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STEM Education – What is it?

August 26, 2016

In the past four years at STEM School Chattanooga, I have had the honor of sharing what we do with thousands of visitors to our school. After they tour the school, which is a completely student led tour and provides the opportunity for visitors to interact with any student and any staff member, I typically am asked the same question… “How do you make this happen?” Often it is also connected with a disclaimer like “oh, and, well, we can’t do this, but we want STEM.”

It is in that vain that I am writing this blog post. Prior to visits, I hear often from others that they are implementing STEM with their students. When I ask more questions regarding what that means, the most common responses include the following:

  • We have added more math and science courses to our offerings.
  • We have added a STEM class to our school.
  • Our students all have their own laptops they can use at school for technology integration.
  • We do projects.
  • We have partnered with a local training facility, like a community college, to provide a new program (like Computer Electronics, Manufacturing Technology, etc.).
  • Every year we have a design challenge that students can attempt to do.

With all of these responses, I tend to cringe some. Not because any of the above are bad initiatives, but because there is a lack of vision in the STEM initiative. The answers focus on stuff.

Don’t get me wrong though. Each of the above can be argued is STEM. We can spend hours debating that premise. Instead, I would rather spend my time demystifying what STEM is rather than the merit of each STEM add on program.

What is STEM?

If you Google ‘what is STEM’, there are several interesting trends that pop up. Let’s begin with the definition of STEM.

The first item to pop up in a ‘what is STEM’ Google search is a general definition from Live Science that reads “STEM is a curriculum based on the idea of educating students in the four disciplines – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – in an interdisciplinary and applied approach.” The good part of this definition is that it includes the approach that STEM is not learning science, technology, engineering, and math in isolation. However, it lacks a vastly important piece that we will discuss later. It also implies that STEM is mutually exclusive from other content like the arts or humanities. We will address that piece later as well.

Continuing on with our search for ‘what is STEM’, the first link you can click on in this same Google search connects you to the US Department of Education. Reading here you will find that “in a world that’s becoming increasingly complex, where success is driven not only by what you know, but by what you can do with what you know, its more important than ever for our youth to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to solve tough problems, gather and evaluate evidence, and make sense of information.” In essence, the US Department of Education is very interested in our students learning “to solve tough problems, gather and evaluate evidence, and make sense of information”. Fantastic! The US Department of Education has hit on something crucial to STEM education. Unfortunately, in the same paragraph it states, “these are the types of skills that students learn by studying science, technology, engineering, and math – subjects collectively known as STEM.” Yes, these subjects are certainly important. Yet just being in more science classes is the lowest level of STEM implementation. We can definitely have a more impactful implementation.

We can continue down our links through ‘what is STEM’ and find more definitions and reasons for STEM. But, the question of ‘what is STEM’ in schools will become more ambiguous. Where it does not, you will become to think either that you just need to add some sort of STEM class to the already full academic curricula or that you need to make sure you have a Biology II class after Biology I (i.e. we need to add more math and science classes to our course options).

So, where do we go to figure out STEM? Well, before we can truly answer that question, it may serve us some purpose to investigate the engineering piece to STEM. Most people can talk about science and mathematics, as these were courses we took in school. They can also speak to technology in some format. Heck, we all have a smartphone. But very few have any idea what is engineering.

A very quick definition of engineering can be found at the site Sounds like a good place to start. According to this site, “engineering is the application of scientific knowledge to solving problems in the real world.” The key part of the definition is the action, i.e. solving problems. It then makes sense to try and figure out how engineers solve problems. It will not take you long in this endeavor to discover the engineering design process. The only issue you will have is that there seems to be one that is 5 steps, another that is 7, another that is 8 steps, and yet another with 6 steps and an additional 3 steps, and so on and so forth. Which is correct?

It is at this point that you are finally ready to really understand STEM. There is not a single correct answer for the engineering design process. What is correct is that there IS a process. Again, what is correct about the engineering design process is that there IS a process.

Is there a STEM process? Well, here are some STEM processes you can easily find at various levels of education:

  1. Stanford University D.School: Empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test
  2. US Dept of Education: Solve tough problems, gather and evaluate evidence, make sense of information
  3. Metro Early College High on the Ohio State University campus: effectively communicate, inquire, make responsible decisions, effectively collaborate, critically think, engage in learning
  4. Sam Houston Elementary STEM School located near the University of Tennessee: ask, imagine, plan, create, improve

So what is STEM?

