Workforce needs of the 21st century have raised a worldwide call for greater learning opportunities in STEM. So what is STEM education and why is it so important?

What is STEM Education?

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. STEM Education started in the U.S. in the 50s of the previous century, as an attempt by the U.S. to stay competitive against the ex USSR in space science, following the Sputnik 1 phenomenon. The STEM acronym received global acceptance after its introduction by the U.S. National Science Foundation. It gained momentum when the U.S. President Barack Obama stressed the need for STEM education, for the United States of America to maintain its global leadership.

STEM Education has become a trend. Today, a simple Google search with the term “STEM education” returned more than 3.610.000.000 results. Such voluminous information shows the rapid evolution and vibrant field of STEM education, shedding much light on the volume of STEM education research. 

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How is STEM Education Different From Traditional Education?

Traditional education typically relies on rote memorisation and lectures, with the focus on teachers, and knowledge transfer from teachers to children, referred to as surface learning. 

STEM education is seen as an interdisciplinary approach with practical applications, emphasising children’ capacity building, via deep learning where they can develop higher order thinking skills.

Each STEM element brings its own unique value for well rounded learning outcomes: Science helps children to become better at research and critical thinking; Technology prepares them to work in an innovation led environment; Engineering enhances their problem solving skills, along with the ability to apply newly learnt knowledge to real life problems; Mathematics enables them to eliminate errors, analyse information, and take calculated risks.

What Does STEM Education Give Our Children?

STEM education goes beyond school curriculum, and provides a skill set that determines how children think, act, and behave throughout their life.

Skills Derived from STEM Education

STEM education gives children skills that make them more employable, and ready to meet both current, and future labour demands. Moreover, STEM education also helps those who do not even plan to go into a STEM career. 

STEM education encourages children to ask questions, make assumptions, and design models to explore their assumptions. This leads to developing skills that are transferable and beneficial to all children, both during their learning at school, and beyond. Empowering them with sound background knowledge via a supportive learning environment, will further build their confidence, encouraging children to be assertive and proactive in the real world.

STEM education provides children with a strong foundation of interdisciplinary knowledge to help them understand a wide range of concepts. The focus on logical thinking processes and problem solving allows children to develop mental habits that will help them succeed in any field. 

STEM learning enhances their capacity to take up research, investigate, look at multiple perspectives, and make relevant connections. It encompasses a whole range of experiences and skills. More particularly, STEM education offers opportunities for children in developing critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication skills, known as the 4C skills, media and technology literacy, project management, leadership, and entrepreneurship skills.  

Critical Thinking and Creativity Skills, Leading to Innovation Capacity

STEM experience helps children of all ages to learn the skill of critical thinking. 

How?

By engaging in STEM projects, children learn to examine a problem from different perspectives, then to analyse it with theoretical support from multiple fields. In finding a solution, children will break their hypotheses down into simpler steps, trials and errors, design and build, reiterating the engineering cycle, until achieving a successful result. STEM experience allows children to be creative, to challenge their minds. Children learn to come up with innovative ways to solve a problem. Thus, STEM learning sets children up to become the next generation of leaders, innovators, scientists, designers, all with radical 21st century ideas. 

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Collaboration and Communication Skills

STEM education encourages hands on projects, guiding children in creating solutions to real world problems, simultaneously offering recurring opportunities to enhance teamwork, collaboration, and communication skills. STEM learners often work together to give formal presentations, work with peers to explore and discover solutions to problems, record data, write reports, present findings, and more. This encourages children to express ideas effectively and confidently.

Working as a team, whether on a lab investigation or to solve complex STEM challenges, children understand how to collaborate, demonstrate patience and empathy, and learn important social emotional skills. While children learn to thrive in a team oriented setting, they create lasting relationships. This way, they can successfully transform any classroom into an energetic, interactive, and fun learning environment. 

Media and Technology Literacy Skills

To succeed in a new information and highly technological based society, with the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR), for example, children need to learn STEM, to develop competence in levels much beyond what was acceptable in the past. STEM learning introduces children from basic to advanced concepts of technology, engineering, and science. As a result, learners grow familiar with state of the art devices. 

In addition, STEM includes hands on assignments that require children to utilise modern tools to better understand a project’s working functions. This will bring their knowledge of technology to the next, deeper level. 

