In “Charting a Course for Success: America’s Strategy for STEM Education,” the Executive Office of the President of the United States states that “the pace of innovation is accelerating globally, and with it the competition for scientific technical talent.” The report lays out a strategic five-year plan to improve STEM education in the United States.
PenPal Schools connects students from 150 different countries, so we know that the emphasis on STEM is not only happening in American schools. Teachers around the world have been inundated with STEM projects, curriculum, and resources. STEM education and innovation is no longer limited to the borders of a nation. Technology allows us to connect and collaborate globally, so it’s critical that STEM education prepares students to be competitive in the global STEM workforce. Thanks to the internet, schools across the country and around the world have more access to STEM curriculum and resources than ever before.
What is STEM?
Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) have often been at the core of educational curriculum. A strong STEM education helps prepare students for careers in a variety of industries, from healthcare to construction. Designers, scientists, doctors, and programmers are all careers that require STEM skills.
STEM and innovation go hand-in-hand, so it’s no wonder why the U.S. government (and other nations around the world) are pushing schools to improve STEM education. Better STEM programs means a more innovative and technologically advanced workforce.
STEM education has been shifting in recent years to focus on more rigorous skill application. According to the U.S. government’s recent report: “The character of STEM education itself has been evolving from a set of overlapping disciplines into a more integrated and interdisciplinary approach to learning and skill development. This new approach includes the teaching of academic concepts through real-world applications and combines formal and informal learning in schools, the community, and the workplace.”
STEM education is broadening to include softer skills like teamwork and communication, as well as more student-centered learning through real-world experiences. Project-based learning is one way that teachers around the world are improving their STEM curriculum.
Benefits of STEM Education
The first benefit of STEM education is obvious: STEM programs help prepare students for some of the most in-demand careers. Travis Feldler, founder of TechRow Fund, agrees. “The current job market forecasts tremendous workforce needs around STEM fields. Implementing STEM programs in schools are critical to exposing students to the job opportunities of tomorrow, while at the same time keeping in alignment with current and future workforce trends.”
STEM education can improve students’ lives in other ways, too. The U.S. government explained that “Individual success in the 21st century economy is also increasingly dependent on STEM literacy; simply to function as an informed consumer and citizen in a world of increasingly sophisticated technology requires the ability to use digital devices and STEM skills such as evidence-based reasoning.”
Dr. Kenneth Vaughan, educator and author from Practical Approach Enterprise, explains “Exposing students to STEM related programs allows students to experience problem solving in the real world context. When students experience STEM through coding, programming, and other educational experiments, they begin to discover the magic of learning. As students learn to explore through STEM, they begin to have a more in-depth view of the world and their special role in it. The power of the STEM programs is that it provides students opportunities to learn at their pace and explore their world in a non-traditional manner.”
Dr. Gabriel Burks, a STEM education consultant, further explains the benefit for students: “In many ways, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are at the core of all of society; therefore, having the understanding and confidence in your STEM abilities will unlock students’ ability to keep up with and thrive in a constantly evolving advanced technological society. Just as the number of bachelor degree holders is increasing every year, so are the number of jobs that require higher level STEM degrees and advanced technological understanding. Due to the foundational nature of STEM, many people who have technical backgrounds in STEM are granted greater job flexibility than others which is the lynchpin for the career diversity exhibited by STEM degree holders.”
However, not all students have access to this high-quality STEM programming. Dr. Vaughan points out, “ Quite often because of the pace of the curriculum; students in urban settings/schools have limited access to STEM programs—as the emphasis is placed on remediation and test preparation.” This inequality can prevent certain populations from accessing careers or educational opportunities in STEM, so it’s important for educators to make STEM projects and curriculum accessible for all learners.
What Makes a STEM Program Successful?
There are a lot of ways to add more STEM education into your school. STEM programming related to robotics, computer science, engineering, and mathematics can support existing core courses, or become high-interest speciality courses. STEM programming can also fit into your school’s extra-curricular activities, offering students opportunities during lunch or after school to access more STEM education. Or, you can find ways to fit STEM projects into your class no matter what subject matter you teach. There are a lot of resources available, like PenPal Schools, to help you align STEM projects to your content area.
Dr. Burks offers some practical advice for building a successful STEM program: “Age, available funding, and theme are crucial in maintaining a healthy STEM program. Activities should be age appropriate and preferably vertically integrated where each level allows for greater exploration and depth of STEM understanding for students. Also, a realistic understanding of the funding that your program has available for STEM activities is key. Consistency (no matter how expensive or inexpensive the materials) is the most important part of any STEM program; therefore, choosing STEM materials that you have funding available to provide and maintain long-term is essential. Consider your staff capacity to teach the technology and the potential upkeep fees associated with the technology.”
Another way to make your sure your STEM program is successful is to actually connect your students to the real-world instead of simply simulating the real-world. This is why successful STEM programs are often based on a project-based learning model. Mr. Feldler explains, “From my experience, the most successful STEM programs are co-created with teachers and industry. Often times, these skills can be learned in a vacuum, so coupling the pedagogy with practical real work connectivity is essential to contextualizing the skills that [students] are learning in STEM programs. Incorporating technology as an additional medium to boost engagement could be a powerful combination as well.” Thanks to technology, you easily can connect your students with industries, working professionals, and their peers around the world.
Advice for Teachers
There are some practical ways to start improving your STEM curriculum and pedagogy. Connect your students to the real-world. Not only will your students get the opportunity to apply their skills authentically, but they’ll get great feedback when they see how their ideas play out in real life. Authentic connections are a great way to make STEM relevant for students. “Teachers should always tie their lessons with real world applicability.” Mr. Felder explains, “Because of the way STEM has been packaged to students, conceptualizing the importance of STEM can be difficult. The more connections that could be made to job opportunities and real world application the more interesting and engaging STEM lessons will be for students. Leverage multi-media channels to create experiential learning environments for students.”
Another way for improve your STEM program or curriculum is to see great STEM projects and learning in action. Try to observe classrooms or schools that have top-notch STEM programs. Dr. Burks agrees, “For teachers and educators new to developing a STEM program, perhaps the best thing that you can do is visit and observe an already developed STEM program or partner with a local university to bring STEM resources and expertise to your institution. Providing positive STEM role models for your students is invaluable for developing their confidence and STEM knowledge.”
If you can’t visit a classroom or school in your area, start following stand-out STEM educators on Twitter. We recommend following PenPal Schools Global Ambassadors Hanna Dudich or Shelley Emslie! You can also follow @PenPalSchools to see examples of STEM projects from around the world. Whether you are brand new to STEM or are looking to update and reinvigorate your STEM programs, there is a network of educators around the world on the same mission: to improve STEM education. You have an abundance of resources and tools available to help you!
If you’re ready to start connecting your students to the real-world, PenPal Schools offers several STEM topics that your students can explore with their peers from around the globe.
STEM PBL Examples
Teach SDGs: A Student in Ukraine Speaks Out for the Environment
PBL Example: Students in India Apply Real World Math to Develop STEM Projects
PBL Example: Student from the USA Learns About Financial Literacy and Money Management
Resources & References
Dr. Kenneth Vaughan, Practical Approach to Enterprise
Dr. Gabriel Burks, PhD, STEM Education Consultant, Founder of Educate the SWAG Blog, Postdoctoral Research Associate – University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Travis Feldler, founder of TechRow Fund
Charting a Course for Success: America’s Strategy for STEM Education