STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education. We focus on these areas together not only because the skills and knowledge in each discipline are essential for student success, but also because these fields are deeply intertwined in the real world and in how students learn the subjects most effectively. STEM is an interdisciplinary and applied approach that is coupled with hands-on, problem solving based learning.

For the latest research on integrated STEM education, see the National Research Council report STEM Integration in K-12 Education.

What is STEM Education?

A STEM education is a curriculum based on the idea of educating students in four specific disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in an interdisciplinary and applied approach. Rather than teach the four disciplines as separate and discrete subjects, the STEM curriculum integrates them into a cohesive learning paradigm based on real-world applications.

Though the United States has historically been a leader in these fields, fewer students have been focusing on these subjects recently. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 16 percent of high school students who have proven a proficiency in mathematics are interested in a STEM career. Currently, nearly 28 percent of high school freshmen declare an interest in a STEM-related field, but 57 percent of these students will lose interest by the time they graduate from high school.

As a result, the Obama administration announced the 2009 "Educate to Innovate" campaign to motivate and inspire students to excel in STEM subjects. This campaign also addresses the inadequate number of teachers skilled to educate in these subjects. The goal is to get American students from the middle of the pack in science and math to the top of the pack in the international arena.

Thirteen agencies are partners in the Committee on Stem Education (CoSTEM), including the U.S. Department of Education. CoSTEM is working to create a joint national strategy to invest federal funds in K-12 STEM education, increasing public and youth STEM engagement, improving the STEM experience for undergraduates, reaching demographics underrepresented in STEM fields, and designing better graduate education for the STEM workforce. The Department of Education now offers a number of STEM-based programs, including research programs with an emphasis in a STEM field, STEM grant selection programs and general programs that support STEM education.

The Obama administration's 2014 budget invests $3.1 billion in federal programs focused on STEM education, with an increase of 6.7 percent since 2012. The investments will be used to recruit and support STEM teachers, as well as support STEM-focused high schools with STEM Innovation Networks. The budget also invests in advanced research projects for education, which will allow better understanding of next-generation learning technologies.

The importance of STEM education

All of this effort is to meet a need. According to a report by the website STEMconnector.org, projections estimate the need for 8.65 million workers in STEM-related jobs by 2018. The manufacturing sector faces an alarmingly large shortage of employees with the necessary skills (Approximately 600,000). The field of cloud computing alone will have created 1.7 million jobs between 2011 and 2015, according to the same report from Stemconnector. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2018, the divide of STEM careers will be:

  • Computing: 71%
  • Traditional Engineering: 16%
  • Physical sciences: 7%
  • Life sciences: 4%
  • Mathematics: 2%

Not all STEM jobs require higher education or even a college degree. Less than half of entry-level STEM jobs require a bachelor's degree or higher. However, a four-year degree is incredibly helpful with salary. The average advertised starting salary for entry-level STEM jobs with a bachelor's requirement was 26 percent higher than jobs in the non-STEM fields, according to the STEMconnect report. For every job posting for a bachelor's degree recipient in a non-STEM field, there were 2.5 entry-level job postings for a bachelor's degree recipient in a STEM field.

This is not a problem unique to the United States. In the United Kingdom, the Royal Academy of Engineering reports that the Brits will have to graduate 100,000 STEM majors every year until 2020 just to meet demand. Germany also has a shortage of 210,000 workers in the mathematics, computer science, natural science and technology disciplines.