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K12 STEM Education: Why Does it Matter and Where Are We Now?

by Margaret Mohr-Schroeder, Sarah Bush & Christa Jackson - February 26, 2018

In this commentary, the authors consider the definition of STEM education, the current landscape of integrated STEM learning, and they advocate for a more cohesive view of K12 STEM education.

Twenty years ago, Lederman (1998) contended that K-12 schools were not engaging all students in mathematics and science literacy, not producing citizens capable of understanding issues in science and technology, and not producing citizens that had the ability to separate personal beliefs from scientific understanding. Similarly, STEM 2026: A Vision for Innovation in STEM Education (U.S. Department of Education, 2016) articulates, “The complexities of today’s world require all people to be equipped with a new set of core knowledge and skills to solve difficult problems, gather and evaluate evidence, and make sense of information they receive from varied print and, increasingly, digital media” (p. i).

Unfortunately, not many individuals have the core knowledge described in the STEM 2026 document, which has led to the shortfall of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) majors and graduates at universities (National Science Board, 2016). Since STEM occupations are projected to increase (Langdon, McKittrick, Beede, Khan, & Doms, 2011; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2008), we need to focus on STEM education in the United States. Numerous policy documents and reports, including STEM 2026, Successful K-12 STEM Education (National Research Council, 2011), Refueling the U.S. Innovation Economy (Atkinson & Mayo, 2010), and Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Education in STEM for America’s Future (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology [PCAST], 2010), argue that preparing future STEM professionals is key to the United States’ future success. Here, we consider the definition of STEM education and current landscape of integrated STEM learning, and advocate for a more cohesive view of K-12 STEM education.


While much work has been done to advance the field of STEM education (Bybee, 2010a; Chapman & Vivian, 2017), one key shortcoming is the lack of a cohesive definition of STEM (Bybee, 2010a) as well as a lack of understanding of the commonalities among the STEM disciplines (Chae, Purzer, & Cardella, 2010). The meaning of the acronym STEM varies across stakeholders (e.g., Breiner, Harkness, Johnson, & Koehler, 2012; English, 2016; Moore, Tank, Glancy, Siverling, & Mathis, 2014; National Academy of Engineering & National Research Council, 2014; Sanders, 2009; Zollman, 2012). Creating a shared operational understanding of STEM education may be challenging. As in Bybee (2013), we suggest an integrated definition of STEM that helps students apply content knowledge from each discipline, making connections between them, in order to solve or understand real world problems. Moore et al. (2014) define integrated STEM as:

...blending of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics content and context into one learning environment for the purpose of (a) deepening student understanding for each discipline by contextualizing concepts, (b) broadening student understanding of STEM disciplines through exposure to socially and culturally relevant STEM contexts, and (c) increasing interest in STEM disciplines to broaden the pipeline of students entering the STEM fields. (p. 3)


Empirical studies and reports on the importance of STEM learning experiences suggest the integration of STEM subjects may improve student outcomes in STEM (Bybee, 2013; Kennedy & Odell, 2014; National Research Council, 2011, 2013; Wang, Moore, Roehrig, & Park, 2011). According to the National Academy of Sciences (2014), integrated STEM education helps students become innovators, better problem solvers, and STEM-literate citizens.

The U.S. STEM challenge is multi-faceted as the U.S. falls behind other nations as measured on international assessments in K-12. However, the problem goes beyond students’ proficiency in STEM; students also lack interest in STEM (PCAST, 2010). Even further, women, minorities, and other groups remain underrepresented in STEM majors and STEM careers. For example, males are nearly three times as likely as females to be interested in STEM careers (Sadler, Sonnert, Hazari, & Tai, 2012) and women only earn about 20% of college degrees in science and engineering (Hill, Corbett, & St. Rose, 2010; National Science Foundation & National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, 2017).

Importantly, the literature supports integrated STEM education (e.g., integrated STEM frameworks in Asunda & Mativo, 2016; Bybee, 2013; Honey, Pearson, & Schweingruber, 2014; Hwang & Taylor, 2016; Kelley & Knowles, 2016; Moore et al., 2014) which allows students to gain experience solving problems that necessitate the use of multiple disciplines and 21st century learning skills needed for success in today’s workforce (Atkinson & Mayo, 2010). At the same time, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013) advocate for an integrated STEM focus in the science classroom through the Science and Engineering Practices and explicit connections to the Common Core State Standards (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010). Further, the notion of STEM literacy (the idea that the general workforce, not just those in STEM specific careers, should have basic competencies in STEM subjects and 21st century skills) has come to the forefront of the STEM education discussion (Bybee, 2010a, 2010b; Dow, 2014; Zollman, 2012). STEM literacy emphasizes the integration of STEM disciplines and the tools and knowledge necessary to apply STEM concepts to solve complex (not necessarily STEM) problems (Balka, 2011; Cavalcanti, 2017).

