Every year, governments and educators all around the world are increasingly focused on STEM education.

But what does STEM mean, exactly? It turns out that the answer is a bit more complicated than it seems at first glance.

In this article we'll cover what STEM means, why it's important, and some common approaches for STEM education in the classroom.

What is STEM?

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. It's a broad term that generally refers to a curriculum that increases students' exposure to and proficiency in each subject.

However, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are all vast disciplines. Because of this, there are several ways to define STEM, depending on the context it's used in.

For example, the National Science Foundation's definition of STEM also includes social sciences like psychology and economics, along with more typical branches like chemistry. This broader definition of STEM is what most schools and organizations follow.

But the Department of Homeland Security mostly considers natural sciences (biology, chemistry), and formal sciences (mathematics, statistics) in their definition of STEM. Some social sciences like economics are instead grouped with arts and humanities.

The acronym STEAM is also increasingly used, which is a variation of STEM that includes art as one of the core subjects. Art, in this case, can include language arts, design, visual arts, and other humanities.

Why is STEM important?

STEM is all around us, and affects every aspect of modern life. Just about every job requires STEM-related skills, whether it be using a computer or a soft skill like critical thinking or problem solving.

Like the definition of STEM itself, whether or not there's a STEM crisis is up for debate.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there's both a shortage and a surplus of STEM workers, depending on which discipline (electrical engineering, biomedical engineering, and so on) or job market (academic or private) you look at.

Still, the BLS projects that employment in computer and IT related fields will "grow 11 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations".

Most of these new jobs are expected to come from an ever increasing demand for information security and cloud computing experts.

Whether or not there's a STEM shortage now or will be one in the future, many governments seem to agree that STEM education is worth investing in.

STEM in the classroom

You might be tired of hearing this, but STEM education can vary widely between countries, and even neighboring school districts.

Currently in the US, STEM education generally takes an integrated approach, where subjects are taught in unison rather than in separate class periods. Many states follow the Next Generation Science Standards, which place an emphasis on a hands-on, collaborative, student led approach to learning.

STEM education can begin as early as kindergarten, and may or may not require prior knowledge or involve students interacting directly with tech devices.

For example, a fourth grade lesson about algorithms could focus on more general computational thinking and logic rather than programming itself.

An unplugged activity to teach algorithms could be as simple as having groups of students create a necklace out of 5 different snacks. First, they draw a repeating pattern of snacks on a worksheet – cookie, chip, cereal, chip cookie, chip, cereal, etc.

After writing the "algorithm" for their necklace, they can build them with their group members using real snacks:

Students in South Korea learning about basic algorithms

Once finished, students could present the algorithm they used and eat their snacks.

A student wearing their completed snack necklace

For slightly older or more advanced students, the activity could begin by writing a list of detailed instructions: Open the snacks, get some string, unravel some string, cut the string, take one cookie, place the cookie down, and so on.

Then rather than make the necklace themselves, they could read their algorithm to another group member, who has to follow every instruction literally. If there's a bug preventing them from finishing the necklace, both students can work together to debug the algorithm and revise the steps.

But this is just one simple example. Educators around the world are constantly coming up with innovative ways to teach fundamental STEM concepts, even without the use of technology.

In summary

STEM can mean several different things depending on the context. But generally it's a broad term that refers to education or jobs that focus on science, technology, engineering, math, and sometimes art.

Hopefully now you have a better understanding of STE(A)M, and what it means for education and jobs in the future.