What is STEM Education?


As long as there has been education, from the ancient Egyptians’ library built by Ashurbanipal, the king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (685-627 BCE), to Confucius during the Zhou Dynasty (551-479 BCE), to Hippocrates (c. 460-370 BCE), Socrates (c. 470-399 BCE), and Aristotle (c. 384-322 BCE), there has been debate about how it should be organized, managed, who it should be for, and how knowledge should be disseminated to people (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2011).  Educators and critics have tried to understand through philosophical debates, how an educational system is able to adequately service all students.  For example, educational theorists such as John Dewey in Democracy and Education (1997), Paolo Freire in Education for Critical Consciousness (2005), Kenneth Howe in his Equality of Educational Opportunity (1993), and W.E.B. DuBois’ “Talented Tenth” (1903) all articulate a passionate belief that African Americans need greater access to higher education.  A racial gap is apparent when one looks at the achievement of White students compared to the achievement (or rather underachievement) of those marginalized such as African-American and Hispanic students.  What has become known and accepted as the opportunity gap, can unfortunately predict a child’s success in public education based solely on skin color (Carter, 2013).  How does one “not merely apply theory, but use it to create equity-oriented and meaningful change in ourselves and the systems we’re in” (Gutierrez, 2010, p. 104)?  For some, the answer lies in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education.  In this review, I will identify the current academic research of STEM education; Critical Race Theory; racial consciousness in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) classrooms; and the differing perspectives of what constitutes STEM education.  I will identify gaps in the literature that future research will need to focus on in order to provide recommendations for helping to create equitable education structures for students of color, while simultaneously supporting these traditionally under-performing students with STEM foundational thinking.

What is STEM Education?

STEM education focuses on integrating science, technology, engineering, and mathematics into a unique learning experience for students.  It is not just a subset of these individual content areas; rather, this transdisciplinary pedagogical approach to instruction, allows the student to take what they have learned in specific content areas, research a current problem, design a solution to that problem, test that solution, and share their findings with real stakeholders.  STEM education in particular engages students by helping them develop a capacity to identify, analyze, evaluate, and solve real-world problems.

Definition of Terms in STEM Foundational Thinking

STEM connects the principles of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to solve problems faced by individuals and society; consequently, STEM-focused teaching and learning instills a deep and extensive understanding of STEM content applying it to the real world.  Students who participate in STEM instructional activities collaboratively engage in developing the following skills, which are essential for solving real-world problems: (a) critical thinking; (b) scientific inquiry; (c) applying specific content knowledge to real world contexts; (d) the engineering design process; (e) evidence-based reasoning and argumentation; and (f) effective written and oral communication.

Critical thinking.  Critical thinking is an important STEM skill that takes time and practice. It requires students to understand their own reasoning, while dissecting their thinking, and looking at how that thinking is constructed. Finally, critical thinking requires students to evaluate and judge the quality of their own or another’s thinking.

Scientific inquiry.  Scientific inquiry is vital to understand scientific concepts, as well as “the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work” (National Science Education Standards, 2004, p. 23).  Students who participate in scientific inquiry during STEM instructional activities formulate questions that can be answered through investigation.  Students must have a content knowledge that is specific to various aspects of the real-world problem being investigated, while engineering solutions that can be tested scientifically.

Content knowledge application.  STEM foundational thinking and instructional activities draw on a base of content knowledge.  In order to tackle real-world problems, students need to be able to apply a variety of core content knowledge (e.g., mathematics, science, social studies, technology, critical literacy skills).

Engineering design process.  The engineering design process originated in the field of engineering.  It is a cycle of steps to follow in order to develop a solution to a particular problem.  By helping students build a strong foundation in problem-solving, teachers allow students to use cross-disciplinary tools for discovery and for developing solutions to problems that are open-ended and embedded in the real world.  The engineering design process includes: (a) identifying the problem; (b) exploring possible solutions or researching needed information; (c) designing a solution; (d) creating or building the prototype solution; (e) testing the idea; and (f) redesigning or modifying the solution to make it better.

Evidence-based reasoning.  Identifying sound evidence and drawing logical conclusions (i.e., evidence-based reasoning) is critical to problem solving.  This skill allows students to transfer knowledge from one content area to another and apply it to potentially unrelated real-world contexts.

Effective communication.  Communication is a learning and innovation skill (Framework for 21st Century Learning, 2007).  Effective written and oral communication requires students to “articulate thoughts and ideas effectively” while informing, instructing, motivating, or persuading others (Framework for 21st Century Learning, 2002).