What is STEM and why does it matter?

October 19, 2022
Photo: Pinterest by Irene Renon

What exactly is STEM? It is an interdisciplinary approach that integrates Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education into a cohesive whole. With a focus on hands-on learning and a problem-solving mindset, STEM is a rapidly advancing concept gaining popularity in both academia and industry. As with several other educational buzzwords, STEM is often only partly understood, leading to scattered efforts in implementing it and confusion regarding its benefits.

What are the core tenets of STEM?

STEM is more than just teaching science, mathematics and technology related subjects at school. A STEM-based program integrates scientific knowledge with real-world applications, rather than teaching these subjects separately in isolation.

It often seems intimidating to educators and students alike to think that students must be experts in all STEM fields, but the idea behind STEM is much simpler than that. Instead of being jack-of-all-trades, students focus on harnessing the essential transferable skills relevant to each field. They do this by collaborating and working in teams, in order to learn from each other and solve problems. Problem solving requires the willingness to make mistakes and learning from each iteration to improve and find better solutions to challenges and problems.

What is attractive about a STEM approach to education is that it not only develops students’ social skills by encouraging collaboration and teamwork, but also allows them to be active participants in their own learning. This is in contrast to a traditional top-down approach, where teachers play the role of “subject experts” that pass knowledge down to learners.

STEM makes learning relevant by tying it in with real world applications and letting students explore the same concepts in ways that intrigue them or pique their curiosity. For instance, the concept of radio waves and magnetism can be taught using anti-theft RFID clothing tags as a lesson focus. Students could pry open a clothes tag, explore its components and learn its functions. Eventually, they learn the same concepts, but by exploring where and how it’s practically used, they are much more likely to secure these ideas in their minds.

Teachers facilitate learning by making the aims and objectives clear, providing assistance with research and knowledge application, and regularly measuring student progress using timely data to shape future lessons. Most importantly, teachers help students to become self-directed learners who take responsibility for their own learning.

Benefits of a STEM education

According to data published by the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, the top 20 in-demand occupations between 2021-31 include several fields that are STEM dominated, such as nursing, data scientists, web developers and medical and health services managers, to name a few.

Surprisingly (or perhaps, not so surprisingly after all), even professions that are traditionally considered non-STEM require some STEM skills, with employers heavily favouring applicants with at least some STEM training. This is because STEM education fosters ingenuity and creativity, a highly sought-after skill that cannot simply be “taught” but is instead nourished through years of training and encouragement. Additionally, a well-planned STEM curriculum is essential in building resilience, problem-solving skills and teamwork.

Photo: Pinterest by Irene Renon

Gender Equality in STEM

According to data published by UNICEF, 125 million girls of primary and secondary age in the developing world are out of school. Female exclusion from education, particularly in secondary school, means that fewer than half of them make it to the upper secondary level where STEM skills can be further solidified despite the fact that girls in school are equally or more likely than boys to achieve minimum proficiency levels in mathematics and science.

It's not all bad news though. The gender disparity in STEM is slowly but surely dissipating. The key to encouraging girls towards choosing STEM based careers is providing them with successful role models they can look up to. Whether it be inventors, geologists, mathematicians or neuroscientists, women have made inroads into every STEM field and by using them as role models, providing pathways for girls to follow, carving out the specific skill sets needed to succeed in this field and making learning engaging and fun, the gender-gap in STEM will soon be a thing of the past.

By: Sahar Aftab Paliwala