What is STEM?

What do we mean when we talk about STEM? Let's learn more from Dr. Harradine and Dr. Lim!

Christine Harradine's headshot

By Christine Harradine, PhD

PD Specialist at the STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education Center (STEMIE)

Chihing Lim's headshot

By Chih-Ing Lim, PhD.

Co-director of the STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education Center (STEMIE)

STEM is an acronym created by the National Science Foundation for science, technology (computational thinking), engineering, and mathematics. In early childhood, STEM can be taught alone or integrated intentionally in groups of two or three, or with the arts, language, literacy, and social-emotional learning throughout a child’s typical routines and daily activities.

Science is the study of content knowledge (energy & matter, force & motion, light, living & non-living things, Earth & its properties, sound, structure & properties of matter, and weather) and cross-cutting concepts (cause & effect, compare & contrast, patterns, stability & change, structure & function, and systems & their interactions) through child-level processes (ask, engage, observe, classify, investigate, sort, describe, analyze & interpret, and reflect).​

The technology part of STEM is often confused with devices such as tablets and laptops. Educational technology is sometimes discussed as a tool to promote learning in any content area. The “T” in STEM is the introduction of underlying concepts of building or creating technology, including computational thinking, which is the basic logic underlying computer science (DOE & DHHS, 2016).​ Specifically, computational thinking is the method used to problem-solve by determining ‘what’ (sequencing, looping, repetition, decomposition, and causation), ‘how’ (debugging), and ‘why’ through child-level processes (ask, engage, observe, create, investigate, describe, document, analyze & interpret, and reflect).​ Drs. Lisa Wadors and Jessica Amsbary, STEMIE team members give tips for practicing computational thinking skills with young children in this podcast.

The word “engineering” comes from the Latin words ingenium (which means “cleverness”) and ingeniare (which means “to devise”). At its most basic level, engineering is a systematic way of designing solutions to problems. These solutions can be new or improvements on existing solutions. Science and mathematics – as well as real-world experience - are central components. 

Mathematics is the study of patterns in numbers and space, including the concepts, processes, and structures of counting and numbers, space and shape, and symmetry, as well as a set of math practices by which math knowledge is developed, refined, and applied.​

In order for STEM to happen, two more of these content areas mix with a real-world situation and hands-on exploration to solve a problem or create something new.

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