STEM – Alphabet Soup for Everyone!

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By Jackie Speake

Recently, I was asked the question, “How did the arts get added to STEM curricula?” I hesitated for a moment, knowing this person was really asking how the STEAM movement began, and I thought to myself, “Aren’t we still trying to get the STEM movement rolling?”

I thought back to my recent past as a District Administrator in the Curriculum and Instruction department in a school district that served more than 100,000 students. Every school in the district was competing for the “top” students to enroll in their STEM Academy. I remember asking the obvious question, “What makes this school’s STEM curriculum a STEM program?”

More times than I can count, this question resulted in the following answer: “The STEM Academy is designed for our gifted students.”


They would continue: “…and since we are a magnet school for the arts, it is really a STEAM program.”


Isn’t STEM for all students?

Don’t we want all students to be problem solvers and critical thinkers? Don’t all teachers integrate the arts as a way to differentiate and individualize learning? Note: Eventually, a colleague of mine and I ended up writing a book about this very topic – yes, we wrote the book on STEM – because we realized these questions needed to be answered – this blog is the cliff notes version for “Designing Meaningful STEM Lessons” (Huling and Speake Dwyer, 2018).

The vision of what STEM should look like in the classroom leaves many with more questions than answers.

Is STEM the integration of some or all four of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines? The introduction of more players to the team of four becomes even more confusing:

  • Inclusion of the Arts results in a STEAM program.
  • Inclusion of the Arts and Reading results in a STREAM program.
  • Inclusion of the Arts, Reading and Social Studies results in a STREAMSS program.

At what point do we stop adding letters to STEM and start calling it by its original name, curriculum?

My response to those who want to add more letters to the STEM acronym is that we must first get our STEM house in order before we include more disciplines into the already ambiguous acronym of STEM. If we are teaching STEM as a process, then design thinking and research are already players at the table.

Either way, the question remains: what is STEM?

The acronym “STEM” first appeared in the 1990s and has since been integrated into the educational setting almost as much as the term Literacy. STEM can refer to anything that involves the four disciplines of science, mathematics, technology and engineering. The most natural integration of these disciplines can occur between mathematics and science, since we use mathematics to help explain observations of the natural world. Engineering design process needs to be connected to the science phenomenon or concept and is not just launching rockets and building robots and bridges. It is critical that students become familiar with technology, and so, the use of technology has become critical to the application of science, engineering, and mathematics.

Even with the release of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), recognizing the similarity between STEM initiatives and the desired outcomes of the performance expectations described in the NGSS, classroom application of meaningful STEM lessons remains elusive.

The reason many lessons fail the litmus test of a quality STEM lesson is that the How does not match the Why. Unfortunately, in far too many cases of Engineering Design Challenges, there is no Why, let alone a Why matched to a How. Hands-on science activities are not enough; what is required is a hands-on and minds-on approach.

So what are the characteristics of a meaningful STEM lesson?

  • STEM lessons focus on real-world issues and problems about the natural world (the Why)
  • STEM lessons apply rigorous mathematics and science content that students are learning (the How)
  • STEM lessons are guided by the engineering design process (the How)
  • STEM lessons immerse students in hands-on inquiry and open-ended exploration (Habits of Mind)
  • STEM lessons involve students in productive teamwork (Skills for New Economy)
  • STEM lessons allow for multiple right answers and reframe failure as a necessary part of learning (reminds me of the quote from Thomas A. Edison – I have not failed… I have just found 10,000 ways that do not work!)

What if, instead, we prepare students with the knowledge, skills, and tools (habits of mind via the science and engineering practices) to develop solutions for problems that don’t yet exist? What if we present a science question about the natural world (the human problem, the Why) and use engineering and mathematics to design the solution, which could very well result in a new technology to address the problem (the How)?

With decades of research behind it, educators appreciate the power of inquiry.

Through inquiry, students are able to interact with a scientific phenomenon. They observe and discuss concepts with their peers (speaking and listening), providing them opportunities to experience and explain this phenomenon from many different perspectives using mathematics and design thinking (engineering and arts).

By its very nature, inquiry is problem-based learning, and as such the process of inquiry and STEM allow for varied learning strengths requiring the use of a range of resources (research and literacy), and provides opportunities for student claims through evidence-based reasoning (new economy skills).

Ultimately, this is what educators want for ALL students.