et al., 2008). The will be harnessed when the measure
of leadership is demonstrated on how well agencies connected with the goals of the districts and schools
for an engaged learning environment.
It is important to ensure that education leaders are knowledgeable about STEM education so as
to cultivate rich STEM learning experiences and expertise in their schools. The present economic
situation that has necessitated cutting funds needed to support educational activities makes it very easy
for the school system to truncate the need for STEM program. Due to this predicament, funds may not
be available to secure teachers who know how to teach science and mathematics effectively, and who
know and love their subject well enough to inspire their students. In a situation like this, the service of
qualified volunteers could be sought among the retirees so that learners will not be at disadvantage. On
the other hand, according to the 2011 National Survey on STEM Education conducted, over 400 STEM
leaders responded that “The most frequently identified funding sources were grants from private
68 Barriers To Successful Implementation of STEM Education
foundations (31.9%) and district-led initiatives (25.9%).” As such, leaders that do experience fund
shortage could developed STEM alliances that rely on both public and private funding.
6. Lack of research collaboration across STEM fields
Many STEM educators have failed in their efforts to collaborate with other STEM educators that
teach other STEM disciplines. This has resulted poor skill development in giving learners adequate
sense of direction and purpose for effective learning and choice of career in STEM related fields. Since
STEM education is an integration of many disciplines with their differences and similarities, a normal
approach to teaching and learning should be devised through collaboration of the educators involved.
Research collaborations through cluster concept across STEM fields for integrated curriculum will
enhance connectivity and information sharing among the stake holders. Therefore, all efforts should be
made to foster increase in research collaboration activities among educators and partnership with the
industry personnel to bridge across the traditional approach to teaching and learning in the classroom.
Research collaboration and the cluster concept across STEM fields have evolved to synergize
the “diversity” that exists across the STEM fields. Such is the opportunity to have a pool of talented
professionals coming together to share knowledge, to learn from each other, understand how to
integrate other disciplines effectively with theirs, to identify individual’s resourcefulness and devise a
means to tap into the synergistic effort of all participants. This is will make teaching and learning,
professional and skills development among scholars and students to be feasible and effective. In
addition, it affords participants the opportunity to work in harmony, learn how to learn from their
colleagues from other disciplines different from theirs and the industry.
7. Poor Content preparation
If the United States is to remain competitive in a global economy, the participation of American
students in STEM fields must increase. ‘Preparing instructional materials is the process by which a
sketchy working outline is transformed into finished learner directions or guide-sheets, instructional
materials, tests, and instructor directions or guide-sheets” (Rothwell et al., 1992, p. 207). In order to
attract and retain a new generation of learners, engineering and technology curricula need to be
renovated to optimize the skills that are relevant today. More important, all new teaching materials
should provide clear guidelines for all anticipated work-load and classroom activities. STEM educators
and students will benefit from explicit outcomes for courses, assignments, and projects. When specific
and clear outcomes are identified, not only can the instructors focus their instruction on specific
knowledge, but they can also link their knowledge assessment directly to the outcomes.
8. Poor Content delivery and method of assessment
Brunner (1961) postulated that the learner learns through discovery activities varied out by the
child using materials and learner’s mental process. According to Onuja (1987), the method of teaching
determines the amount of knowledge that learners acquires. The STEM educator as a facilitator will not
only be knowledgeable in the subject but should also possess the basic and necessary skills with which
to impact the knowledge of the subjects to the students and learners at all levels of learning (Nwanekezi
et al., 2010). When teaching is not effective, the learners grasp little or nothing and this reflects in the
future choice of career. This implies that STEM educators should endeavor to understand the available
methods and teaching strategies and select from them according to the demand of the lesson at hand
with attention to the diverse nature of the students in the classroom, their learning styles and abilities. It
is suffice to say that in STEM education, ‘one size fit all’ approach to teaching and learning will not
Distinct approaches to teaching methods, content instruction, and curriculum organization come
and go over the years. It is unrealistic to expect that a particular approach will be successful for all
learners. This expectation only leads to disappointment and another swing of the education pendulum.
