By Mary Shumway
State Director of Career, Technical, and Adult Education
Utah State Office of Education
If you live in the U. S., the buzz surrounding “STEM” is unavoidable. But the lack of a clear definition of STEM – or even its component parts (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) – may have us buzzing without fully recognizing basic differences in our understanding. “STEM 101” is an effort to increase your awareness of STEM, and to recognize the various foundations upon which different conversations about STEM are based.
The buzz around STEM began with debates in education and immigration as concerns were raised about a lack of qualified candidates for high-tech jobs. The STEM buzz also fed into concerns about the way subjects were being taught “in silos.” Science and math are long-recognized “core academics,” and the introduction of technology and engineering to the mix was an effort to highlight the need to apply science and math in better integrated curriculum.
The U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) published their first STEM-Designated Degree Program List in 2008, identifying college majors associated with occupations for which foreign workers were needed. In education there were efforts to help students understand rigorous academics by applying science, technology, engineering and math in “real-world” contexts, and assuring that students were developing the 21st century skills that would make them college and career ready. The buzz grew, and there were other groups that saw value in associating with STEM.
Utah has its share of organizations, partnerships and government agencies working to increase participation in STEM including the STEM Action Center. The STEM Action Center was funded in the most recent session of our state legislature, and charged with:
>Supporting instructional technology and related professional development.
>Developing the STEM education endorsement and related incentive program.
>Promoting STEM in middle school, in part through enhancing CTE-Intro.
>Promoting STEM education initiatives that result in certifications in high schools across the state.
So, what’s a person to do? Perhaps this background has only served to confuse you further, but here are the two main points: (1) There is no universally accepted definition of what STEM is. (2) The emphasis you see on STEM is the result of various (and many) efforts to make STEM – be a STEM industry, a STEM program of study, or a STEM occupation – more attractive. You, as a student or potential worker, are being asked to invest your time and other resources (college tuition), so you need to know how to critically analyze the information about STEM being offered. Dr. Kris Dobson (an expert in career assessments, occupational data, and college and career planning), advises everyone who is exploring their college and career options – STEM or otherwise – to ask some key questions as they consider career information:
S – Consider the source of the information. Is it a college or company that is motivated to recruit new students or workers, or is it an organization that is a respected developer of descriptive economic information?
T – Look twice. Think about the information as a whole; does it make sense on the surface? Then break it down to consider specific claims (about STEM industries, education, occupations) that are being made and judge the validity of those claims.
E – Evaluate the information based on the methods used to gather, analyze and interpret the data. For example, if information comes from a survey, who conducted the survey, and who (and how many) answered the survey?
M – Finally, ask yourself whether the information is meaningful to you, and – if so – how it can be applied in your decision-making?
In today’s complex world, where information is readily available, but not always of high quality, critical thinking is a key to making good decisions. Is critical thinking a “STEM skill?” What do you think? What do you know about the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in occupations that are of interest to you?