What Is STEM? A Basic Primer

STEM.org, Science Camp, STEM Program, STEM Programs, Michigan STEM, STEM Accreditation, STEM Certification, Andrew B. Raupp
STEM.org™ summer programming in Dearborn, MI USA


In the past decade, the “STEM” acronym has gained traction in the fields of education, industry and even politics, but the concepts underlying this movement are nothing new. STEM simply refers to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: four areas that educators and industry leaders agree are key to building America toward a brighter future. These four areas have also been historically neglected in the nation’s curricula. Today, America’s collective success requires a collaborative approach between schools, families, governments, industries, and educational allies to bring quality STEM programming to the nation’s rising workforce.

Vital Signs,” a recent report created by Change the Equation with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has identified the individual strengths and weaknesses of each state in an attempt to meet the need for more qualified workers trained in STEM fields. The report takes note of national trends as well, stating that “the number of college certificates and degrees Americans earn has grown more slowly in STEM than in most other fields, especially among women and African Americans” (2012). But with greater awareness comes greater action, and many states are rising to the challenge to create strategic alliances among schools, industries and educational allies, like STEM.org™. In 2009, a national survey of high school transcripts revealed that 84 percent of graduates took advanced mathematics, up from just 57 percent in 1990. Similarly, 86 percent of graduate transcripts surveyed showed students who took an advanced science course, up from 61 percent in 1990 (Nord et al., 2009).

The tide appears to be rising, but there is still much work to be done to ensure that all students receive access to high-quality education to prepare a diverse crop of students to take their places in an innovative and ever-changing global workplace. Recent data suggests that the stringent requirements of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation may be responsible in part for the flatlining performance of those students who score in the top 10 percent of standardized math and science assessments (Loveless et al., 2008). While the growth of the lowest-performing students is laudable, America also must invest in the education of higher-performing students and push them to greater heights in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in order to create the industry leadership the nation requires.

While there are numerous obstacles to developing an effective national policy devoted to developing STEM talent, including difficulties with program accessibility and teacher preparation (Subotnik et al., 2007), understanding the origins of the STEM movement, the future of this work, and the opportunities for many different stakeholders to come together can help guide the nation toward a comprehensive solution that bridges the existing gaps between schools, industry, and educational allies.

What Is STEM?

Since the problem of finding qualified applicants to America’s most innovative fields is a complicated and nuanced situation requiring the effort of many, it’s good to keep in mind that understanding STEM means understanding that this term means different things to different stakeholders.

Federal and state governments have a role to play in developing, funding, and promoting STEM programs both in and out of schools. The new Common Core Standards, which emphasize a more rigorous approach to mathematical reasoning, have already been approved by 46 states (“STEM Vital Signs, 2012). This move signifies the need for collaboration and coordination between state and federal governments to set the tone for the teachers and administrators responsible for implementing the Common Core each day in classrooms around the country. In addition, the U.S. government has maintained for years that investment in STEM is vital to remaining competitive in a growing world market, so solutions are constantly being sought beyond the walls of the traditional classroom.

For teachers and administrators, the focus on STEM programming can be a source of stress, but it also offers a chance to provide more practical, rigorous instruction that focuses on real-world outcomes as opposed to test preparation. Although complex challenges of teacher preparation remain, several teacher organizations have come forward to endorse the new focus on advanced mathematics, indicating a willingness to innovate and adapt to the growing demand for STEM curriculum (“Common Core Standards Joint Statement,” 2010).

It’s also important to examine the impact of STEM programming on students and families. Some families are skeptical about STEM, or at least unclear on the possible impact of additional opportunities in the sciences and mathematics fields (Kadlec & Friedman 2007). Viewing STEM opportunities from this perspective illuminates the potential to create and publicize non-traditional educational experiences, including internships, co-op experiences, and other forms of experiential learning in order to engage students who stand to benefit the most from STEM enrichment.

Finally, it’s clear that educational allies can play a role in creating alliances between schools and industries by offering experiential STEM programs that bridge the gap between traditionally assessed academic skills and the complex problem-solving and critical thinking required by the scientists, mathematicians, engineers and innovators of tomorrow.

What Is STEM? A Global Marketplace

Driven by the emergence of high-quality electronics and technologies from Japanese markets in the 1980s, U.S. policymakers have been interested in assessing America’s current capacity for innovation and advocating for improvement for several decades now (National Research Council, 2007). Policy experts studying the impact of teacher shortages on STEM outcomes have concluded that the predominance of unqualified or uncertified teachers, in combination with a narrow focus on literacy and basic numeracy skills as a result of NCLB legislation, has contributed to an educational climate that does not adequately prepare students for demanding careers in the sciences (Farkas, et al., 2008).