Instead of an either-or mentality, many experienced teachers know that using the best of a variety of
approaches benefits many learners. Instructional tools must be carefully and intentionally adapted to
accommodate individual learners. Only in this way will all students have an opportunity for success
More important, when students are engaged in STEM education, they should be made to
understand how STEM are interrelated in the application of different STEM disciplines to solve
problems, how the their activities are based on analysis and interpretation of evidence or prototype
building. STEM education is a standard-based interdisciplinary discipline. As such, the method of
assessing learning outcome should not only be based on cognitive domain. It should include affective
and psychomotor domains. With this practice, learner’s basic skills would be developed and their
interest in STEM subjects would be built (Nwanekezi et al., 2010).
Ejiwale, J. (2013). Journal of Education and Learning. Vol.7 (2) pp. 63-74. 69
9. Poor Condition of laboratory facilities and instructional media
According to the article published in Education Week regarding classroom management by
Krueger & Whitmore (2001), the result of the five years research done by University of Wisconsin
asserted that classroom is the most important area within the school where student spent most of their
time and that overcrowding in classroom can make facilitation of students’ activities less-effective. The
study affirms that reduction of class size can result in higher achievement for children living in poverty.
Therefore, the environment of the classroom/laboratory should be made conducive to learning.
As indicated by many reports, STEM education should help prepare many scientists, engineers,
and technologists for the future, inadequate facilities and lack of trained and committed teachers will
continue to weaken STEM education implementation at all learning levels, primary, secondary schools
and tertiary institutions. Unfortunately, most schools facilities used for learning today were constructed
before World War II and 40% were not built for STEM education rather for industrial arts (the National
School Boards Association, 1996). Many schools are not equipped with the needed facility structure,
tools and equipment and required instructional media. The government vis-à-vis school authorities
should employ adequate STEM educators for teaching and learning STEM. When teaching materials
are insufficient, teachers should learn to improvise (Nwanekezi et al., 2010). If changes are
implemented as needed in our schools, this will enhance teachers’ ability to facilitate learning activities
to students, improve academic achievement and increase in state and national test scores (Ejiwale,
2012). The question here is, do these teachers refuse to improvise instructional materials or they do not
know how to improvise?
10. Lack of hands-on training for students
Another feasible approach to implement STEM education successfully is to provide hands-on
training for the young engineers needed by the industries of tomorrow. This is an opportunity for
engineering students to take practical action for the future. Through this approach, students are going to
understand what STEM area careers are by employing the machines used in the laboratories that are just
similar to the ones they would use on the job. More important, student will use technology in the way
one might if you are working in a STEM profession. In addition, a good internship and cooperative
education will be beneficial. This reformation will make learning student-centered, sustenance of the
role of STEM educators “from providing information to providing structure, support, and connections to
the resources” (Glasgow, 1997, p. 123) will be the way to go.
For example, cooperative learning is successful not just because it is an alternative to lecture
but because it allows some students the opportunity to process externally, to work with their peers, and
to share responsibility for a task. Integrated curriculum is successful because it offers opportunities for
connections that are made naturally in some students' minds and for the chance to study a topic in depth,
which is appreciated by other students. Indeed, educational innovations that have "worked" can trace a
relationship to some students' preferred learning patterns.
For STEM education to achieve its goals and objectives, addressing the barriers to STEM
education should start by fixing the problems at the elementary, junior and senior high school levels.
These are the grassroots and potential feeders to colleges and universities. Education has a bigger role to
play for student’s success in STEM education. There is need for in-service and outreach courses to help
the efficiency and the performance of both in-service and veteran teachers in the classrooms.
Professional development should be encouraged and continue to train teachers in effective classroom
management so as to update their knowledge in the modern trend of teaching STEM education and to
apply all they have learnt for effective teaching of students.
According to Mervis (2011), a successful science and math school is a successful school first,
with skilled, knowledgeable teachers who address the needs of all students in a supportive, resource-
rich environment. An inspired teaching inspires students. The success of facilitating student’s activities
depends on how well STEM educators have prepared for the challenges they will face when engaged in
classroom/laboratory instruction. Students should be actively engaged in participatory activities in
STEM programs. This reflects the shift in paradigm of the role of STEM educators, the form instruction
should take and how it is delivered. The STEM educator should make sure that students are engaged in
motivational activities that integrate the curriculum to promote "hands on" and other related experiences
that would be needed to help solve problems as they relate to their environment. This could be more
effective by allowing students to put into practice the actual roles played by people in the society like
engineers, operators, supervisors to mention but few.
70 Barriers To Successful Implementation of STEM Education
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