Meeting the Challenge of STEM Education

It is widely recognised that, in our modern world, school education across the STEM subjects of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics is becoming ever more important.  Less widely recognised is a need to review the whole approach taken across these subjects, to reflect present-day circumstances.

Below is a summary of the situation as we see it.  We identify a number of strategic approaches geared to improve STEM education to meet the fast-moving challenges of the future.  We also describe some exploratory work we have undertaken to help illuminate the way ahead.


 The Modern STEM Scene 

The pace of change and its impact

Science and technology advances are progressing at an accelerating pace.   New developments impact substantially on all of our lives.  They can lead to both desirable and undesirable outcomes that raise significant and often complex policy challenges.  A strong and up-to-date school education is important, not only to attract and prepare those who will go on to work in these fields, but also to produce a “scientifically literate” general adult population ready to encourage and take advantage of positive new developments, and also able to assess potential technical and ethical issues where public regulation may be required to avert serious and undesirable risks.


 The convergence of disciplines

Traditionally, for the past century, STEM education has commonly been viewed as comprising largely separate strands of study in essentially independent subjects.  At advanced levels any individual increasingly specialises in a single discipline or sub-discipline, with any companion studies in other fields being selectively designed simply to underpin the core study priorities of the “pure” discipline being pursued.

Over the last 25 years or so, the frontier thrusts of science have become increasing interdisciplinary in nature, as have the key innovative developments in engineering and industry, and also the important issues affecting the environment and health.  Progress is dependent on combining insights from several disciplines, involving collaboration between specialists working closely together.


 Need for an interdisciplinary outlook

So there is a need to focus often on the wider picture in STEM, recognising that the core insights attained from studies in separate subject disciplines often require to be brought together in order to be able to make progress in new areas.  It is important always to be on the look-out for how conceptual understanding established in studying one topic can be widely applied elsewhere, or how insights from another less familiar discipline may need to be drawn upon to support progress on a new topic in a learner’s separate specialist area of study.

However, the separate core disciplines remain vital.  STEM as a whole encompasses a truly vast range of knowledge, skills and insights, well beyond the capacity of any individual to master in full.  The individual separate disciplines have highly coherent conceptual and structural frameworks which can be developed in depth in a progressive way, accessible as a whole by a learner, and building up strong skills.  There is therefore a tension in STEM education: the whole range of subjects needs to be brought to bear in addressing front-line developments, yet this requires shared understanding between specialists who only have a full grasp of a part of the whole project.


Combining specialist depth with a broader less detailed grasp across the STEM-wide scene

To prepare students to be able to work in frontier areas, it remains important to develop a specialist understanding in their own core discipline.  However, nowadays, it should also be important to sustain a strong outward-looking culture.  Learners should always be encouraged to be inquisitive about

  • how specific current learning can be deepened by ideas and understanding drawn fundamentally from other relevant disciplines
  • how new concepts and understanding, built from a current topic of study, might be applicable and of value in other and wider contexts


How specialisms emerge as STEM education deepens

Specialist branching in the curriculum is something that emerges progressively as study moves to more advanced levels.  At pre-school and early primary levels education can be almost seamless.  Mathematics and, increasingly, computing become separately identified from quite an early point, but science and technologies are quite manageably able to be treated in an integrated manner till mid secondary.  Thereafter the main sciences of physics, chemistry and biology are generally developed separately, and engineering may separately emerge from the technologies.  Further branching will emerge only at university level, including the separate main themes of engineering and the fuller range of disciplines within the life sciences.  The timing and nature of this process is controversial, and needs to be thought through, for instance to do justice to the roots of earth and environmental sciences.   However this process is developed, it is important always to reinforce everywhere the “outward-looking culture” described above.


Key design Features for Excellence in STEM Education


1.  Priorities in STEM curriculum design

Through a series of research consultations in Scotland we identified widespread agreement on four driving priorities:

  1. to engage the learner’s interest and active participation in study
  2. to build the key STEM-relevant skills
  3. to develop and progressively deepen understanding of core ideas, insights, tools and strategies
  4. to meet the above aims by exploring a wide range of specific application topics reinforcing the power, reach and value of the skills and core ideas in a way that provides challenge and enables the rewards of attainable achievement

These need to be thought through for the particular level of course being designed.  Plans should take advantage of the range of knowledge and skills expected of learners at entry, and pay explicit attention to how these should be deepened and axtended on completion of the new work.

