You've likely heard of the acronym STEM. And it may be no surprise to you that STEM workers enjoy higher median earnings than those in other, non-STEM occupations. But like an effective STEM course, the STEM definition is much more comprehensive than an acronym can capture.

At its core, STEM is an interdisciplinary teaching approach that integrates four disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math) into a single, rigorous program.

To highlight the nuances of this educational philosophy, this post is going to share what STEM stands for, what it means for education, how to apply STEM in business, what career options are available for STEM students, and how to turn STEM teachings into real-world applications.

Let's start with the basics.

What does STEM stand for?

STEM is a grouping of four overlapping disciplines: science, technology, engineering, and math. The acronym is commonly used to summarize the education approach that unites the disciplines into one structured program.

According to The National Science Teachers Association, STEM education is "an experiential learning pedagogy in which the application of knowledge and skills are integrated through in-context projects or problems focused on learning outcomes tied to the development of important college and career readiness proficiencies." Its goal is to encourage students to develop science-based skills and frameworks so they can evaluate complex issues, communicate arguments and understandings, and contribute to a technology-driven society.

It's important to note that STEM isn't just one discipline, but rather the combination of all four disciplines through real-world instruction. For example, a student who earns a science degree doesn't necessarily receive a STEM education. While math is a STEM discipline, it must be integrated with engineering, science, and technology in order to have the benefits of a STEM program.

To understand that nuance, let's look at the foundation of this educational philosophy.

What does STEM mean in education?

STEM education teaches science, technology, engineering, and math through hands-on instruction and real-world application. It goes beyond an academic approach to give students the skills and tools to solve real-world problems.

Rather than simply learning about the forces and techniques that go into building a bridge, for instance, a STEM education teaches students about those forces – and then lets them apply that knowledge by building their own bridges.

This approach is heavy in math and science, but it's a new way of learning that helps students develop a number of in-demand skills. Let's explore how each area contributes to a comprehensive STEM education.

How is STEM heavy in math and science?

A STEM program is exceptionally heavy in math and science because these disciplines act as a foundation for the other two disciplines: engineering and technology. It's difficult to be an engineer without advanced math skills or an understanding of certain technology.

While science and math are core components of a STEM education, they're not gatekeepers. If a student struggles with math or science, they can still succeed in STEM. They just may need more support as they learn these subjects. Some students may even find it easier to learn math and science concepts through a STEM program because of the hands-on approach that uses real-life context and examples.

Despite a heavy math and science emphasis, it's important that all students get a chance to try a STEM program. The U.S. Department of Education puts it best, "All young people should be prepared to think deeply and to think well so that they have the chance to become the innovators, educators, researchers, and leaders who can solve the most pressing challenges facing our nation and our world, both today and tomorrow."

How is STEM a new way of learning?

STEM curricula is a new way of learning because it encourages students to use science, technology, engineering, and math to solve problems. Going back to the bridge example, students learn the thought, design, and technology behind structural engineering, but they also use this cross-disciplinary knowledge to create the bridge.

This integrated approach teaches students how to engage all four disciplines, rather than focusing on a single specialty. STEM students learn to think creatively, develop technical knowledge, and master each discipline in order to come up with an answer.

STEM can be rigorous – it requires students to become adept at four disciplines, instead of one. The teaching methods rarely give solutions to a problem, so students must come up with answers on their own. But a STEM education can also be enjoyable. Students go beyond the typical classroom setting to put their knowledge into practice through activities, like building robots, designing clocks, cooking, making solar panels, or growing a garden.

As a result, students understand the practical applications of their knowledge and are better prepared to pursue a STEM degree and career path.

Examples of STEM skills

STEM teaches more than the foundation of its four subjects – it also helps students develop a set of core skills they can use throughout their lives and careers. These include both soft skills (personal traits and people-centric abilities) and hard skills (technical capabilities to use tools, software, or equipment). In fact, several STEM skills show up on Indeed's list of most in-demand skills for today's workforce.