A 2007 report by the National Research Council recommended that the U.S. government focus on recruiting science and math teachers through scholarships and retain them through targeted professional development opportunities, such as summer institutes where teachers are compensated through federally funded stipends. This investment of time, training and federal money, according to the report, would provide teachers with the education to enter the classroom adequately prepared and the incentive to remain in the profession long enough to make a noticeable impact.

These recommendations are reflected in a 2012 policy announcement by President Barack Obama, who called for a number of initiatives at the federal level, including “new policies to recruit, support, retain and reward excellent STEM teachers” (Slack, 2012). Obama also called for commitments from private industries as well as from coalitions and organizations such as STEM.org™, a Michigan-based organization devoted to increasing STEM literacy through strategic alliances domestically & abroad.

A 2011 report released by the U.S. Department of Commerce provides data that suggest that the success of Obama’s STEM initiatives may play a major role in the future of America’s economic outlook. Analysts predict that occupations in the STEM field will rise by 17 percent from 2008 to 2018 (Langdon et al., 2011). The findings of this report also suggest that an increase in qualified STEM workers has the potential to shift the way that the American public views higher education, noting that while the majority of employees in the STEM industry hold college degrees (9 out of 10), all STEM workers earn, on average, higher salaries than their counterparts in other industries. Tellingly, “the STEM earnings differential is greatest for those with a high school diploma or less in comparison to their counterparts in a non-STEM field” (Langdon et al., 2011). This suggests that quality STEM educational opportunities at the K-12 level can open up opportunities not only for gifted students, but also for students for whom a traditional college path is less appropriate.

Finally, the Department of Commerce report shows that STEM workers, on average, experience consistently lower unemployment rates than their non-STEM counterparts. The potential to impact educational outcomes and the economy is clear to policymakers at the federal level, and their commitment to investing in the future of STEM bodes well for teachers, students, industry leaders and the educational allies working to connect these stakeholders through alliances and outreach programming.

What Is STEM? Changing Classrooms

The movement at the federal level to fund STEM programs in the schools means major changes for teachers and administrators across the country. In addition to the widespread adoption of the Common Core Standards for mathematics, 26 states have agreed to consider adopting the newly released Next Generation Science Standards (“STEM Vital Signs,” 2012). This changing focus from literacy and basic numeracy heralds a shift for teachers who have long taught according to the guidelines and benchmarks of NCLB legislation. Some STEM advocates argue that this narrow focus weakened STEM curricula nationwide, and they look forward to a renewed commitment to the sciences and technology in the K-12 classroom (Sands, 2012).

But these “shifts” are not just theoretical. The creators of the Common Core Standards describe six distinct instructional shifts that must occur in mathematics classrooms, including narrowed focus, greater coherence across the curriculum, an expectation that students will develop both fluency and deep understandings, regular application of mathematical concepts, and a sort of “dual intensity” between practicing and understanding new concepts as they are taught (“Pedagogical Shifts,” 2012).

In addition, teachers may have to shift their focus to better meet the needs of those students who demonstrate talent, aptitude and interest in the sciences, engineering, technology and mathematics. As reported by researchers Farkas and Duffet, a national survey revealed that only 23 percent of the 900 teachers surveyed cited high performing students as their “top priority” (Farkas & Duffet, 2008). While teachers across the board reported deprioritizing talented students, particularly telling is the difference between teachers at affluent and low-income schools. Only 18 percent of teachers at low-income schools cited gifted students as their top priority, while 31 percent of their counterparts at affluent schools prioritized talented students. The discrepancy is understandable; with limited resources, strict evaluative criteria and a preponderance of high-needs students, teachers must make challenging instructional decisions every day. Researchers noted that more than 70 percent of teachers agreed that “too often, the brightest students are bored and under-challenged in school—we’re not giving them a sufficient chance to thrive” (Farkas & Duffet, 2008).

With greater resources and more opportunities to partner with educational allies, these teachers perhaps can begin to meet the needs of all students and help grow promising leaders in one of the growing STEM fields.

What Is STEM? Family Engagement, Student Success

For students and families, STEM programs can be a chance to gain greater skills, higher-paying jobs, and increased social and financial mobility. Not all families are clear on what exactly STEM means, however, and this lack of understanding may be a contributing obstacle to getting more students involved in STEM outreach programs.

