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What is STEM Education for Kids?

What is STEM Education for Kids?

what is stem

You’ve certainly heard of STEM education by now. And you may have also heard reference to STEAM or even STREAM education. You’ve seen that there’s a lot of talk around how it’s important for students to be involved in it. Yet, you don’t quite know, just exactly, what is STEM? I feel you, Mama.

In this article, we will establish an understanding of STEM education. We will look at the difference between STEM, STEAM, and STREAM. We will also look at the educational benefits of these programs as well as the controversy behind how the Arts fit in. Most importantly, you will get a feel for whether or not a STEM education would be a good fit for your child. And of course, we’ll offer you resources to help seek out STEM education or try out a STEM activity at home if you decide that it’s for you after reading.

STEM, STEAM, and STREAM

It’s a straightforward enough concept of education and it’s right there in the initials for us to read for ourselves. But what does it really mean? STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. The A in STEAM means the Arts are included. And the R in STREAM is Reading and wRiting. So, it stands to reason that these are curriculums with emphasis on education in the aforementioned STEM subjects.

The benefits of each of the different types of programs in the STEM field are largely the same. Because they are all focused on hands-on, integrative, learning explorations, children reap the rewards of ST(R)E(A)M education. Regardless of the initials, students engage in activities that will boost more than their math and science skills alone. STEM education, and its variants, are all teaching kids invaluable skills like critical thinking and collaboration through creativity and curiosity. They’ll also learn about decision making, problem solving, and acceptance of failure. Along the way, they’ll be picking up the leadership and entrepreneurship they’ll need in their future STEM career

Statistics on Projected STEM Job Growth from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Failure as a form of success may need some clarification here. STEM education teaches kids about how we arrive at new ideas through observation and exploration. Sometimes an idea doesn’t end up taking off. Did you know the Wright Brothers failed for years and years before achieving the historic 12 second flight that changed the human relationship with the skies forever? What if they had interpreted failure as a stopping point rather than a turning point? That’s what kids get to experience for themselves with STEM education. They’ll become familiar with the need to come up with a new plan. And they’ll learn how to improve as you move from idea to idea. Plus, they’ll find out what it really means to eliminate giving up as an option. 

What do STEM, STEAM, and STREAM Have in Common? 

The novel concept at the heart of these programs (whichever acronym they adopt), is that there’s far greater benefit in viewing education as a comprehensive whole. STEM looks at integration rather than trying to extract and separate individual subjects. Therefore, educators in all such programs present every opportunity to learn as interdisciplinary rather than exclusionary. The result is enhanced learning from projects that are interactive and engaging rather than isolating.

To get a feel for the general contrast between the types, Niche.com offers the following examples. Typical STEM projects might be bridge building or computer programming. STEAM, with it’s addition of the Arts, might also do projects like growing a crystal garden or creating seed necklaces. STREAM extends the reach to reading and writing as well. Kids might do any of the above projects while also including the literary elements.

Image Credit: Defined Learning Students Participate in STEM Activity

Strictly STEM

Some STEM programs are purists and oppose what they may perceive as the dilution of STEM education with the inclusion of the Arts. Programs that prefer to remain staunchly STEM say they aren’t rejecting art. Rather, they feel that the Arts and creative thinking are already innately included in STEM education. 

Education Week helps break down just what is the strong aversion to extending STEM programs beyond their originally defined parameters. Here are a few of the key points.

  • “The focus of STEM is developing rigorous math and science skills through engineering. How can you focus on other subjects (such as art) without losing the mission of STEM or watering down its primary purpose?”
  • “STEM, then, is a specific program designed for a specific purpose—to integrate and apply knowledge of math and science in order to create technologies and solutions for real-world problems, using an engineering design approach.”
  • “[L]essons naturally involve art (for example, product design), language arts (communication), and social studies and history (setting the context for engineering challenges). STEM projects do not deliberately exclude the arts or any other subject; rather, these subjects are included incidentally as needed for engineering challenges.”

Getting STEAMy

The folks at Resilient Educator offer support for STEAM rather than STEM. I’m paraphrasing in the following, but the gist is this. RE shares that programs who choose to include the Arts help students understand the vastness of the art world. They also learn about the interconnectedness of art with aspects of engineering, technology, and mathematics. The Arts can help students find even more enthusiasm to participate by using artistic mediums that appeal to them, like visual arts or music. They can then integrate these elements into more technical projects like app building or programming a robot. Thus, by combining the familiar with the unfamiliar, they will acquire new skills and discover new means of artistic innovation.

