Defining STEM

by Jim Egenrieder (
NOVA K-20 STEM Education Outreach Coordinator for Arlington Public Schools, Alexandria City Public Schools, and Falls Church City Public Schools

"What is STEM?" continues to be a surprisingly common question.

Until recently, STEM was simply a focus or emphasis on any of the disciplines that make up the acronym.

Science - the process for answering questions using observation and/or experimentation, identifying variables and their effects, and making inferences; and the body of knowledge derived from that process.

Technology - any purposeful modification of the natural world, based on design.

Engineering - using design-based solutions to solve problems.

Mathematics - the study of relationships between things, real or imagined, based on logic, and often quantified with numbers.

The acronym STEM was established by Judith Ramaley in 2001, when she served as an NSF Program Director. She suggested STEM as an alternate to the initialism SMET Increasingly, STEM and particularly STEM Education have emphasized the integration of the disciplines with each other and with other traditional disciplines of social studies, reading and other language arts, world languages, health and physical education, and the visual and performing arts.

A frequently cited definition was provided by Tsupros, Kohler, and Hallinen (2009), although it does not actually appear in the cited report:

“STEM is an interdisciplinary approach to learning where rigorous academic concepts are coupled with real-world lessons as students apply science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in contexts that make connections between school, community, work, and the global enterprise enabling the development of STEM literacy and with it the ability to compete in the new economy.” 

Integrative STEM Education is often accomplished through Project-based Learning (PjBL), Problem-based Learning  (PbBL), and other forms of inquiry-driven investigation.  Authentic or "real-world" scenarios or problems, or the use of real data complement these strategies to enable teachers to facilitate learning activities that exercise the whole student.  Student work often results in real products or tangible outcomes that can be shared beyond the classroom, with the community or the whole world through the Internet.  These strategies also allow for collaborations between students, and between students, teachers and the community, and thereby develop important skills for the workplace, further study, and enhanced citizenship.

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