What is STEMi and Why Does it Matter?

Illustration: Russell Tate/iStockPhoto.com.

Teachers, educational institutions and politicians alike have increasingly emphasized science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculum as a way for the United States to remain economically competitive with the rest of the world. What might be overlooked, according one expert, is that STEM programs focusing on global issues can also promote international education and build globally capable students.

"The way we approach STEM in [a typical U.S. classroom] is very hard-edged and very different than the way you could approach STEM in an Asia Society school or a school that was based on developing global competencies," said Jan Morrison, executive director of the Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM. Morrison noted that STEM is typically talked about as a way to promote economic dominance, but that it could be used in a smarter, more agile way to help students understand the world around them.

Morrison helped found the teaching institute in 1999 to support Baltimore city schools with science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses. It has since evolved into a national consulting group focusing on STEM, often called upon by the federal government for its input on the design and construction of STEM communities.

A major obstacle facing teachers and students in the implementation of STEM-focused classes is that the curriculum is often too content-focused. Students learn how to build computers and write computer programs rather than understand how those computers and programs will be used in the real world and how they will impact the world around them.

"The governors say we need to be solvers, innovators and inventors that are self-reliant and able to think logically and critically and drive the state economy's innovative capacity," said Morrison. "They think all students will graduate from high school with necessary science, technology, engineering and math to become this great workforce"

"I think this is just too narrow," she continued. "It's us versus them- the David versus the Goliath. This is about an economic imperative versus a human capital imperative and an environmental imperative and a global competence imperative."

Audience members noted that one way to help students see that larger picture might be to seek out corporate involvement so students can understand that what they are learning will actually translate and apply to something important in the real-world.

Another suggestion for bringing a global perspective into a STEM classroom is for teachers to talk about news and current events as it pertains to their course. What new breakthrough cancer therapy was just approved by the Food and Drug Administration? What building just withstood an earthquake and how was it built?

"For me it's not about the competition; it's about the ability for our kids to be agile in a global community and to be global citizens," Morrison said.

Ultimately, a STEM curriculum should matriculate students that are problem-solvers, innovators, inventors, collaborators, and self-reliant and logical thinkers, she said. They should be creative in designing and implementing solutions; be able to set agendas and work within specified timeframes; and importantly, be able to flourish in group settings.

"It's not going to be the skills that we need; it's going to be the effort. And effort … requires some passion and some focus and vision, and that's going to be very difficult. But all of that will put our kids in a position to act in their lives in a very different way."

Author: Lauren Smith


Discussion questions:

What are some additional ways you can help students better understand the applicability of what they are learning to the real world?

Have you worked with local corporations or businesses? What have been your experience with introducing real-world projects that way?

What are some ways you can encourage students to take additional STEM classes even if they have fulfilled their credit requirements for math and science?