STEM is a combination of process and content. STEM requires you to both teach and have students learn the key process skills your organization has chosen. Can you pick the wrong process skills? I guess you could, but more than likely they will fall somewhere along the same group as the examples above. The error in STEM initiatives is not in picking the wrong process skills; it is that you do not pick any. Instead of being intentional in teaching a set of process skills, you hope they just happen.

The second half of the STEM combination is content. The best STEM content is where you develop opportunities for students to integrate the four STEM content pillars of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The more integrated the task among the four, the better the STEM content. Learning science in isolation is the lowest form of STEM learning. That is one content area in mutual exclusivity. Quality STEM content tasks are not simple or easy (or easy to develop!). The more integrated the task, the higher form of STEM content learning will be taking place. A very high level task might be asking students to build a robot to navigate an unknown maze. This requires students learning about circuits (science), programming the robot (technology), integrating mechanical and electrical systems (engineering), and applying geometric angles and ratios for the movement (mathematics).

The obvious question becomes, which is more important – process or content? That is the wrong question. The question should be: how should we build out STEM education at our school or learning environment? That answer is as follows.

  1. Define the important STEM processes for your school or learning environment. Remember, it’s not about the “right” answer here. It’s about having clear processes in place. Stanford is different from MIT who is different from Virginia Tech. However, they are all correct STEM processes.
  2. Prioritize process over content. Make sure that process permeates as many facets of what you do as possible. Process does not replace content. However, process should be elevated so that it becomes ingrained in content delivery and learning.
  3. Develop and implement quality STEM tasks. Work to develop and finds opportunities to implement STEM tasks that integrate multiple STEM letters. The more integrated the task, the better.

Learning environments and schools that embrace the above approach will be able to create high quality learning opportunities for students, and not just in STEM coursework. One of the most flawed statements in STEM education is the idea that STEM includes only science, technology, engineering and mathematics. That is a fallacious statement. The people that expound this vision of STEM only think of STEM as content. Since STEM is process and content, STEM is actually hugely transferrable across a school and learning environment.

In order to see this in a real setting, let’s take STEM School Chattanooga as an example. At STEM School Chattanooga we have three process tenets – collaboration, critical thinking and innovation. Over the course of our first four years, we placed an emphasis on these three tenets as part of as many things we do as possible. These processes are not only a part of our math and science courses. They are embedded in the arts, social studies, language arts, and all of our courses. They are also embedded into how we formulate school structures, student and staff initiatives, parent involvement, and on and on.

The focus on process has led to our school also developing our four-year plan of study. The four-year plan is not just a list of content courses. The four-year plan also details out process development. Below is the process part of our four-year plan with students.


  1. 9th – Diversity: work with others different than me
  2. 10th – Accountability: hold teammates accountable
  3. 11th – Time Management: manage time for team projects
  4. 12th – Networking: network with experts / professionals

Critical Thinking

  1. 9th – Personal Ownership: start with self in using resources and acquiring knowledge
  2. 10th – Evaluation: quality control, reflecting on work and how to improve
  3. 11th – Prototyping: iterative process, developing and testing multiple solutions
  4. 12th – Expert Knowledge: applying expert and professional knowledge in solution development


  1. 9th – Originality: be original in your work
  2. 10th – Failure Redefined: application not working is part of the process
  3. 11th – Desirability: create desirable products and solutions
  4. 12th – Invent: define problem, develop solution and invent new product

Please note that just because we focus on an item like diversity during a students 9th grade year, that does not mean we ignore accountability, time management and networking. It just means we have a focal point for student growth in that year for the process skill. It also means that each year the focal point is a more advanced piece in the process skill. Working on the same level of collaboration in 9th and 12th grade does not make sense. The process being learned by the student should become more developed, just as their reading and writing should.

Having a process focus is vital to STEM learning. Having a process focus is also vital to creating a highly developed STEM culture. But remember, STEM is two-fold.

STEM education is process and content.

When combining a process focus to integrated STEM tasks, STEM education really happens… well!









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