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  • Pam Ray

STEM/STEAM Beyond the Traditional Definitions

Career paths to business, the sciences, education, the trades, and basically all 21st century jobs require skill-sets and learning processes that we already understand.

“The key in all of this is to know you’re not alone in raising the 21st century STEM workforce.”

The Menu

If you’re in the habit of making your kids’ lunches, you probably know how to slap two pieces of bread together to make a quick meal. So it will not be a stretch for you to embrace today’s menu: The Stem Sandwich. It’s a simple recipe. Simply surround your kids (or sandwich them) in STEM. The bottom slice, or the base, is keeping your kids engaged in STEM activities at home. (STEM Head- Start: What Parents Can Do to Bring STEM Basics Home) The top slice, is keeping your kids engaged at school. Ready? Smush.

Keeping the lid on - or balancing your kids’ STEM involvement in the classroom - will require you to do a bit of learning- and asking. How are your children being taught? What techniques and activities are science, math and even English and creative writing teachers introducing to engage your kids in the new STEM economy and their future jobs? Take a look at these basic “concepts” behind the formal definitions of STEM. The concepts are brought about in the classroom but can be nurtured at home, through community activities, and in team sports and after-school programs. They’ll help you ask the right questions.

The Two Concepts - Beyond the Definitions

The first is interdisciplinary learning – weaving together knowledge and experience from multiple specialties to create solutions. Students experience how things are interrelated across different subjects by working with teams of people who have a variety of expertise. By assimilating each perspective, students learn how to come at problems, and solve them, from various points of view.

For instance, teachers from an Oregon middle school chose weather balloons as an area of study. In science class, they launched the balloon and graphed the flight path. In math class, they analyzed the data retrieved from that balloon. And in language arts class, they wrote either a scientific or creative essay about their weather balloon experience.

The second concept is applied learning. In a very hands-on approach, students take what they’ve studied and try it out. They connect real life - everyday tasks - with the curriculum. Applied learning forces students to test proposed solutions, determine success or failure, then encourages them to try repeatedly until ultimately a positive outcome is achieved.

In the Oregon school example, the students may have experimented with different ways to launch the weather balloon using hands-on experience and data from the math class to determine the most successful approach to their project.

Once I learned about these two concepts, I felt much more hopeful about connecting my kids to STEM. At the time, my daughter was in elementary school and I asked her, “Do you ever use the same topic for assignments in different classes?” She excitedly explained how her history, English and art classes were overlapping and since art was her true passion, it helped her connect to the history and English lessons.

As a parent, it is also very relevant to understand the applications of each academic discipline as the STEM workforce requires not just highly-skilled workers in these fields but middle-skilled workers that understand how to run technology-based and data-driven programs.

As it is, the basic definitions of each of the STEM/STEAM disciplines remains mostly the same. But their applications are changing. Here’s a brief tutorial.

Evolving Definitions - Critical Application

Science is more than biology, physics and chemistry. It’s the study of the natural world where applications address and solve social, economic and environmental problems. Hundreds of current topics which incorporate science might pique your child’s interests. Does he/she surf or hang out at the beach? Beach erosion might be something to research. Do you have a Matt Damon fan on your hands? He’s pretty active in raising awareness of water scarcity.

Technology is more than all things digital. In application, it’s used to create products which satisfy a human want or need. Chances are they’re already obsessed with the digital world. How is it applied to solve the need for entertainment? For communication? For transportation? Technology is applicable to nearly every aspect of modern life and therefore, modern careers.

Engineering is more than building structures with cranes and bulldozers. It refers to teamwork and engagements in a systemic practice identifying solutions which must be researched, tested and potentially fail, then succeed. The idea, again, is to solve a particular problem: How do we get this astronaut to the moon? How do we create a better public transportation system?

Arts refer to more than museums or craft projects. It includes everything visual, from video to social media and most 21st century communications. Product design and marketing require artistic talent and creativity.

Math – ah math – is more than accounting or analyzing data. It’s the language of numbers, shapes and quantities that has become critically important in a workforce based on data innovation and technology. Math is the foundation for all of the STEM disciplines.

The key in all of this is to know you’re not alone in raising the 21st century STEM workforce.

Interdisciplinary and applied learning techniques create an inclusive environment for kids pursuing college, community college or the trades. Career paths to business, the sciences, education, the trades, and basically all 21st century jobs require skill-sets and learning processes that we already understand. If we refocus, highlight and emphasize the connection between the base of the sandwich: home life, and the top- academia our kids will be surrounded by success.

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