The grouping of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) was first introduced as an acronym in 2001 by Judith Ramaley, an American biologist and assistant director at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Since the early 2000s, STEM-focused curricula have grown across and beyond the United States to prepare students to enter the workforce within these fields.
What is STEM?
From developing new computer software to rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, STEM-based jobs play a vital role in today’s job economy. According to the most recent statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), STEM occupations were expected to grow 8 percent between 2019-2029, nearly two and a half times faster than all other occupations within the same period.
In addition to occupations that represent various areas of engineering, such as civil engineer, mechanical engineer, and electrical engineer, some examples of STEM careers are:
- Food scientist
- Medical scientist
- Biological technician
- Conservation scientist
- Electrical or electronic drafter
By some accounts, introducing students in high school and even earlier to STEM subjects can be beneficial in the long run. Research shows that students who take and are interested in STEM subjects at the high school level tend to follow those educational studies into college. Other reports indicate that students who enroll in STEM courses in high school are more apt to build strong communication, collaboration, and problem-solving skills and increase their ability to work in teams—all skills that can prove beneficial in all types of work.
More programs focusing on STEM subjects are being incorporated into the middle, elementary, and early childhood curricula to draw more students into STEM studies and possible careers beyond academics. While students at such young ages may typically be unaware of which professional path they wish to pursue, being exposed to STEM education in early academics has advantages. Benefits include building math and even reading skills—some research even shows that a STEM education promotes “academic success” across all subjects and age levels.
Is introducing young students to STEM subjects worth it? According to research, yes. It has been determined that exposing early childhood students (birth to age 5) to STEM studies is important, as a love of and interest in scientific inquiry could begin when neurological and brain development is at its most crucial and when natural curiosity is at its height.
Simple science experiments, for example, could pique interest that helps children develop creative, innovative, and critical thinking skills required for STEM careers. It has been reported that young children engaged in STEM activities and projects can remain focused and curious for 45 minutes or longer—notable for preschool-aged children. Teaching these young students STEM concepts could, it is believed, shape their minds in a way that could propel them into STEM studies throughout their academic career and open the door to a future pursuit of professions within STEM fields.
Parents can play a role in developing natural curiosity and learning by keeping children engaged after classroom activities are over. Parents can ask their children what they have studied in science and math at home and could even have the children apply what they’ve learned to their project. Not only will this encourage and develop independent thinking, which plays a part in STEM classes and careers, but it also shows them how STEM concepts can be applicable outside of school. The goal, of course, is to keep STEM at the forefront of growing brains in the hopes that interest in these subjects can be maintained as the child ages.
How and Why K-12 Students Can Prepare for STEM Careers
A 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center found that nearly half of Americans felt that young students did not pursue math or science degrees in college because they thought the subjects were “too hard”; 20% believed that students felt these subjects were “boring.” Indeed, one reason cited for college students switching their STEM-related major to a non-STEM field is that they think STEM courses are too challenging and not enjoyable.
So, children learning concepts in science, technology, engineering, and math at a young age, through integrative studies that can help make these subjects more exciting and easier to learn, is a first step toward driving them toward STEM studies and maybe later careers.
But there’s more to it than an early age introduction, as there is no guarantee these studies will spark and maintain interest in these fields. So, what can be done?
From hands-on activities to field trips, many suggest that students should be made to be excited about learning STEM concepts. David Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, stated in January 2018 that when it comes to technology, educators need to be “more inclusive” and make the material “more relatable.”
Also, making STEM curricula more rigorous at the elementary and middle school levels will make it less challenging for high school and college students who only begin to take STEM courses then. Reports indicate that another reason for students switching out of STEM majors in college could be that some are being introduced to STEM concepts for the first time at this level.
What about schools that do not have specific STEM curricula? In many cases, a strict curriculum leaves little time for elementary or middle school teachers to add any other topics or activities to their daily regimen. In some cases, teachers can use additional programs, such as those delivered by Science4Us, to introduce students to science and math in a fun, engaging way.
Science4Us uses online and offline activities such as games and videos designed to satisfy curiosity while at the same time building literacy and math skills, mathematical aptitude, and investigative abilities.
