Intro to STEM

STEM. A quick google search will lead you to an overwhelming number of headlines, initiatives, statistics, and programs all tagged with the four letters “STEM.” While we have access to all sorts of information at our fingertips, we must pause to ask ourselves: what do these four letters mean for our community, our schools, and our students? My blog posts focus on exactly that. Here, we will break down STEM to better understand what it means for our students and how it is being woven into the culture of our SAU 39 schools and classrooms. We will attempt to make the walls of our classrooms transparent so you can witness the journeys our students are embarking on and better understand why STEM is important in education.

What is STEM?

STEM can be simply defined as the cross-disciplinary study of our world through the intersection of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. While the definition might seem straightforward, how it needs to be brought to life for students is anything but. What this really means is that our educators and students are limited only by their imagination as they explore and make meaning of the world around them! In order for us to better explore this, we must separate the two distinct branches of STEM: content knowledge, and the skills and practices.

Content Knowledge

Content knowledge in STEM is domain specific and includes diverse topics within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. These range from life science to chemical engineering, algebra to physics, and bioengineering to coding. A comprehensive STEM education provides students with the opportunity to explore across the disciplines and build the foundational content knowledge that will support an increasing complexity as they progress through their studies. Of the estimated 1.6 million employees hired over the next five years by major American companies, the vast majority will be required to demonstrate STEM literacy, and about half will need an expertise in STEM, according to the U.S. Department of Education in 2016.

Skills and Practices

Equally important to content is the second branch of STEM: the skills and practices. This idea has been condensed into eight science & engineering practices outlined in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

NGSS Science and Engineering Practices
1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
2. Developing and using models
3. Planning and carrying out investigations
4. Analyzing and interpreting data
5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
7. Engaging in argument from evidence
8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

According to the U.S. Department of Education, these skills are required in nearly all job sectors and occupations. Even though these have been labelled as science & engineering practices, they are truly life practices—skills and habits we want to instill in our students regardless of the content area they are studying. These eight practices offer educators an opportunity to engage learners across all content areas. In weaving them into social studies, art, and reading classes, educators can work to support the skills our students need in order to pursue emerging career opportunities and paths we haven’t even imagined yet. You may have heard of STEAM or STREAM; it’s these practices that continue to add letters to the acronym.

What’s Next?

So what does all this mean for our students? It means that as educators, we are mindful that we are preparing students for careers that don’t even exist yet. It’s our job to fill students’ toolboxes so that no matter which path they choose, they will be prepared. To fulfill our obligation to the next generation, we must build both cognitive knowledge and skills across the content areas in order to establish authentic learning.

I look forward to sharing the exciting STEM learning that is happening in our schools over future posts! For more information, check out the two documents referenced in this blog:

  1. Next Generation Science Standards
  2. STEM 2026: A vision for Innovation in STEM Education (US Department of Education, 2016)


Bethany Bernasconi, Dean of Instruction – Amherst Middle School