Putting STEM education into perspective

The DEC Intranet provides some useful resources around STEM including information about STEM learning and its importance, STEM learning programs and STEM learning resources.

One of the resources is a best advice paper titled Putting STEM education into perspective. The purpose of this paper is to clear up misconceptions about STEM education. I have summarised the key points.

  • STEM is not new emerging in the 1990s in the U.S.A. Much as it is now, the driving forces were economic and political. The original focus was science and maths. Technologies evolved within this framework in the later 90’s.
  • There is speculation about what STEM actually is. Some see it as only pertaining to an interdisciplinary focus (Breiner, Johnson, Harkness & Koehler, 2012). While The National STEM School Education Strategy states: STEM education is a term used to refer collectively to the teaching of the disciplines within its umbrella: science, technology, engineering and mathematics; and also, to a cross-disciplinary approach to teaching (Education Council, 2015, p.5).
  • The paper highlights real world examples of connections between the each. Examples provided include connections between two subject areas to all four.

At the centre of the figure is integration across the four areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Again, using the telescope example, current construction of the Giant Magellan Telescope in the Chilean Andes moves beyond technology to become a mathematical and engineering feat, given its seven 8.4m mirrors and aperture of 24.5m. It is predicted that this mega-telescope and others will increase our current understanding of the nature of the universe exponentially (Spinks, 2016). 

  • In more recent times STEM has been seen as seperate to its four foundational areas making STEM a separate entity. The rhetoric communicated around this view is that unless children or students are building, designing and solving problems they are ’not doing STEM’. 
    • STEM as a seperate entity is often accompanied by the idea that the pedagogy is the focus and this will automatically allow students to learn, for example problem solving, problem based learning, collaboration and group work. Missing from this thinking is a focus on ‘traditional’ content knowledge.
    • There is no educational premise for STEM being a separate entity (taught isolated from the weekly maths, science and technology lessons). When taught as a separate entity the risk is focusing on the associated pedagogies with little thought for content knowledge which is required to successfully explore authentic problems.
    • While these pedagogies are effective, content discipline knowledge is a requirement, as is teacher direction and guidance. In actual fact, using these pedagogies appropriately requires considerable skill and teacher expertise (Rosicka, 2016).

What does this mean for our practice?

  • STEM should not be viewed as a new/separate subject to teach.
  • Depending on your previous practice you may need to adjust your teaching:
    • to create clearer, practical links between the STEM subjects
    • to provide tasks that allow students to apply content knowledge from one or more STEM related disciplines to authentic problems.
  • A lesson of building, making, problem solving, problem based learning (at any year level) is not STEM without the underlying scientific, technological, engineering and mathematical principles being explicitly identified and applied.
  • We have identified a room in our school which staff and students refer to as the “STEM room”. We must be careful not to associate this with where STEM is taught. It is one of the many spaces STEM can be taught in our school.
  • We should not lose sight of the importance of content knowledge, careful teacher guidance and explicit teaching. While Hattie can often polarise educators I think he explains this well in the following video discussing why pedagogies like inquiry based learning can fall down without the supporting content knowledge.

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