Students can expect to develop the following STEM skills:

  • Creativity
  • Collaboration
  • Problem-Solving
  • Critical and Strategic Thinking
  • Communication
  • Leadership
  • Management
  • Self-Direction
  • Initiative
  • Cooperation
  • Networking
  • Analysis
  • Flexibility
  • Persistence
  • Teamwork

Certain STEM programs go beyond the basics to teach students relevant skills for a particular field. The Greening STEM approach uses the natural environment to teach STEM-related topics. Students learn about environmental problems in need of solutions and the context around these environmental issues, such as social equality, power and privilege, cultural brokering, and environmental justice.

At its core, any STEM program allows its students to master academic skills alongside interpersonal and technical capabilities. The aim is to collaborate with one another while gaining the skills needed to innovate and create solutions for real-world problems.

What does STEM mean in business?

As the digital economy outpaces the overall economy, STEM-related companies will play a larger part in creating value for the global gross domestic product (GDP). The World Economic Form estimates that 70% of new value created in the global economy over the next 10 years will be based on business models with digitally-enabled platforms.

Advancements in IoT, machine learning, artificial intelligence, robotics, and other digital technologies will shape the economy and impact the way we live and work. Of course, this technical innovation will need support, which will increasingly require workers with STEM education.

Workers skilled in computer operations, technical analysis, data, information security, and software will be at the frontlines. Research done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that computer occupations will grow by 11.5% between 2019-2029 – a rate three times faster than average. The BLS also complied a list of the top 20 fast-growing occupations for the next decade, which included a number of STEM careers: wind turbine service technician, solar photovoltaic installers, and information security analysts.

In the future, it's clear that digital-first companies will continue to propel robust growth in the global economy and STEM careers will play an important role in solving the complex problems posed by technological innovation.

What is a STEM course?

A STEM course teaches science, technology, engineering, and math through hands-on learning that's rooted in solving real-world challenges. Students develop the skills to be successful in a number of fields, including ones outside of the core STEM subjects. Of course, they're also well-prepared to pursue degrees and careers in the four foundational subjects.

An effective STEM course makes a connection between the knowledge taught inside the classroom and its practical application in real life. Students learn how the principles of STEM impact everyday situations, like building a road or cleaning up a local water source. Teachings are often carried out through project-based activities to create a comprehensive, hands-on experience.

STEM courses can take place in school, through after-school online programs, or at a STEM summer camp or a virtual winter break camp. There are courses for every age group and grade, so it's possible to find a course that's right for a student's particular interests and abilities. There are even free coding courses for kids! No matter the level, an effective STEM course develops a student's technical and soft skills to help prepare them for a future degree and career.

Explore possible STEM careers

There are all kinds of STEM careers. While two people may have both graduated with a computer science degree, one could be designing characters for video games while the other could be building self-driving cars. Computer science jobs are everywhere - you may not even realize fields like medicine, government, or film need computer science majors. Here are a few interesting examples.

1. Artificial intelligence jobs

Engineers who work with artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data science develop algorithms to enable computers to think on their own and analyze data. Examples of what AI / ML engineers or data scientists work on are the brains behind self-driving cars, the recommendations behind online shopping, and the predictions behind stock market trading. You can get started today by learning AI for kids for younger students or AI machine learning for more advanced students. Python is the most popular language used for AI and Data Science, strong Python skills are required.

2. Biotech careers

Biotech engineers work on software that helps with medical or pharmaceutical applications. They work on the algorithms that sequence DNA, discover new vaccines, or assist doctors with surgery. Pharmaceutical or medical technology companies hire this kind of role, including Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson, the major COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers in the United States. Get started today in biotech by learning more about computational biology.

3. Cloud computing / cybersecurity jobs

The internet doesn’t just work on its own - there are thousands of people behind the scenes who help maintain and secure the internet. Those people are cloud computing and cybersecurity engineers - they design computer systems that can scale to millions of users while being secure. Begin learning about this key field today by learning about coding websites for kids, and then learning more with fascinating cloud computing classes!