Other integrative tools that K-8 teachers can use to bring STEM into their classrooms include:
- Science Kids: utilizes online games, fun facts, experiment ideas, videos, jokes, and more to make science topics more interesting and accessible for young students
- Funology: offers a wide range of science-related experiments and activities for youngsters; the site also has weird facts, jokes, games, trivia, and even magic tricks
- CSI: Web Adventures: students apply forensic science concepts to solve crimes; the site also explores various careers in science
- Engineer Girl: introduces engineering concepts and career possibilities to middle school girls; has online interactive activities, contests, and even puts girls in touch with engineering professionals
- eGFI (Engineering, Go For It!): from the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), this site makes learning engineering more enjoyable for kids through interactive games, flashcards, a digital newsletter, and more
- Hooda Math: teaches math concepts through online games, for ages K-12
- Code.org: elementary through high school teachers can use semester- or year-long courses to learn about computer science; students have the chance to create code for their own iPhone games, computer programs, and much more
This list only scratches the surface; there are many more camps, sites, apps, and other resources for parents, teachers, and students to find creative and engaging ways to study STEM subjects.
As for the why in preparing for STEM careers, the simple answer is demand. Jobs in computing alone are expected to see a 13 percent growth between 2020-2030. Constant changes in technology, the increased need for engineering knowledge in such fields as manufacturing, and ongoing scientific research in areas of healthcare and physics are all factors that are likely to result in growth for STEM-related careers.
STEM Learning Opportunities
Despite the understanding of how important STEM education is and the importance of STEM studies beginning at an early age (in 2019, the U.S. Department of Education supported STEM education to the tune of a $540 million investment), reports of public schools tend to find that studies in these areas are lacking. A 2018 study found that, while the U.S. enjoys the best education system globally, U.S. students rank low in subjects such as math and science (38th and 24th, respectively).
This is not to say that all geographical areas give little attention to STEM education. However, if you are not lucky enough to live within a school district with a strong STEM curriculum, what are you to do if you wish to have your child pursue these studies? Or if you want to expand on your child’s STEM learning outside of school curricula? Are there STEM learning opportunities outside of the traditional classroom?
Fortunately, you can look outside the classroom for STEM learning programs, clubs, and other opportunities.
Nation-wide STEM after-school programs, camps, and other formats are offered by various clubs, associations, and organizations. 4-H, for example, has various STEM labs and programs, such as:
Many of these are at-home activities that kids can follow online.
STEM camps hosted by the National Inventors Hall of Fame target K-9 students through in-person, at-home, and virtual collaborative hands-on activities where they might build mini-bots, a marble arcade, space packs, and other fun and interesting scientific and technological projects focusing on creativity, decision-making, teamwork, and problem-solving.
Digital Media Academy, founded in 1999, conducts virtual after-school activities and virtual camps focusing on technology. Since 2011, Engineering for Kids franchises (150 locations worldwide) have provided classes, camps, field trips, workshops, and other events centering on robotics, engineering, and technology concepts.
Areas of engineering covered in these programs include aerospace, civil, chemical, environmental, industrial, marine, software, and mechanical. Video game design, robot prototype development, and Minecraft modeling are examples of the activities kids ages four to14 can immerse themselves in.
iD Tech, which has been running tech camps for young children and teens since 1999, offers STEM summer camps and courses that cover coding, robotics, game design, digital art, and wireless technology, among other topics, for kids ages 7 to 17. In addition to virtual and in-person camps, iD Tech has coding tutoring and online after-school activities.
Learning with LEGOS? Snapology, another franchise-based company, also offers STEM classes, after-school activities, summer camps, and workshops through locations in 28 states. Students learn about technology, engineering, and more through fun exercises, projects, and programs, such as animation classes, LEGO model building, and movie-making.
STEM programs are also available through the Girl Scouts of America and Boy Scouts of America (called STEM Scouts). These clubs conduct academic success programs that focus on digital literacy, computer science, and science, including hands-on activities, labs, and team-oriented projects.
If you have a competitive middle or high schooler, STEM competitions at the local, state, and national levels are hosted by various organizations.
From large entities such as NASA (the NASA eClips Spotlites Video Design Challenge) to competitions hosted by local colleges and universities, there are numerous opportunities for STEM-minded students to create videos, robot models, computer programs, and other types of machines, programs, and solutions that utilize some area of STEM.
Entering science fairs is another opportunity for students to apply STEM concepts in a fun and competitive environment. In addition to school-hosted science fairs at individual schools, students can compete in larger events hosted by 3M and Regeneron, international corporations and organizations such as SAE International and the Rube Goldberg Institute, and nonprofit organizations including The Actuarial Foundation and The REC Foundation. Attending national events, such as the USA Science & Engineering Festival, is another way to spark interest in STEM ideas and solutions for young students.
Finally, you can check with local libraries, museums, zoos, and nature centers, as many of these institutions also offer STEM-related activities and programs for various age ranges.