The Immediate Value of STEM Education

CuteNotes Investing in STEM Education is critical for the future of our children and the Canadian Economy. Recent reports from the White House and many other players in the education world drive to prepare current students for future careers. Just before the holidays, the Financial Post published an article that discusses five investment trends to look out for in the New Year – and a push for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education initiatives was high amongst the list. The article spoke greatly to the value that STEM education brings to the future job market, as well as the value of creating innovative engineers and developers to boost the economy. In fact, they refer to STEM education as a “very safe investment – a no-brainer – and one that should get started right away”. However, investing in STEM education initiatives for youth shows a far greater, more immediate value than just boosting the future of STEM careers. Given the widespread research, success stories, and STEM education opportunities currently available, parents, educators, administrators, and youth should do their part to invest in STEM education.

Whether the investment is time, guidance, or investing money in educational resources, the immediate value of STEM education can be seen by all stakeholders – I’ve listed the top 3 observations (backed by research) below.

  1. STEM education creates meaningful and deep learning experiences:

The standard classroom has many common themes that many of us born before 2005 can relate to. First, students worked individually for the majority of the year – the rare opportunity to discuss something with your peers was generally a very structured process. For example, most of us have experienced the strategic discussion questions prompted on the blackboard with a recommended length of time we should go on about the topic. All students explore the same question and most likely come to the similar conclusions. A second common classroom feature was the arbitrary separation of subjects. Classrooms had a set time to learn English, Science, Math, and Social Studies. Finally, skills assessment had a distinguishing divide between answers that were right and answers that were wrong. Studying for an exam often included memorizing information and hoping that memory actually lasts beyond exam day.

The 21st-century classroom has emerged and the standard themes seen in the past are evolving – and it’s happening fast! Students are becoming free to create their own research questions; work with collaborative groups; conduct their own experiments, make mistakes, and learn from them; and even draw connections between multiple subjects. STEM Wire describes a case study of Wake NC State University STEM Early College High School. Meaningful and deep learning on the part of the students were the biggest changes observed by the educators over earlier groups of pupils. The students asked more questions; drew more connections between concepts and engaged with the material more.

The changes seen in the case study are largely due to the self-exploratory nature of STEM education. The free exploration of a real-world question creates an open system of knowledge between the students and subjects that they investigate during their experiences. Students are guided through inquiry and the Scientific Method or Engineering process in which they are free to conduct research, experiments, and draw connections between their observations. The New York Times states that STEM activities naturally create a crossover between subjects that resembles problems in the real-world. Students are drawn into a world of ideas without boundaries, rather than focusing on one subject and how they are different.

  1.  STEM education creates future problem solvers:

Many organizations around the world are investing in STEM initiatives. Scholastic Education is particularly invested in the next generation of future problem solvers. Scholastic believes that the “Science” and “Engineering” in STEM provides a process that allows students to investigate into multiple topics and questions. The Scientific Method and Engineering Process are a step-by-step process used by students to ask questions, test ideas, and draw conclusions on their own. The students’ conclusions often come from drawing connections between multiple subjects and discussions with their peer groups. In the end, the student has a much deeper understanding of a problem and its possible solutions. For example, in a STEM-related problem or challenge, a student is given prompts to ask questions about the social, economic and environmental impacts of a decision they make. Scholastic believes that “engineering is about problem-solving and not just about building bridges and buildings”. All STEM careers involve problem-solving skills – and we should encourage students to understand that through STEM education.

Empirical research by Kristy M. Meyrick has also shown that STEM education, and the Engineering Process in general, provides students with a “systemic approach” to solving the unknown. Providing students with a clear path to investigate problems gives students the freedom and confidence to form a conclusion on their own. The ability of STEM students to form and test a hypothesis allows them to explore complex questions and come to their own conclusions. When you see a student have that “ah – ha” moment on their own, rather than purely parroting the memorized correct answer, the value of STEM becomes apparent. Suddenly students become more engaged with the topic and the possible outcomes of student discussions are endless.

  1.  STEM challenges create confidence by working through the unknown:

According to DRPF Consults, STEM education teaches students how to learn and provides students with a valuable skill that will never leave them – confidence. The confidence that students gain in their own ability to sort through data; test hypotheses; and come to a conclusion will stay with them forever. Whether they choose a STEM career or another discipline entirely, the 21st – Century skills gained from STEM education will follow wherever they go. Instead of telling a student that they are right or wrong, STEM education enables a student to become a lifelong learner in which they have the confidence to find an answer for his or herself.

Nature and Scientific American also strongly endorse bringing STEM education into the classroom. Find their great collection of STEM education articles here. Both believe that scientific inquiry allows students to “actively grapple” with a topic that they cannot answer by simply reading the material. The Scientific Method and Engineering Process pushes students to ask questions; make connections; draw inferences; test assumptions; and think critically about the world around them. There is currently a lot of discussion around the idea of confidence in the education world. We don’t only want students to feel confident in their abilities to memorize the anatomy of the human body. We also want students to have the confidence to learn through failures, and come to a conclusion on their own. Engaging students with the Scientific Method and Engineering Process at an early age can help create the confidence our students need. Creating this confidence early on can also have benefits in the future.

Nature argues that those students that were exposed to the struggle of STEM education early were also less likely to persist through the difficulties involved in a STEM-related post-secondary education. When a student study was conducted, one-fifth of students in the U.S. and Puerto Rico were able to attain their STEM degree. Forty-six to twenty-five percent of the students (depending on degree) in the study switched to a non-STEM degree; while seventeen to forty-three percent left school without a degree. Innovators of the future will need the confidence to struggle. They will need the ability to be lifelong learners. STEM education helps students create these skills they need for the future.

Our children deserve the power of knowledge and the confidence to learn. Join the conversation with STEM Village on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was written by Erin Carmody, an experienced educator, consultant, and Content Manager at STEM Village.