4. Digital design / UI jobs

Who decides what buttons are placed where on a website? Who is behind why fantasy worlds look so real in movies? The answer: digital designers. They work on how software looks and how users interact with software. All kinds of companies hire digital designers, most notably video game developers, movie animation studios, and websites. Begin building your portfolio today with virtual digital design courses

5. Hardware engineering careers

Hardware engineers design and build the computer chips, sensors, and other physical components of the devices we use every day. The names on your favorite devices such as your Apple or Microsoft hire hardware engineers to design their next products. Check out Micro:Bit coding for kids or Arduino for kids to learn more!

6. Game development careers

What a game developer works on is self-explanatory: write the code behind video games. The variety of skills required for game development is not self-explanatory, however: graphics, physics, artificial intelligence, hardware, cloud computing, and mobile development to name a few! Develop your new hobby with Scratch classes for kids for newer students, Minecraft coding for kids or Roblox coding classes for intermediate students, or Unity for kids for advanced students!

7. Mobile development careers

All the apps on your phone were built by a mobile developer. Mobile developers often specialize between iPhone app development or Android app development, but there are also ways to create apps for both types of phones easily. Try out Thunkable-based coding mobile apps for intermediate students or Java for kids for advanced students!

8. Robotics jobs

Robotics engineers design, build, and program robots. Robots are everywhere - they build our cars in factories, help doctors perform surgeries in hospitals, and explore new worlds in space! Learn robotics from the comfort of home without buying a fancy robotics kit with Create & Learn’s Junior Robotics course for younger students or Robot Adventures course for older students!

9. Web development careers

Everything has a website nowadays and web developers are the people who build websites. Any company that has a website works with web developers. To get started take the best online web development course designed for kids with the Build Your Web course.

STEM applications in the real world

STEM education uses real-world projects to engage students and spark their interest in science, technology, engineering, and math fields. Here are a number of STEM applications that highlight how lessons transfer from the classroom to real life.

  1. Environment: From cleaning up oil spills to studying the effects of air and water pollution, STEM students can learn the skills necessary to protect and preserve natural resources. Projects can include how to grow crops during a flood, cleaning up pollutants from a community water source, building water filtration systems, monitoring species in a national park, or studying the impact of humans on a local ecosystem.
  2. Technology: Immersive learning environments are the crux of a STEM education, which makes it perfect for building the skills to succeed in a technology-related field. Real-world applications include building robotics, learning how to code a game or software, 3D modeling and printing, or designing a mobile application.
  3. Agriculture: Think STEM is a world away from the farming community? Think again. Advancements in agriculture make this industry ripe for STEM careers. Practical applications include projects related to food diversity, bioenergy crops, sustainable agriculture, environmental engineering, and supply chain management.
  4. Health: Helping people embrace a healthy lifestyle is one of the many ways a STEM education can turn into a life-long career. In the health space, students can discover the science of nutrition, experiment with chemistry projects, do research that contributes to breakthroughs for major illnesses, and learn the tools used by clinical laboratory scientists.
  5. Energy: Energy runs the world, whether through natural or human-made sources. Real-world STEM applications in the energy field include solar technicians who create systems to recycle panels, plant operators who work to reduce carbon emissions, electrical engineers who build a rover for space, or web developers who design the software to operate innovative energy sources.
  6. Infrastructure: Everyday life would be much less efficient without the infrastructure created by people in STEM-related careers. To name a few examples, engineers play a major role in protecting shores from erosion and natural disasters, surveyors carefully plan roads to ensure safe travel from point A to B, and structural engineers create the bridges that bring cars and people across major bodies of water.

Now you know the meaning of STEM

Your knowledge of STEM goes beyond the basic acronym to a core understanding of how this teaching philosophy translates into real-world skills and applications. It's about learning how to apply the knowledge and frameworks of science, technology, engineering, and math to design innovative solutions and creatively solve problems.

Now, it's time to figure out how to integrate STEM skills and projects into your life. That may mean signing your kids up for a coding camp or the best online STEM classes for kids, trying out an at-home STEM project, or exploring fun STEM learning ideas. Check out coding for kids and coding for teens to get started.