A body of research on K-12 integrated STEM learning also provides evidence of its effectiveness as a learning environment. For example, Roehrig, Moore, Wang, and Park’s (2012) research found integrated STEM education to be an effective teaching method. Likewise, in a meta-analysis of 28 studies examining the effect of integrated STEM, Becker and Park (2011) found a positive effect on student achievement when using integrated approaches to teach STEM. Another meta-analysis of 31 studies (Hurley, 2001) found a positive effect on student achievement in both mathematics and science when the two disciplines were integrated. Although integrated STEM education is happening effectively in small pockets, STEM teaching in U.S. K-12 schools remains overwhelmingly taught in silos providing minimal integration and lacking meaningful “real world” connections (Breiner et al., 2012).


We live in a STEM society, and as society becomes more and more dependent on STEM (e.g., Surr, Loney, Goldston, Rasmussen, & Anderson, 2016), it is important for students to receive an authentic STEM education. In their STEM 2026 report, the U.S. DOE (2016) outlined a vision for transformative education aimed at expanding opportunities for all students in STEM. They identified six components that can be interpreted as a framework for integrated STEM education:

1.     Engaged and networked communities of practice.

2.     Accessible learning activities that invite intentional play and risk.

3.     Educational experiences that include interdisciplinary approaches to solving “grand challenges.”

4.     Flexible and inclusive learning spaces.

5.     Innovative and accessible measures of learning.

6.     Societal and cultural images and environments that promote diversity and opportunity in STEM. (pp. ii-iii)

The United States is less than 10 years away from the timeline for meeting the goals and vision outlined in the STEM 2026 report. Are we making progress? We argue that while there are pockets of vigilant efforts, our overall progress as a field leaves much to be desired. The goal of much reform efforts in STEM education has been to prepare a STEM-literate workforce, one that will bolster social and economic well-being (e.g., Kennedy & Odell, 2014; NRC, 2013; NSB, 2015). However, we are still falling short. For example, with regards to component six (promoting diversity and opportunity in STEM), groups that are historically underrepresented remain at risk of disengaging from STEM (e.g., Beasley & Fischer, 2012; Morgan, Farkas, Hillemeier, & Maczuga, 2016a, 2016b; Museus, Palmer, Davis, & Maramba, 2011; National Science Foundation & National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, 2017). Likewise, aligned closely with components two, three, and five, while many educators and researchers approach work with underrepresented students through an interdisciplinary, problem-solving framework to develop their positive STEM identities, it is less common that attention to learning invites intentional play and risk (with innovative measures of learning) and that affective dimensions of students’ STEM transitions take center stage. Important to the positive identity development of all students, but most especially underrepresented students, are access and opportunities to participate in ways that are inclusive, engaging, and which scaffold and support mastery of the repertoire of practice (component four). It is clear that experiences aimed at students becoming STEM-literate “are shaped by and contribute to social practices, purposes, and contexts” (Moje, Collazo, Carrillo, & Marx, 2001, p. 472). For these reasons, a strong need remains for learning environments to provide students with meaningful exposure and transformative opportunities in STEM, especially through a community approach (component one).

K-12 STEM education in the U.S. is at a critical juncture. Using federal reports, policy documents, and current research as guidance, the STEM education community must partner together to systemically move the field forward in a way that positively promotes inclusiveness, creativity, and opportunity. Further, it is imperative that we collaboratively and systematically study the broader impacts that transformative integrated STEM learning approaches have on building infrastructure and capacity as a STEM-literate society.


This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. 1348281, 1239968. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 26, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22288, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 11:36:32 AM

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About the Author
  • Margaret Mohr-Schroeder
    University of Kentucky
    E-mail Author
    MARGARET MOHR-SCHROEDER is an Associate Professor in the Department of STEM Education at the University of Kentucky.
  • Sarah Bush
    University of Central Florida
    E-mail Author
    SARA BUSH is Associate Professor of K-12 STEM Education at the University of Central Florida.
  • Christa Jackson
    Iowa State University
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTA JACKSON is Associate Professor and Team Lead for K-12/Secondary Education at Iowa State University.
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