“The addition of Arts to STEM to create STEAM is about incorporating creative thinking and applied arts in real situations. Art isn’t just about working in a studio. Art is about discovering and creating ingenious ways of problem solving, integrating principles or presenting information.”

What is STEM and STEAM? A guide for parents and educators

Instant STREAMing

Proponents of expanding to STREAM hold the view that reading and writing are integral elements of education. There’s no shortage of information supporting that view, either.

“Writing, like any other art, teaches the entire range of “tools for thinking” that are required to be creative in any discipline.”

From STEM to STEAM to STREAM: wRiting as an Essential Component of Science Education

Take for example the following accolades for STREAM programs from Nobel Laureate and physicist William D. Phillips. Phillips says, “I enjoyed and profited from well-taught science and math classes, but in retrospect, I can see that the classes that emphasized language and writing skills were just as important for the development of my scientific career as were science and math. I certainly feel that my high school involvement in debating competitions helped me later to give better scientific talks, that the classes in writing style helped me to write better papers.”

Why Choose STEM Education

The decision to choose a specific type of STEM program is an individual one. You’ll need to make that decision while taking into account the unique needs of your child and family. However, it’s easy to see that any of these programs offers students educational benefits. To make sure it’s clear, let’s recap it one more time. STEM based programs are different from traditional education. But, exactly how, again? 

Information on STEM Benefits
  • Hands on! ST(R)E(A)M programs are not going to resemble what you may think of as a traditional classroom. Sure, there might be desks and chairs in the classroom. But instead of rows of desks, these are active work spaces where children collaborate to understand real-life events. Here are examples of projects for everything from water volume to distance from the center of a carousel. These show how to take math lessons from plugging away with paper and pencil to empowered participation. 
  • Creativity Unleashed! Students integrate skills like problem solving and working as part of a group with projects like How to Make Stop Motion Videos for Kids. Guaranteed to pique curiosity and creative impulse, you’ll combine learning about technology with the imagination needed to come up with a storyline for your video!
  • Try, Try Again! We all know the old adage about “If at first you don’t succeed…” An engaging STEM program can bring that lesson home for students. The Harvard Business Review touts the benefits of learning to recuperate from a setback in their article about Strategies for Learning from Failure. They might categorize the kinds of failures students learn to navigate in STEM education as “intelligent failures at the frontier”. These are the kinds of obstacles someone is likely to come up against in real-world situations like “[d]iscovering new drugs, creating a radically new business, designing an innovative product, and testing customer reactions in a brand-new market”. All of which are excellent ST(R)E(A)M lesson ideas!

Where Can I Find a STEM Based Program?

If you’ve read over this article as part of your research, (good job, Mama!) and you’re feeling the call to ST(R)E(A)M education for your star student, here are some resources for seeking out a program. 

STEM Education Programs for Parents and Students 

Niche: Explore Schools, Companies, and Neighborhoods

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Engineering for Kids – Our Programs

You can use the locator search at any of these websites to find programs offered in or near your zip code. If your child is interested in STEM, you’ll find everything from schools to courses and camps to quench their thirst for knowledge. Below are some options if you’re looking for ideas on how to integrate STEM into your day-to-day home routine.

How to Do STEM at Home

Image Credit: Families Magazine Kid Scientists Do Experiments

Why wait? Many STEM based projects are explorations you can do at home, as part of a homeschool curriculum, or just for the sake of learning fun! 

36 Resources for STEM Project-Based Learning Activities

Resources for Kids at Home – Kiwi Parent Toolkit

Engineering For Kids – Homeschool Activities

Closing Comments

STEM is a system of education that’s quickly gaining ground as it surges in popularity and importance in schools across the globe. The benefits of this type of education for students is hard to miss. The chain of events, as proponents of the programs view things, is pretty simple.

Students who go to a STEM school, and learn by participating in STEM activities, are likely to have greater success in a degree program geared toward a STEM job. It’s worth educating yourself on making the best choices for your kiddo. STEM education may or not be your route but it is worth noting that landing a STEM career is predicted to be extremely lucrative in the world our littles are going to be living in.

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