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Putting the “E” in STEM

The acronym STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. STEM is an initiative dedicated to increasing students’ exposure to these concepts in an effort to produce a workforce that can compete in today’s global market. A recent poll asked educators to identify what each letter of the acronym stood for. Overwhelmingly the S, T and M gave us no problem. The E however, was another matter. A majority of people thought that the E stood for “Education”. For many educators, finding out that the E stands for “Engineering” turns them off from STEM all together. They simply don’t believe that they can teach “Engineering”. Well guess what? They are wrong!

By definition “Engineering” means to develop economical and safe solutions to practical problems, by applying mathematics and scientific knowledge while considering technical constraints. So engineering itself IS STEM. But let’s look deeper at that definition. Developing solutions to problems? Applying math concepts? Thinking about safety? Utilizing scientific knowledge? Do these things sound closer to what you do in the classroom? Or could be?

The E in STEM could simply be boiled down to problem solving. Let’s look at a typical science experiment. Most educators utilize STEM techniques such as performing an experiment, taking measurements, collecting data and using spreadsheets software to chart and analyze that data. What if we take that a step further? How about if, instead of handing the students the equipment and procedure necessary we ask them to figure that part out too? By supplying students with the intended goal, guiding them with a few “starting points” and pointing out important safety concerns we can leave the “design” of the experiment to the students. When students have to figure out the HOW of the experiment they develop those problem solving skills. Thus they achieve the ultimate goal of the E in STEM.

Another important factor of engineering is learning by trial and error. Very few professional engineers succeed in every project the first time. Learning as you go and figuring out what needs to be fixed and tried again are key skills for an engineer. What would this look like in the typical classroom? Often constraints such as time and cost of materials make it hard for us to encourage the trial and error method of problem solving. By encouraging students to “sketch out a plan” on paper and try out that plan using cheaper materials before doing “the real thing” we are helping them see the importance of learning through mistakes. As I often tell my students “Do not ask me what is ‘sposta’ happen… tell me what did happen”. When students experience that often our results lead us down a different path than we expected they learn the patience to keep trying and the skill of thinking through the problem.

So don’t be afraid of the E. Remember that it can also “stand” for “engaging”, “exciting”, “enticing” in conjunction with problem solving and design. The important part is incorporating the skills that are necessary to engineering. Students who learn while applying these skills will be better prepared to take the tougher classes in college and become the mechanical, structural and chemical engineers of the world. THAT is the main goal of STEM in the classroom.

Posted on February 10, 2010 by Michael Gorman

Noreen Strehlow says:
16-Feb-10 08:27 PM

It is mentioned that by encouraging students to “sketch out a plan” on paper and try out that plan using cheaper materials before doing “the real thing” we are helping them see the importance of learning through mistakes. Having students create things in virtual worlds gives them almost unlimited and cheap materials and unlimited opportunities to explore what works and what doesn't. We should be making sure we have virtual experiences available to really flesh out the STEM exploration.

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Meet the Contributors

Mike Gorman

Mike is an advocate for transforming education and bringing 21st Century Skills to classrooms. He was awarded Indiana STEM Educator of the Year and honored as a Microsoft 365 Global Education Hero.
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Lance Rougeux

Lance has been featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer and was recently highlighted in The Emergency Teacher, a book about urban teaching.
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Kyle Schutt

Kyle has worked with educators throughout the country to help them better understand how technology and digital media can be used to support instruction, motivate students, and increase passion for learning.
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