What Is STEM and Why Is It Important?

In recent years, the acronym STEM has become a buzzword in the media and government alike, but what is STEM?

Where did it come from?
Why should you care?

The term STEM, originally organized as SMET, was coined by then-director at the National Science Foundation Dr. Judith Ramalay in the early 2000s.
STEM is an acronym which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, but the word means more than that.
It’s the name of a grassroots movement that pushes for an interdisciplinary approach to education across its four fields.

By the late 2000s, STEM education had taken hold, and began to be promoted through policy changes, including the 2009 Obama administration “Educate to Innovate” campaign.

STEM education approaches these topics through a blended learning environment that breaks down traditional educational ‘silos’ in favor of teaching in a way that resembles real life.

STEM mathematics, for instance, may include engineering, technology, or science problems in its exercises to show students where their newfound math knowledge may be useful.

If students were learning about Roman history, for example, they may be asked to do something like build a catapult, which would integrate their knowledge of all four fields.
STEM education uses a hands-on approach to teach problem-solving skills that extend beyond the classroom.
Students learn how to pinpoint evidence, follow the scientific method, and make logical conclusions from what they have found.

Thus, STEM education helps to develop critical thinking and problem-solving abilities.

STEM education focuses on inquiry-based learning, meaning that students are encouraged to ask questions and seek out new knowledge for themselves.
This less structured approach of self-motivated study can help foster a lifelong love of learning and encourage students to pursue higher education.

Proponents of STEM education believe that these strategies, when put together through activities done in and outside of the classroom, will best prepare students for the modern-day workforce.

This education is not just limited to secondary and post-secondary students, either. STEM proponents believe in beginning this curriculum from as early as pre-kindergarten.

“I always equate it to […] someone like Tiger Woods, if you don’t start early when your neuroplasticity is dynamic and you’re really able to pick up on things quicker, then you really miss out” says founder and executive director of stem.org, Andrew Raupp.

The goal is to introduce these topics early so that they become a natural part of a child’s thought process, much like professional musicians who begin learning their instruments from a very early age. Even complicated topics like engineering can be shaped and taught to young children.

So why is STEM so important in preparing students for the modern workforce? Think for a second about taking a trip to Mars, something that may very well be a reality within our lifetime. In order to prepare for such a trip, you’d need a team of mathematicians to do calculations, astrophysicists to plan trajectory, aerospace engineers to design a rocket, programmers to set up the ship’s navigation, and so on.

The success of the project depends on how well each of these fields operate together. If, in your hypothetical team, you were able to choose people who had experience and understanding in all of these fields, even if they were only specialized in one, there would be a higher likelihood of success.

Moreover, many jobs require an understanding of all of these fields. For instance, a civil engineer will need an understanding of engineering, of course, but also of several fields of science, mathematics, and technology are relevant. This is where STEM find its foothold – these fields are naturally connected. In an increasingly technology-driven world, most jobs in the future will require a basic understanding of all four fields. By taking an integrated approach, lessons become more well-rounded and applicable to real life.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, STEM occupations are growing at a faster rate than other occupations.
A Building Engineering and Science Talent (BEST) report from 2002 showed that more than half of America’s job growth has come from STEM. Thus, in the modern workforce, STEM is a necessity to compete and find well-paid work. As time goes on, given the aforementioned trends, this necessity is only going to become greater.

In the modern-day global marketplace, STEM is the key to the competitiveness of a nation.

It’s not only innovation and invention that are dependent on STEM occupations, STEM is important to the growth and stability of an economy. STEM Center USA says, “according to the United States National Research Council and the National Science Foundation, STEM fields are collectively considered core technological underpinnings of an advanced society.”

Any country without adequate STEM education is bound to fall behind. Scientific and technological literacy are becoming requirements in our daily lives, and that means that STEM is necessary to prepare the students of today for the jobs of tomorrow.

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