What’s All the Fuss About STEM?

by Kirk Iwasaki | Lakeshore Senior Product Designer

STEM

Earlier this year, I saw an ad for a local STEM summer camp—and I knew STEM had finally gone mainstream. On the radio, in newspaper articles and now even in summer camp, more and more people are talking about STEM, and many people may be wondering, “What’s all the fuss about?”

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STEM is short for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Those subjects have been taught in schools for a very long time, so what’s so new about STEM? The difference with STEM education is that it doesn’t see subjects like Science and Math as separate fields. Instead, the fields are seen as interrelated, part of a bigger picture that helps people understand how the world works—and solve real-life problems.

STEM is becoming more prominent today because there is a growing demand for people with “21st century” skills in the modern workforce. In addition to jobs we might typically label “scientist” or “engineer,” there are more diverse jobs popping up that require similar skill sets—from software coder to filmmaker. The number of jobs that require STEM-related skills is expected to increase faster than any other type of job in the next decade—yet fewer students are acquiring the skills needed to succeed in those jobs. In order for the U.S. to remain competitive in a global economy—and in order for children to adequately prepare for college and a future career—it is important for them to be immersed in STEM education from an early age.

So, how do you go about introducing seemingly complex concepts to children as early as preschool? It turns out that it’s actually not that difficult. Children are naturally curious about their world, and STEM is all about exercising that curiosity—asking questions about the world and then planning and testing ideas to answer those questions.

Below are some ideas that parents and teachers might consider when introducing STEM concepts to young children in the classroom and at home.

  • Make STEM simple and exciting.
    STEM projects and activities should pique children’s interest, inspire them to take an active interest in what they are learning and motivate them to want to learn more. When children enjoy completing STEM projects, they are more likely to pursue inquiry-based learning in the future. Children benefit from hands-on, thought-provoking projects that provide opportunities to learn through play, as well as projects that are relevant to their own life experiences. For example, STEM concepts can be related to a favorite storybook or to something children see and experience in their everyday lives. Think: Can you use your wooden blocks to build a bridge like the one in the story? Or, how might you make a tower out of marshmallows? What tools and supplies would you need?
  • Build children’s understanding of the design process.
    Children benefit from completing STEM projects that incorporate the design process used by real engineers. While the design process can take slightly different forms, it has four basic steps. First, children plan a solution to a given problem or challenge. Next, children create a model of their solutions using the materials available to them. Then, children test their model to see if it works. Finally, children ask questions—analyzing the results and identifying any improvements they could make. Typically, children will not be successful on the first try. It is important that children understand that “failure” is perfectly OK—and is a natural part of learning. Then, children should be encouraged to refine their ideas and try again until they find a successful solution.
  • Solve real-world problems.
    STEM education is designed to give children the confidence they need to tackle the challenging problems of the future. So, children will benefit from projects that are grounded in the real world—such as designing an earthquake-proof building or creating a working aircraft. As children look for solutions to problems and challenges, they should be encouraged to think critically, troubleshoot, collaborate with others and persevere—in the same way that scientists and engineers do in real-life settings.