Project Management Skills

STEM projects often last days, or sometimes weeks. During this time frame, children will learn time management, and to break complicated projects into smaller, more achievable steps. This helps to develop children's project management skills, important in professional environments. 

STEM education also encourages children to adapt their models with lots of trial and error for better problem solving. Thereby helping children learn to accept calculated, incremental risks. This experience also helps children develop perseverance, confidence, and responsiveness. 

Leadership and Entrepreneurship Skills

STEM education is important for children to learn leadership and entrepreneurship skills. Our ability to lead and make decisions is impacted by how we process information. With STEM, children learn how to gather information from multiple sources, process it, and make complex decisions based on the data they source and construct.  

Being exposed to global issues in STEM challenges allows children to form their own perspectives and vision about the world. Team projects in STEM education also create opportunities for them to learn and practice public speaking and inter personal skills. These will be needed for them as future global citizens, and for their later leadership journey. 

STEM education is more than just science and technology. It is also about creating a culture of imagination, creativity, and innovation. In STEM education, children perceive themselves as investigators and problem solvers. They are taught to overcome obstacles with resilience, curiosity and intrinsic motivation. They learn to deal with and tolerate failure, both elective and accidental. These entrepreneurial skills will support entrepreneurship, and the development of new products and markets that will be important for every country’s future economic prosperity.

Job Outlook and Salary of STEM Professions    

Technological advancements in the past decade have caused changes in career requirements, to include STEM related skills. STEM awareness promotes interest in a range of exciting careers.

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Currently, some STEM occupations are understaffed. STEM occupations are expected to increase with a much higher percentage compared to non STEM occupations in the next decade. In the U.S., according to the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS), by 2030, non STEM occupations will increase 7,5% while STEM occupations will increase 10,5%.

Findings are even more pronounced in terms of salary. In the U.S., the median annual wage for all occupations is $41,950. Those in non STEM occupations earn $40,020 and those in STEM occupations earn $89,780.

Computer careers are offering the highest number of STEM jobs because of consistent progression in the digital sector. As a result of increasing participation of consumers and businesses in the digital economy, computer related careers are expected to grow exponentially in the next 10 years. 

STEM workers can find a job more easily and command much higher wages. They are also less likely to experience unemployment than their non STEM counterparts.

Why is STEM Education Important to the World?

Industry 4.0 and Opportunities for New Economic Development Models

Klaus Schwab, the Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, has defined the Fourth Industrial Revolution as the fusion of “technologies, resulting in overlaps of the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres”. This is predicted to “disrupt industries across the world, leading to the transformation of entire systems of production, management and governance” (WEF, nd).

Scientific knowledge, applicable technologies, engineering practice and human needs are evolving and diverging. Change is so rapid, what we know or have now, will become redundant and obsolete in just a few months. 

Today, we stand amidst the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where we are witnessing AI, VR, robotics, the Internet of Things, with results that were impossible during earlier revolutionary periods. Over the last 5 years, AI and automation have shown significant progress, and they are now consistently present in various fields. There are ongoing concerns that they will replace jobs in some industries; however, evidence suggests they can also create new jobs, steering people towards other opportunities. 

How can STEM education shape the future?

Increasing access to technology by individuals, organisations and countries, and affordability, have opened up possibilities for new economic development models. It also makes the world more competitive than ever. Worldwide, most countries now realise that they must focus on STEM education to keep themselves afloat. The resultant race in implementing STEM education will shape our world's future. 

Covid 19 Has Sped Up Technology Development

Since the outbreak, the Covid 19 pandemic has had a significant impact on many sectors: culture, economy, health, etc. The education system has experienced an unprecedented upheaval: parents, teachers, and children have had to rethink their habits, to create new ones to adjust to remote learning. In fact, the Covid 19 crisis has led more than 185 million children to study from home (World Bank, 2020). More than 1,5 billion children worldwide have been affected by school and university closures due to the Covid 19 pandemic (Unicef, 2020).

The effects of Covid 19 have also been felt across the working world. According to a study conducted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), youth employment fell by 8,7% in 2020, while adult employment declined by 3,7% (ILO, 2021).

