07/08/2013 05:11 pm ET Updated Sep 07, 2013

5 Steps to STEM Effectiveness

STEM education isn't complex. It's not a doctrine, a program, or a product. Yet defining and implementing STEM education continues to challenge the education community. One study found that:

"STEM Education" is defined in many ways by different groups, and this causes questions to arise as K-12 educators are told that their work is key to ensuring that the United States remains competitive in the global market.
--Hallinen, Judith et al., STEM Education in Southwestern Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon University, 2008.

From my experience, it helps to recognize that STEM disciplines do not exist in isolation from each other and incorporate what many call 21st century skills. With this recognition comes the responsibility or more positively, the opportunity, to creatively combine disciplines and skills to engage students on many levels. The National Governor's Association puts it this way:

Ultimately, STEM literacy means that a student possesses the ability to apply understanding of how the world works within and across the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math. STEM literacy is an interdisciplinary area of study that bridges the four areas; it does not simply mean achieving literacy in each of these strands or silos. A STEM-literate student also is experienced in problem-solving, analytical, communication, and technology skills.
--Promoting STEM Education: A Communications Tool Kit, National Governors Association

Advocates of STEM education need to recognize the challenges that face 21st century educators charged with implementing STEM programs. A number of barriers impede STEM success. In addition to vague and varied interpretations of the acronym, teachers and administrators continue to receive conflicting messages about education priorities. On the one hand STEM education requires teachers to integrate and collaborate. Yet, continued emphasis on accountability and alignment to discipline specific standards handcuffs educators' ability and motivation to innovate and explore new products and approaches.

To effectively implement a STEM program requires providing teachers with common planning time. Most STEM efforts require interdisciplinary, project-based learning. This challenges the very segmented and bell-driven school day that most of us recall from childhood and that continues to exist today. In addition to structural barriers, such as the daily schedule, one organization, the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity, has identified numerous "root causes" that impede equity and diversity in STEM education. Barriers to success come from outside the education community through messaging from media, family, society, and culture. One of today's buzzwords in education is "partnerships." This applies equally to STEM as to any endeavor. Creating a STEM literate population requires partnering with stakeholders in industry, policy, and post-secondary education. A gathering of stakeholders often reveals the extensive individual efforts already underway in any community. Suddenly, like when everyone shares the cards they hold in their hand, the game becomes much simpler to understand and play. Please don't forget to include the teachers -- whose schedules do not permit midday meetings. This sends a message that teachers are not part of the solution but the problem. Finally, don't get hung up on the acronym. To create a strong STEM program, one needs excellent ingredients -- teachers highly trained and proficient both in their discipline and in pedagogy.

5 Steps to STEM Effectiveness
  • Create a common, working definition of STEM
  • Provide teachers and administrators the time and flexibility to collaborate
  • Identify and address ingrained barriers to improving STEM equity and instruction
  • Engage outside partners early -- industry, post-secondary, and policy makers want programs to succeed
  • Don't get hung up on the acronym

This article originally appeared in SmartBlog-Education.