The emphasis on STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — education has grown substantially over the past two decades and educators say there’s much more to come as industries continue to increase the demand for a STEM educated workforce.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, STEM careers are growing at an above average pace and most STEM jobs have wages above the national average.
A STEM classroom is vastly different from the traditional classroom. STEM uses problem-based learning, which provides students with a problem or topic and then encourages them to be hands-on, work together on projects, make mistakes and come up with multiple solutions to the task on which they are working.
Through the STEM method of teaching, traditional subjects like math, English, social studies and science are interconnected through a transdisciplinary teaching approach. STEM is taught in many different ways. Some districts have their own STEM schools while others utilize STEM fabrication “fab” labs and STEM makerspaces within their existing schools. These spaces are equipped with things like 3D printers, laser cutters and computers with coding software.
Real World Problem Solving with STEM
At the National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM High School in Akron, students work on assignments they receive from real businesses and organizations such as the Goodyear headquarters in Akron, The University of Akron and The Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce.
“In a traditional classroom the students are at their desk, the teacher is at the front of the room, they’re given information and work out problems to prove that they understand the content,” explains Dina Popa, instructional leader at NIHF STEM. “Our classrooms are very open-ended, the problems are very authentic. They’re real world problems that are brought to us by our community partners.”
Through this method of teaching, students are learning to make real world, impactful contributions.
For example, at the MC2 STEM High School in Cleveland, students came up with ways to solve their grandparent’s mobility issues.
“We had two students whose grandma was in a wheelchair and lived in low income housing with steps — she could not get out of the house,” explains Feowyn MacKinnon Marshment, head of MC2 STEM High School. “We thought it would be great if they could design a wheelchair that could actually go up and down stairs. They did research and designed a chair with honeycomb-shaped wheels that can go up and down stairs very easily. They were able to use a CNC router to cut out the wheels and they used a laser cutter for gears that go on the wheelchair. Not only did they come up with the idea, they were able to build it for under $35.”
At Lake Ridge Academy in North Ridgeville, a K-12 STEAM-based curriculum incorporates art and design into the teaching of science, math, technology and engineering. One real-world example of K-12 creative design execution is the development of geometric planters for the campus.
“An Upper School engineering student worked with the first grade class to create various shaped wooden boxes placed on casters that can be assembled in various designs on the playground,” says Susan Haas, director of marketing and communications for Lake Ridge Academy. “The first graders created many ideas on how to organize the boxes while the Upper School student, as part of his Design and Fabrication class, built 20 wooden boxes of various shapes by hand, learning how important precise measurement and production was to the project. The end result was an attraction on the playground that teaches students how to take care of plants while also encouraging them to be creative (and have fun) with the planters to create various shapes and patterns.”
Sparking an Early Interest
Many districts begin teaching STEM at the elementary level, which helps students develop a long-term love for the sciences.
“The third graders just finished a unit on rocks and used the Epilog 40 watt laser to edge their names onto their favorite rocks,” explains Brian Patrick, principal of the Willoughby-Eastlake School of Innovation. “They then used the colorization of the laser marks to help determine the rock’s mineral composition.”
The classroom isn’t the only way children can build their STEM skills. For example, The Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland is a museum with many STEM exhibits for kids and adults to enjoy.
Kirsten Ellenbogen, CEO of the Great Lakes Science Center says creating an early interest in STEM can greatly impact your child’s future.
“What ends up being the biggest predictor on whether or not they’ll end up in a STEM career is whether or not they had interest in a STEM career when they’re in or around middle school,” she explains. “So sparking an interest is critical and we take that very seriously.”
Impact on Students
STEM is leaving a positive impact on students and educators, who continue to evolve their STEM teaching methods.
“The introduction of STEM education has really sparked a bigger focus on the value of problem solving skills, creativity and risk taking in our students,” says Gina Kevern, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for Willoughby-Eastlake City Schools. “The introduction of STEM concepts, the fabrication lab and the design process has teachers and students showing increased engagement in classroom teaching and learning.”
Students who have participated in STEM programs in K-12 also are more prepared as they move into higher education and the workforce.
“With continued innovation and discovery, it is challenging to predict many of the potential jobs or careers of the future,” says Kathryn Kwiatkowski, director of math and science programs for Case Western Reserve University’s Leonard Gelfand STEM Center. “To prepare for these relative unknowns, students must be curious, embrace discovery, have an awareness and understanding of the real world around them, and demonstrate a willingness to collaborate with others. A STEM or STEAM education demands that students be able to develop and ask questions, to develop and use models, to analyze and interpret data, to use computational thinking, to construct explanations, to engage in arguments from evidence, and to obtain, evaluate and communicate information.”
A Bright Future for STEM
STEM education continues to grow and evolve. Many programs have expanded STEM to include art, called STEAM education, and writing to create STREAM learning.
“I think the whole point of that movement is simply to say that STEM has evolved from being isolated, specific learning,” Ellenbogen explains. “A lot of what we see is an intersection or an interdisciplinary approach to 21st century skills.”