A 2007 report by Public Agenda indicated that, while parents are generally aware of the need for more highly trained individuals to enter the STEM pipeline on a national level, they don’t always connect this lack of qualified workers to the quality or content of the education children are currently receiving (Kadlec & Friedman 2007). Seventy percent of the parents surveyed reported that they were “fine” with the science and math curriculum at their local schools, with only 23 percent stating that advanced math and science courses are “absolutely essential.” Conversely, over 90 percent of the parents surveyed deemed basic literacy and math skills “absolutely essential,” a finding that seems to align with previously stated concerns that the current educational climate prioritizes basic literacy and numeracy over more rigorous, scientific and technology-driven curricula. The picture that emerges seems to be one of complacency. However, fully 65 percent of parents surveyed stated that they “fully agree” that “students with advanced math and science skills will have a big advantage when it comes to work and college opportunities” (Kadlec & Friedman 2007). It seems that parents know that STEM programs have the potential to benefit their children, but they’re not quite sure exactly how, nor do they know how to demand better STEM enrichment in their children’s schools or via outreach programming.

More data is becoming available on the outcomes for students who pursue an undergraduate degree in one of the STEM fields, and the results are promising. A 2009 report by the U.S. Department of Education found that students studying in a STEM degree program were generally more likely to complete their bachelor’s degree within six years than their non-STEM counterparts (Chen, 2009). Communicating this data to students and families who are serious about post-secondary success may increase demand for more STEM programs at the K-12 level. As demand for high-quality science and math curricula increases, families will likely feel more empowered to seek greater access to real-world STEM experiences, like the pipeline programs and experiences coordinated by Michigan’s STEM.org™.

What Is STEM? Educational Allies

STEM is not only a concern of government and industry leaders, teachers and students. The need for STEM enrichment requires a multifaceted approach combining non-traditional, experiential modes of learning in addition to a more rigorous set of science and math standards in K-12 schools. Educational allies, including nonprofit organizations, research institutions and outreach programs, have an important role to play in helping America develop a new generation of thinkers and innovators.

Organizations such as the STEM Education Coalition have been formed in response to the need to connect and support the various stakeholders responsible for bringing STEM enrichment to the forefront of American education. The coalition is made up of educators, scientists, engineers, and those working in the technology field, effectively representing a cross-section of interested parties who share the mission to support research-based initiatives designed for student success. The coalition has put forth several policy principles, including a call to support private and public efforts to engage and invest business leaders in education efforts, as well as a “strong emphasis on hands-on, inquiry-based learning activities, such as learning about the engineering design process, working directly with STEM professionals through internships, and participating in field experiences and STEM-related competitions” (“Core Policy Principles,” 2011).

STEM.org, an organization devoted to promoting STEM literacy now active in several states across the U.S., develops STEM outreach programming aligned with the coalition’s recommendations for research-based, experiential learning in mathematics, the sciences and technology and engineering fields. In a 2009 commissioned assessment study on informal learning, researchers compiled data suggesting that involvement in informal experiential science and technology enrichment can not only stimulate interest and capacity in these subjects, but also create a foundation for civic responsibility and engagement on science-related issues for years to come (Bell et al., 2009).

Organizations that offer rigorous STEM enrichment in informal outreach settings will in all likelihood play a major role in the holistic effort to strengthen America’s burgeoning STEM pipeline. Since STEM.org™’s creation in 2001, the organization has engaged over 100,000 students, teacher parents and administrators in over 20 countries with innovative STEM learning programs that serve to stimulate student interest in the STEM fields and foster meaningful alliances among stakeholders. As funding opportunities and new research-based insights emerge, educational allies such as STEM.org™ will be able to make an even greater impact by partnering with students, families, educators, and government and industry leaders.

Origins of STEM

Pinning down the exact origin of the STEM movement can be tricky. Some analysts identify the period in the 1980s and 1990s when Japan’s dominance in the electronics market began (National Research Council, 2007). Others claim that efforts to identify students interested in STEM programs started as early as the 1970s, but that the targeting of students raised concerns that the talent development programs were “elitist” and failed to capture the political imagination of the time (Subotnik et al., 2007).

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, the call for alarm was clearly sounded within the halls of America’s STEM industries. Several private industry scientists and STEM workers began working with public research organizations to investigate the problem of STEM education and came up with results that confirmed their greatest fears.

In a review of a national survey of nearly 6,000 mathematics and science teachers conducted in 2000, analysts found that teachers generally felt less than adequately prepared to teach technology and advanced science courses, citing lack of preparation and resources as the main causes of concern. Only 25 percent of elementary teachers surveyed stated that they felt prepared to teach science, and though middle and high school teachers reported more confidence, there was an overall disparity between the readiness of science teachers and that of teachers of basic mathematics or literacy courses (Weiss, et al., 2001). The teachers surveyed were aware of their shortcomings: “Topping the list of reported needs is learning how to use technology for instruction. Among science teachers in grades K–8, deepening their content knowledge ranked a close second.” Researchers also found lack of leadership to be an issue; only 25 to 30 percent of elementary, middle, and high schools reported having designated lead teachers in place for science/mathematics departments.

