STEM, STEAM, STREAM … What the heck do these acronyms mean, and how do they relate to our children’s educations. Yvonne Walus explains.
What is STEM?
STEM is a way of teaching science, technology, engineering, and maths that promotes creative thinking, collaboration, and problem-solving. Instead of teaching the four as separate subjects, it combines their components into assignments like building a bridge or designing a town based on renewable energy.
Why is STEM important?
STEM originated as a response to growing concerns about students not being sufficiently prepared for today’s high-tech jobs. Science and engineering vacancies were anticipated to grow 70% faster than other jobs, and the forecasts indicated that with only 16% of school students interested in STEM subjects, there wouldn’t be enough qualified people to satisfy the demand. These figures from the United States are almost two decades old, yet today – worldwide – we’re still suffering from a shortage of engineers and scientists.
Science is the natural world around us, technology is part of our lives, without engineering there’d be no roads or computers, and mathematics is everywhere. By introducing children to STEM learning in a hands-on and relevant way, we can show them how enjoyable and relevant a job in a STEM field can be.
How to implement STEM education well
The philosophy behind STEM is that all four subjects should be taught together. However, some schools don’t have the know-how or the resources to implement this well, and they end up emphasising maths and science at the cost of engineering and technology. They teach the theory without practical applications, missing the chance to fuel the students’ imagination.
One opportunity for the students to unleash their creativity is at the EPRO8 Challenge. This annual competition is a technology, robotics, engineering, and problem-solving race. Students learn how to work in teams to design and build large structures using pulleys, motors, gears, wheels, and axles. They solve practical problems by constructing electronic circuits and robots. More schools could benefit from entering the competition, and from establishing their own engineering or robotics interest clubs.
Another STEM initiative is the Youth Summer School Camp. Every January, The University of Auckland hosts a two-week Rotary National Science and Technology Forum for students going into Year 13.
The New Zealand Government is taking STEM education seriously, and Curious Minds is one of their initiatives. The main objective of Curious Minds is to encourage and support all New Zealanders in their quest to engage with science and technology. They connect research with society and strive to make their projects community-oriented.
So what’s STEAM?
In the past few years, there’s been a movement towards rebranding STEM as STEAM, with the “A” standing for the arts. You can engage more students in science if you allow them to approach it in an artistic way, such as growing crystal gardens or making optical mood lamps. Art and science complement one another – just take Leonardo da Vinci as an example. Also, how can you teach STEM subjects without teaching our future inventors some philosophy, ethics, and history?
Despite these arguments, the STEAM movement has its opponents. One pointed out, “STEM was first coined to meet the need for people in STEM careers. We are not facing a shortage of people within Liberal Arts careers.” Another put it like this: “Art is a nice-to-have. However, we need more emphasis on STEM education in order to fill a gap in the job market. Let’s not water down the purpose of STEM. Combining science with artful expressions may appeal to a larger number of students, but isn’t it just false advertising? In reality, how many art students will switch to engineering?”
STREAM, STEMLE, METALS, STREM….
Some time ago, R for Reading was added to STEAM to form STREAM because reading is an essential part of education. STREAM’s opponents pointed out that some basics were too basic to mention, and there was no need to include reading and writing as a separate topic.
People continued to try to improve on STEM, however, adding subjects they believed deserved attention. Thus we got STEMLE (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, Law and Economics), METALS (STEAM + Logic), as well as STREM (Science, Technology, Robotics, Engineering, and Multimedia).
We could play with the alphabet all day. We could argue that learning a foreign language, engaging in sports, and minding your manners are all essential to developing all- rounded individuals. And, guess what? They are.
But, guess what again? The objective of STEM is not to raise well-rounded children – that’s what SCHOOL is for. By default, good teaching should include all of these elements. The purpose of STEM education is to grow more STEM students.
STEM and under-represented populations
Women as well as ethnic minorities are traditionally not well represented in STEM university degrees, nor in STEM jobs. It is hoped that STEM education will help correct this imbalance.