A Definition

Depending on your role as a parent, teacher, or other community member and your sources of information, your first association with “STEM” is likely related to “STEM workforce and careers” and/or to “a transformation in education that involves STEM fairs, and STEM projects”. The breadth of STEM and STEM-related careers is extensive, but because all require a quality STEM education provided by the same evidence-based teaching practices, it makes sense for us to define STEM in the context of STEM education.

STEM Education is an interdisciplinary approach to learning and teaching practices, where students have opportunities to practice the integration of the knowledge and skills of science, engineering, mathematics, and technology and apply that integration to a challenge, problem, or project representing how we address real-world problems

A Brief History

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics are not new disciplines and neither is the integration of them to solve problems, so why has the acronym become so commonly used only in the last 10-15 years? Just as we saw with the focus on fundamentals in response to conservatism after World War II and then the shift to less rote memorization and individualized learning after the launch of Sputnik, the STEM movement is essentially a result of the digital revolution (also referred to as the “tech boom” or the third industrial revolution). By the 1990s, this revolution had led us to a national crisis where the number of US STEM jobs requiring graduates with STEM degrees was rising while the attrition of college students out of STEM majors was also rising. Furthermore, the pool of those that earned STEM degrees was and still is very homogenous; white, middle-high socioeconomic status, and majority male.

In response to the lack of bodies and lack of diversity, “STEM” moved to the forefront of conversations in K-16 education. President Obama put out a call at the 2011 State of the Union igniting a movement to “teach 21st-century skills to be more competitive with other nations in fields of STEM”.  This call was informed by the 2012 President’s council of advisors on science and technology report, which highlighted a disconnect between our actions and expectations; we were teaching students these disciplines in silos yet we were expecting our graduates to know how to integrate and apply the skills and knowledge of these four areas in order to be successful in their jobs. In response to “No Child Left Behind”, mathematics and literacy had become the focus of K-12 education, science was given limited time and even became optional in many elementary schools, and engineering and technology were limited to advanced learning and after-school programs for select groups of children. Shortly following President Obama’s challenge to the nation, millions in funding flooded in by public and private sectors for teaching, training, grants, research, and school programs-- accelerating the STEM education movement.

Interestingly, this momentum was concurrent with the growth of action plans created in response to a paradigm shift in higher education in the late 20th century from service to the public by sharing of knowledge to a model of direct engagement with community members and more of an emphasis on impact than product. The dovetailing of the institutionalization of community engagement in higher education with the transformation in STEM education set the stage for STEM faculty to rethink their role in public engagement and for the establishment of centers dedicated to STEM outreach. 

More recently, there has been a strong focus on cross-sector partnerships and state-wide networks that include K-12, higher education, non-profits, informal education, government agencies, and STEM employers. You can learn more about this in the 2018 report by the National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on STEM Education, which highlights the importance of partnerships that align “what is taught and learned with what is needed at work and in the community”.

The STEM Education Movement

The STEM Education movement aims to make the natural connections between the disciplines more explicit for educators by exposure to how STEM is used in the real world to solve problems, by encouraging teaching practices that break down silos and allow students to practice integrating the knowledge and skills of the disciplines, and by providing the professional development necessary to give educators the background knowledge and confidence to do all of this with their limited time and resources. It is important for educators and all stakeholders to recognize that the order of the letters represents the most logical order for a pronounceable and memorable acronym (the first attempt at this was "SMET" coined by the NSF In the early 1990s) and is not an indication of relative importance or prevalence of the disciplines.

While filling the millions of unfilled STEM jobs is a desired outcome of and provides a road map for this movement, it is not the only driving force. The skills, creativity, and knowledge learned in a quality STEM education provide our future citizens- working in both STEM and non-STEM sectors- with the foundations to think critically, solve problems, collaborate with others, and make informed decisions that affect the well-being of our planet, their local community, and their families.

Higher Education's Role 

As with all initiatives, the funding that started pouring in ten years ago is limited and competitive and despite efforts in equitable access, the opportunity gap persists. This is why it is imperative that higher education institutions be proactive by sharing resources and expertise, preparing future teachers to be outstanding STEM educators, and being an advocate for the schools in their communities. The JMU Center for STEM Education and Outreach aims to take these actions by facilitating faculty and student engagement, connecting needs in the community with opportunities on campus, and developing new opportunities informed by both the needs of our local teachers and the evidence-based recommendations set by our state and national agencies.

Kerry Owens Cresawn, Ph.D.


  1. Charting a Course for Success: America’s Strategy for STEM Education. A Report by the Committee on STEM Education of the National Science and Technology Council, 2018.
  2. Gunn, Jennifer, 2017. A History of STEM and STEAM in the U.S.
  3. STEM 2026: A Vision for Innovation in STEM Education, United States Department of Education, 2015.
  4. Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology Report to the President, 2012.
  5. Gerlach, Jonathon, 2012. STEM: Demystifying a Simple Definition, National Association of Science Teachers Reports.
  6. Fitzgerald, H.E., Burns, K., Sonka, S.T., Furco, A. & Louis Swanson. (2012). The Centrality of engagement in Higher Education. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 16(3), 7-27.
  7. Chuck English, VA STEM Director, Personal communication 2019.

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