A few years later, in a report debating the veracity of teacher shortage claims, Dr. Richard Ingersoll investigated the underlying causes of teacher shortages and found that teacher turnover rates were higher among math and science teachers than among their social studies and English counterparts. The data also suggests that teachers who perform better on standardized assessments, such as the SAT and teacher licensure tests, may be more likely to leave the teaching profession (Ingersoll, 2003). These findings painted a picture of a “revolving door” of skilled math and science teachers and encouraged school administrators to invest more heavily in adequate professional development, mentorship and greater engagement in building-level decision-making to keep teachers engaged, supported and present in the math and science classrooms.

As more information began to emerge about the challenges faced in STEM education efforts, industry leaders started to release reports on the state of STEM from a business standpoint. A 2002 report from Building Engineering and Science Talent (BEST), a public-private partnership, argued that the STEM fields have an outsized impact on the American economy, with more than half of America’s growth over the last 50 years coming directly from the 5 percent of the workforce that works in the innovative fields of STEM research and development (“The Talent Imperative,” 2002). The report went on to claim that nearly 25 percent of the nation’s STEM workers would be reaching retirement age by 2010, and called for an increase in our domestic capacity to produce talented, capable STEM workers lest these innovative positions be filled by workers overseas.

A 2003 report by the National Science Board echoed these findings and called for federal investment in STEM education efforts at the K-12 and post-secondary level, additional support for research into best practices for developing the STEM pipeline, and an increase in support for outreach efforts that stimulate interest in STEM as part of informal educational experiences during internships, afterschool programs, and summer institutes (“The Science and Engineering Workforce,” 2003).

By the middle of the decade, urgency around STEM education began to reach a critical point, and the movement has continued to grow in the ensuing years. As more STEM enrichment programs emerge, both in and out of traditional school settings, more data continues to be available about the future of the STEM pipeline. While the problem is certainly complicated and complex, it appears that America’s industrial and government leaders, researchers, scientists and educators are beginning to reach consensus about the growing body of data that shows that investment in research-based STEM education is the key to growing American prosperity and maintaining a strong foothold in the global marketplace.

The Future of STEM

What does the future of STEM in America look like? This question is one of great urgency for the many stakeholders involved in creating STEM enrichment for America’s youth. Already, projections indicate that STEM jobs will increase by as much as 17 percent by 2018 (Langdon et al., 2011). By creating sustainable, effective partnerships among schools, businesses and organizations that bridge the gap between the two with internships, co-ops and other experiential learning opportunities, the United States stands to retain many of those jobs within its workforce. Without a national commitment to developing a STEM pipeline, analysts fear that these vital jobs may be outsourced to other countries, causing America to lose its innovative edge and suffer an economic blow.

Private industries appear more than willing to step up to the plate to help identify and develop the 1.2 employees they’ll need in the coming years. Microsoft is one of many companies that have pledged their support to STEM enrichment, and announced a slew of programs in late 2011 geared to increase access for STEM programming, especially for segments of the population that have been historically underrepresented in STEM fields, including high-school-age girls (“Microsoft,” 2011).

These industries won’t be alone in their efforts. Obama’s 2009 pledge to train an additional 100,000 teachers and to invest $20 million in research efforts by 2020 is fully under way (“State of the Union Fact Sheet,” 2011). According to a summary from his 2014 budget, Obama has already earmarked $180 million to increase access to STEM opportunities at the K-12 level and an additional $265 million to “support networks of school districts, universities, science agencies, museums, businesses and other educational entities focused on STEM education” (Southall, 2013). These figures include the $80 million devoted to adding to his master core of 100,000 well-prepared science and math teachers, but the federal approach is clearly to recognize and support efforts happening beyond the walls of the traditional classroom, as well.

If America is to reach the ambitious goals set by the Obama administration, a collaborative effort among schools, employers, and educational allies is required to successfully engage the students, teachers, researchers and organization leaders who can make the vision of a fortified STEM pipeline a reality in the years to come.


It is clear that lack of an adequate STEM workforce is a problem worthy of collaboration by American’s greatest minds. The challenges at the school level include inadequate teacher preparation and retention, lack of empowerment from parents, and a lingering administrative focus on literacy and basic numeracy that deprioritizes both advanced courses of study as well as the needs of those students who show great aptitude in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The research shows that the best STEM programs involve experiential learning to deeply engage student interest and excitement. As more funding is funneled to prepare teachers to bring these exciting opportunities and knowledge to their students in traditional classroom settings, America can look to educational allies and industry leaders to partner with schools and families to bridge the gap by creating powerful alliances between the public and private spheres to benefit students and companies alike.

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