For further details of our work identifying this statement of priorities, see Transition from School to University and also Industry and the School Curriculum


2.  Understanding the “Big Ideas” of science and clarifying “Science Storylines”

Many commentators have stressed the centrality to science education of understanding the implications of what are widely categorised as "the big ideas of science."  However these are very often identified by a simple bulleted list of short phrases.  We believe that it is helpful to describe them in rather fuller detail, and expressed in a way that is appropriate at a given level of education.

We have analysed and documented these in a way that seemed appropriate and achievable by the time of entry to higher education.  We have alternatively described them as "core concepts" and as "key science storylines," though essentially they are expressions of the "big ideas" of the sciences.  We regard a proper grasp of these core ideas and their wide-ranging significance as the key foundation for effective progression towards degree and professional levels of competence.

The actual classroom curriculum in any science discipline, at any stage, will focus on a succession of specific topics.  The topics chosen clearly need to be able to be addressed in a way that builds on previous learning.  They should be recognisably important to understanding the world we live in, or as underpinning technology we find useful.  Importantly, topics should be presented in a way designed to be interesting and rewarding to study.  But in the end of the day it is not the specific topics that are most important, but the more fundamental core concepts and ideas that emerged or were reinforced through the study and understanding of the properties and behaviour of the specific topics investigated.

We have drafted a full description of the core understanding of key science concepts that all learners might reasonably hold by the time of entry to a STEM-based discipline at university.  See our paper on Science Storylines


3.  The STEM take on core skills

There are many ways of classifying skills.  It is common to refer superficially to a generalised list regarded as applicable with complete transferability across all areas of education and practice.  In reality, however, the component elements of relevant types of skills, and their depth of development, differ across different areas of education.

For STEM education we found it useful to describe skills development under nine headings:

     i.       basic skills in learning, study, self-organisation and task planning

     ii.      inter-personal communication and team working skills 

     iii.    numeracy: assessing and manipulating data and quantity

     iv.    critical and logical thinking

      v.      basic IT skills

     vi.    handling uncertainty and variability

     vii.  experimentation and prototype construction:  design and execution

     viii.scientific analysis

     ix.    entrepreneurial awareness

Our own work on this front:  for each of these headings we have drafted carefully defined statements of capability that should be demonstrable by the later levels of secondary education.  Full details can be accessed in the our paper:  An Analysis of Core STEM skills


4.  Connecting up STEM learning

The central core concepts and key STEM skills are typically touched on many times, at different year stages and in different subject contexts.  They are in essence emergent learning built up and deepening through the years of education.  The challenge is to ensure that the education process is linked-up , taking full advantage of all opportunities to reinforce, deepen and extend, the learner's understanding consistently.  It is critical to ensure that "the course" at any stage is not viewed simply as self contained and independent, but that ideas developed in any one context are relevant, and can be applied and developed further in other contexts explored elsewhere.  We are convinced that, with careful planning on this theme, there are major opportunities to strengthen and to deepen attainment in STEM education.

 Our own work in this area, in collaboration with teachers in Scotland, has identified the value of explicit descriptions of Learning Progression Pathways, some pilot examples of which we have published.


5.  Properly embedding mathematics in STEM, and links to engineering

There is often a tendency within science and technology teaching to minimise any need to use skills which have been introduced in mathematics by the level concerned.  This is extremely unfortunate, and is counter-productive for the relative superficiality this imposes on science and technology learning.  Systematic cross-referencing between mathematics and other STEM learning:

  •   reinforces the learner’s appreciation and mastery of the mathematics skill itself
  •   but also substantially deepens and extends learning in the science or technology topics concerned

There is a corresponding educationally positive relationship between learning within science and appreciating its useful practical exploitation, generally enabled by engineers.

For our part, in recognition of these issues, we have complemented our Science Storylines description with a paper on Key STEM tools and methodologies.  This aims to capture key characteristics of mathematics, engineering & technology, including for computing & information sciences.  Also touched upon are some key "ideas about science."