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STEM: The Challenges of Connecting Four Disciplines

A new report aims to make sense of the "confusing landscape" that is integrated science, technology, engineering, and math education, laying out the benefits—and the many challenges—of connecting the STEM disciplines.

Published by the National Academy of Sciences, the report is the culmination of a two-year study of integrated STEM programs that take place in formal and informal settings. The authors note that both the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards explicitly call for teaching STEM in a more connected way.

Greg Pearson, the study director and a senior program officer at the National Academy of Engineering, wrote in an email that one key takeaway of the report is that there's both confusion and variability among K-12 educators about what the STEM acronym means. "Most references to STEM are really references to science or mathematics education, usually in isolation, while the 'T' and 'E' often get little attention. And relatively few references to STEM imply the connections between and among the subjects. ...This makes it very hard for educators, parents, and policymakers to have a meaningful discussion about the benefits and challenges of STEM education."

Integrating science, technology, engineering, and math can increase students' conceptual understanding, the authors write. However, the difficulties of connecting STEM disciplines, they claim, include:

  • Integrated programs tend to give short shrift to mathematics, and are less likely to produce positive outcomes in that area.
  • Terminology in the disciplines can differ. For instance, they write, mathematical argumentation and scientific argumentation require different skills.
  • Teachers may lack content knowledge in some of the disciplines. Engineering, in particular, is an area many K-12 teachers do not have much background in.
  • Integration "can place excessive demands on resource-limited cognitive processes, such as attention and working memory."

The 165-page report also provides a framework for designing and critiquing integrated approaches, as well as recommendations for the variety of stakeholders in STEM education. You can download the whole thing here for free.  

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