Where is the S.T.E.M. in STEM?

As you look through the eight Elements and the STEM school components, you may notice what seems like a lack of items that relate specifically to the S.T.E. and M. (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines. In our conversations with STEM school leaders and teachers, it has become increasingly evident that when they say STEM, they don’t just mean these disciplinary subjects. When we ask about the missions and goals of their schools, most often they describe the importance of things like engaging students with real-world problems, preparing them for the workforce, and developing them as critical thinkers and active citizens.

The STEM disciplines themselves manifest in a variety of ways in the inclusive STEM high schools that participate in the S3 study. In some of the schools, the school model focuses heavily on STEM subjects, often providing more rigorous courses in science and math than what is required at the state level, and/or integration of engineering or technology courses. However, instructional practices and culture in these schools are often equally, if not more, important to their STEM identity. In many inclusive STEM high schools we work with, the STEM disciplinary focus is more subtle, and their self-identification as “STEM School” comes more directly from their focus on pedagogy and the school culture. In all cases, it is clear that some of the most valued components of STEM schools are not STEM-discipline specific, but relate to broader, transferrable, lifelong skills.

Many of the ideas and instructional approaches employed by STEM schools predate the STEM movement. Educational philosophers such as Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, and Bruner have advocated for inquiry and constructivist approaches for over a century. They argued for student autonomy, relevance, collaboration with peers, and learning-by-doing. They encouraged educators to view students as active participants in their own learning, and considered citizenship and creative and inventive thinking to be important student outcomes. None of them called it “STEM,” but approaches and end-goals for students advocated by such philosophers are strikingly similar to what STEM school leaders mean when they talk about STEM today.

The STEM school Elements reflect these ideas, as identified by inclusive STEM school educators themselves: embracing problem- and project-based approaches; personalizing students’ learning; creating a sense of community and family; equipping students with the skills necessary for college and for the workplace; and connecting with the community. STEM schools work to meet these goals through an integrated approach to learning and rigorous coursework in all disciplines.

Thus, while there may seem at first glance to be a lack of STEM discipline-related components in the S3 framework, this is a reflection of the broader definition of STEM that many school leaders have adopted. These schools certainly focus on giving their students high-quality and challenging coursework in STEM subjects, but also in all of the disciplines they teach, and in the context of all of the other things they are working to accomplish. The STEM disciplines are there, but STEM is more than the sum of its S. T. E. and M. parts.