STEM 101: What is it and why it’s the future of Nebraska’s economy

By Jeff Cole

We hear a lot about STEM lately. And it’s one of those acronyms that you’re kind of embarrassed to admit that you don’t really understand it.  When you hear it,  it resonates at some level, but you are still not quite certain you know what the talking heads are going on and on about as they decry our declining STEM competitiveness and the implications for America’s future.  So, to help avoid that awkward moment, here is your STEM 101.

What is STEM?

STEM is shorthand for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. The term represents the cluster of disciplines that cause those concerned about America’s future tend to do a lot of hand wringing.

Basics of STEM

Why is STEM important? 

To paraphrase Bill Clinton, STEM is all about the Economy.  The STEM competencies represent those areas of our economy that create high-value-added products. Think engineers and scientists trying to figure out how to produce more food by using less water on a growing/warming planet or  mathematicians and techies using algorithms to fine tune the newest version of Siri to guide us through our increasingly digital lives.  STEM refers to key areas of future job growth in a globally interconnected economy. Most importantly, the STEM competencies represent our potential to tap a seemingly unlimited resource — the mysterious power of the human brain — to solve a host of complex, hitherto unidentified problems.  Needless to say, this can be pretty heady stuff.

American students are falling behind in STEM. And here’s a crazy idea: maybe the school day isn’t where we look to solve the problem.

Students spend less than 20% of their waking hours in the traditional classroom. With that in mind, it seems logical that learning complex, time-intensive competencies might not be the best fit for the school day. And that’s OK. STEM, especially when served in afterschool programs, can be a lot of fun.

Last week, I was fortunate to attend a conference in Kansas City – the fourth annual Midwest Afterschool Science Academy (MASA 4.0). The conference focused on the intersection of out-of-school time (OST) and STEM.  At the center of this alphabet soup of acronyms is the opportunity that after school time and the summer months create for young people to get engaging, hands-on, fun STEM experiences that can turn a child’s curiosity into a lifetime interest, a quest for knowledge and hopefully a career in the STEM fields.

Why STEM learning fits with OST.

Experts at MASA 4.0 (including a strong 10-person Nebraska team) showed how the hands-on and project-based learning that OST programs promote are a perfect fit for the kind of inquiry-based education STEM fields required.

In the increasingly test-driven classroom environment failure is frowned upon and connections across disciplines are luxuries that can’t always be explored. But the opposite is true in an OST program. Here,  failure,  which is a requirement of the scientific process, is embraced as key to learning and discovery.

Afterschool programs can also create opportunities to combine a month-long, hands-on robotics unit with a visit by an engineer using robots on an assembly line to illustrate how this idea is manifested in the real world.  In short, many are beginning to see OST and STEM as perfect complements and a necessary supplement to high-quality classroom instruction.

Other takeaways from MASA 4.0

STEM Photo - MASA 4

  • Equity and diversity in the STEM fields.  There are not nearly enough minorities and women represented in STEM careers (which are among the best paid jobs out there).  Afterschool programs are an ideal place to reach out to and engage these groups in STEM activities that could lead to future careers in this growing arena – and help break the cycle of poverty that plagues low-income communities.
  • Quality matters.  Some programs and providers do a better job at engaging youth in quality STEM than others.  Given that the objective of STEM programs is not to raise test scores, it can be difficult to differentiate between programs that make an impact and those that are not hitting the mark.  A new tool, Dimensions of Success (DoS), is being used by programs around the country to tease out the characteristics of quality programs and help afterschool staff reach all students more effectively. We’re bringing this tool to Nebraska.
  • Student-led, project-based learning programs. This type of work creates opportunities for students to take an active role in identifying, designing and participating in STEM projects that have direct meaning to their lives.  It holds tremendous potential for capturing the excitement and interest of young people, generating the kind of enthusiasm that can lead to lifetime learning experiences in the STEM fields.
  • States are actively promoting OST STEM.  State-level businesses and economic development groups see the need to collaborate with OST systems because they realize that these programs are effectively serving populations they need to reach to expand the overall pool of STEM learners (and future STEM contributors) in a state.  As is the case in Nebraska, networks are forming to help facilitate these collaborations and forge the partnerships necessary to serve more youth.

Exciting things are happening  across the state.

MASA 4.0 isn’t the only place recognizing the value of OST STEM.  I closed out the week by participating in an incredibly impressive meeting in Columbus, NE where educators from three surrounding districts spent their morning at a professional development activity organized by the Columbus Chamber of Commerce.  During these site visits, more than 250 educators visited 10 STEM-dependent businesses to discuss how the subjects they are learning in the classroom can support businesses across the community.  During the lunch session we talked about how we could build on this school day collaboration to explore additional expanded STEM learning opportunities during afterschool and summer months.  Columbus is on the leading edge of facilitating the kind of intentional conversations and collaborations that should be happening in communities across the state.

Tune in to NET at 8 pm on Thursday, March 21 for more.

Speaking of statewide conversations, this Thursday and Sunday at 8 pm, NET2 is rebroadcasting OST STEM, their latest installment of The State of Education in Nebraska.  This segment explores the growing sense of national urgency around OST STEM, how the topic plays in Nebraska and shows real-world examples of great work going on right now in Nebraska.  It also shows viewers how they can get involved in supporting this work in communities across our state.

While exploring this topic, visit NET’s website to see videos of Governor Heineman and Commissioner Breed making the case for making 2013 the Year of STEM Discovery in Nebraska.

Find out more about making STEM happen through the Nebraska Community Learning Centers Network.

Nebraska Children and Families Foundation supports children, young adults and families at risk with the overall goal of giving our state's most vulnerable kids what they need to reach their full potential. We do this by building strong communities that support families so their children can grow up to be thriving, productive adults.

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