Meanwhile, the outbreak has had a major impact on the technology industry. It has sped up technology development by encouraging people to use technology more often, to stay connected and share information; focusing attention on developing new ways to communicate and collaborate; providing resources for businesses to be more efficient and effective with technology; causing governments to work with business and universities on developing new technologies.

Facing extreme crises, companies have been also forced to move faster in order to keep up with an ever changing landscape. This has led to many new, innovative products and services being developed and released at a rapid pace.

The world has evolved, in a more technology demanding post pandemic world, as people become more technology and digital literate. It has also led to a spike in demand for STEM professions in general, and for developers, in particular. 

Increasing Global Challenges and the Needs for Sustainable Solutions

Humanity is facing increasing challenges, from pandemics to climate change, and from economic development, to world security; these require a step further, towards a new model of social change rooted in collective impact. STEM education promises generating well educated community members who can work in a competitive world. They will use sustainable practices that do not harm nature. Their innovations will be the forerunners of sustainability in the spheres of new products and processes for all economies. 

Individual institutions, corporations, and even governments do not have the capacity to solve global challenges by themselves. Developing STEM education enables countries to join the world STEM ecosystem, to contribute to the comprehensive solution each country needs to solve their shared problems, and achieve more sustainable solutions for the world. 

The Status of STEM Education in Asia

Currently, STEM education literature is dominated by works published mostly in the United States and Australia. Much less has been reported about how STEM education is understood, theorised, and studied in Asia (Teo, 2021). 

Developed nations across the globe are realising the significance of STEM learning for their children. They are considering early STEM education crucial for economic development, and expect it to be a prime factor in leading the global competition.

As many parts of Asia grow in affluence, and more developing economies join in the economic race to the top, education has been recognised as one of the key forces to ensure that there is a sufficient pool of human resources to drive and sustain growth. Investment in quality education has been increased to develop future generations of experts with integrated disciplinary knowledge and skills for “Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution” (theme of the 2015 World Economic Forum). 

More Asian economies are demonstrating outstanding performances in international benchmark tests such as PISA1ph and TIMSS2ph . Policy makers, scholars, teachers, and other educators are interested in learning more about why children in these economies are learning better, what are some enabling factors to promote positive educational outcomes, and how other economies can emulate some best practices from these economies.

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In this picture, Hong Kong seems to have been successful in navigating the space between STEM education, and the need for an industrial STEM workforce. 

In Malaysia, uncertainty is expressed as there is a lack of quantitative data to show if government policies and their implementation have met the needs of an evolving economy. 

Likewise, in Bhutan, outcomes from curriculum renewals are yet to show their full potential in supporting a modern economy in which technology is important (Teo, 2021).

South Korea is often cited as one of the most recent successful stories of economic development. In just 50 years, the nation transformed from a war torn, developing country into one of the wealthiest economies in Asia and the world, increasing its GDP per capita from $92 USD in 1961, to $26 thousand USD in 2013. The Korean government has concluded that the country’s competitiveness in science and technology has contributed to Korea’s achievement of a globally recognised higher status (The New York Academy of Sciences, nd). 

Conclusion

In this article, we have explained what STEM Education is. We also highlighted key benefits of STEM Education to children, in the short, middle and long term. We have then emphasised all the reasons why STEM Education is so important to every country and the world at large.

Are you a STEM teacher, STEM researcher, or STEM policy maker in Vietnam, India or Thailand? Share your stories below in the comment section. 

 

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Note

1ph PISA is the acronym for Programme for International Student Assessment, a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In the PISA 2018 tests, children in Asian economies ranked the top four places in Mathematics and top three places in Science (Source: https://www.oecd.org/pisa/PISA- results_ENGLISH.png).

2ph TIMSS is the acronym for Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study is a large scale international study, conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.

 

References

ILO (2021), An update on the youth labour market impact of the COVID-19 crisis

Schwab, K (nd), The Fourth Industrial Revolution 

Teo, TW, Tan, A.-L., & Teng, P. (2021), STEM Education from Asia : Trends and Perspectives, (1st ed.), Routledge, Taylor & Francis Corporation, https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003099888

New York Academy of Sciences, (nd), Global STEM paradox

Unicef ​​(2020), Data: Monitor the situation of children and women

World Bank (2020), Response to Covid-19 in Europe and Central Asia