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If you tend to stay up-to-date with the latest trends in education, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of “STEM” and “STEAM” education. Since the early 2000s, STEM has risen meteorically in popularity and has become a widely recognized, household name. STEM education takes a departure from the classic liberal arts education and focuses on the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics instead of “soft” subjects like art, philosophy, literature, and history. Arguments in favor of STEM education are often based on macroeconomic reasons and earning potential.
But, where does the term “STEM” come from and what caused this massive change in thinking?
Our country’s desire to stay at the forefront of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics dates back to the Cold War, in which we competed with the Soviet Union for political, military, and technological dominance on the world stage. In the late 50s and early 60s, the U.S. lost the first laps of the Space Race to the Soviets with the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, and Yuri Gagarin’s flight in space. However, in 1969, the United States would begin to take the lead in the space race by placing the first man on the moon. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States emerged as the victor of the Cold War but also lost a competitor that drove the nation forward.
The acronym “STEM” was first coined in 2001 by the U.S. National Science Foundation in an attempt to draw attention to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. During the early 2000s, a number of reports from researchers showed a correlation between economic prosperity and jobs in these fields. Furthermore, results from international studies, such as PISA, showed that U.S. students had fallen behind when compared with other countries.
In 2005, the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine released a report titled, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” which detailed the consequences if the United States didn’t catch up in STEM. This report created a shockwave in the educational community and caused many schools and universities to re-evaluate their curriculum.
In 2011, former President Barack Obama called for the United States to focus on STEM education once again. “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” said Obama in his State of the Union address.
In recent years, the shortage of skilled labor in the tech industry has further highlighted the need for STEM education. Research shows that university graduates are less prepared than ever for the workplace and lack the skills that employers need to accomplish their goals. As a result, many educational institutions and private businesses have attempted to solve this skill gap with job training programs, coding bootcamps, online courses, and more.
In recent years, STEM has evolved into STEAM, adding arts to the curriculum. Proponents of STEAM argue that design and creativity are key to innovation, making the arts a necessary component of an otherwise “rigid” curriculum. Studying the arts also leads to out-of-the-box thinking and encourages curiosity in students, as it teaches them that there may be more than just one right answer.
Too much emphasis on STEM alone, argue STEAM advocates, could further segregate subjects and alienate students who possess an affinity towards free-thinking and creativity.
At Woz U, our mission is to inspire young learners to pursue a career in technology by sparking their creativity and generating authentic interest in STEM subjects. By adding the “A” to “STEM,” we also equip students to think differently and become a future innovator in tech. Following Wozniak’s example, our approach to STEM education involves inspiring young learners and giving them the freedom to explore their passions, as well as equipping them with the tools to pursue their dreams.