What is STEM? | Understanding STEM Education


What is STEM?

Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics. These are the STEM subjects.

Understanding what it is – ie the most important set of learning in the 21st Century – is a little trickier.

Understanding the STEM-based approach

STEM is about using the combined efforts and principles of each of its subjects to lead to better learning outcomes.

Let’s think about it this way:

Science (and the scientific method) can help you discover the boiling point of mercury through testing.

Technology can help you understand coding and how to use and manipulate complex machines.

Engineering can empower you to build solar-powered cars.

Mathematics can help you plot a parabolic path.

STEM can land a rover on Mars.

As powerful as each of these subjects are on their own, we’ve only just begun to see what they can achieve when working together.

Why is STEM so important?

Because the future of work demands it.

Before we get into that, let’s make a small clarification: STEM is not digital literacy.

Sure, you can write a spiffy email, send a tweet while half asleep and can plan a mean birthday on Facebook – but it’s not quite STEM, and it’s definitely not enough in the workforce of the future.

STEM careers and the future workforce

The ways we work and view employment are changing rapidly. In the next 10-15 years, there will be three main forces affecting the shape of the global workforce: automation, globalisation, and collaboration. At the centre of each of these factors is the reliance on the understanding of STEM.


Basically, machine work replacing human work.

The continual development of AI and the introduction of more efficient hardware and software could see 40% of current jobs becoming automated.

One question remains – which side of the automation do we want our young people to be on?

For every program and piece of machinery, there needs to be someone creating, maintaining and improving the systems. An understanding of STEM is crucial to adapt to the new world of automation.


Water, distance and travel sickness are no longer barriers to overseas work. ‘Virtual migration’ is the term used to describe digital offshoring – basically, outsourcing skilled labour to cheaper workforces.

Around 11% of service sector industry jobs are at risk to overseas workers.

We can ensure that young people are equipped to thrive in the more competitive environments of the future by being at the forefront of STEM learning.


Chatting with your deskmate isn’t going to be enough anymore – if you have a deskmate at all.

Casual, part-time and self-employment is on the rise, as is the norm of a secondary income. Actually pulling that off requires the skills to work across multiple platforms and with entirely different and (hopefully) unified teams.

Being able to use, manipulate and master different systems will be an expected part of work going forward – all skills that are bolstered through STEM learning.

3. Get Hands-On

What are the challenges facing STEM?

STEM as combined curricula is still young – between 20-30 years old.

To put this in perspective, rote learning has probably been around since we started writing around 5000 years ago…so we should expect some growing pains.

Our biggest current challenges are:

Teacher anxiety and lack of teacher support

When we’re lucky and the stars have aligned, our teachers are placed in positions where they can spread the knowledge of subjects they’re devoted to and passionate about. This breeds confidence in learning and makes everyone in the classroom a winner.

Unfortunately, the stats suggest that the opposite is often true and that it’s a growing, cyclical trend.

A dearth of teachers qualified in the STEM fields leads to non-qualified teachers being pushed into teaching subjects they’re not confident with.

These teachers, already time-poor and under ever-increasing workloads, might not have the time to develop the skills needed, or get the support for professional development.

Students are – for better or worse – quite savvy and impressionable – so there’s a chance that a teacher’s anxiety might be passed on to their students…leading to them being more unlikely to continue their STEM education.

Complex content delivery

Delivering a mathematics test, setting up a microscope, or tasking new technology can be as simple as handing it out, placing it on the table, or turning a program on.

Creating an activity that uses problem-solving skills to combine all of these?

That’s hard.

It’s harder knowing that students interest in STEM might be directly affected by the way that their content is delivered.

Compounding this is the question of how to assess students. As individual learners, students will have different strengths and challenges, and progress at different rates. Without a clear picture of individual students’ and class results, it can be difficult to plan future lessons for student development.

Limited resources leads to limited engagement

Nothing says learning like getting your hands dirty or seeing something explode.

Bringing these into the classroom is another matter, as even smaller, simpler tasks, activities and challenges might take hours and hours for a teacher to put together – and that’s if they have the resources available to them.

Fortunately, there are ways to bring the excitement of STEM into the classroom that don’t require bunsen burners and motherboards.

How can I improve STEM in my school?

If you’re looking to teach STEM in your primary or high school, there are a few easy ways you can start:

Treat students as scientists, mathematicians, engineers and technologists

If they’re acting the part, then they’re doing the part! Assume your students are professional specialists and set your lessons and activities to reflect this. Allow them enough room to perform their own investigations, find and compare data, and discuss and evaluate their findings.

Start early

This applies to both age and in-class. Helping young people get into the rhythm of discovery, questioning and problem-solving can set learning behaviours for the rest of their lives.

As for the class – try to base lessons around STEM thinking rather than introducing it later as a separate approach.

Do it often!

Practice makes perfect – this goes for all learners, whether they’re students or teachers! Being consistent with STEM approaches, making sure that the classroom gets to experience the joy of exploration and discovery-based learning, is a sure path to STEM confidence.

Invest in a STEM program

Investing in a STEM software program has some huge benefits:

  • It can save teachers time by providing lesson plans, activities and challenges
  • It allows teachers to check on progression for individual students and classes
  • It provides thousands of hours worth of science content
  • It can increase student engagement


Journal of Education and Training – Barriers to Successful Implementation of STEM Education (DOI: 10.11591/edulearn.v7i2.220)

Science Education International – Engaging Students in STEM Education (ERIC Number: EJ1044508)

ACER – Challenges in STEM Learning in Australian Schools

Foundation for Young Australians – THE NEW BASICS: Big data reveals the skills young people need for the New Work Order

Office of the Chief Scientist – Australian’s STEM Workforce

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