A focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) has been at the forefront of education trends in America for the past several years. This is for good reason—jobs in STEM fields are growing rapidly without enough qualified workers to fill them. These employment opportunities can be incredibly interesting and fulfilling, which has led more and more students in the US to express interest in them. The number of students taking higher-level mathematics or science classes has grown since the early 2000s, according to US News. Some classrooms (both P-12 and higher education) now include new technology such as virtual reality and artificial intelligence, and there have been interesting developments in how educators are approaching STEM subjects themselves.
In 2015, a group of educators and Department of Education officials met to outline their vision for the future of STEM in education. Their report, STEM 2026,
Component 1: Engaged and Networked Communities of Practice
The first component of STEM 2026 is a commitment to increasing the engagement and number of STEM communities that practice and learn together. While the core of these communities will always be STEM classes, teachers, and students, full community engagement must also include clubs, advisors, and student networks that can support all who want to learn about these topics. The plan is to foster more permanent connections so that students can thrive throughout their entire academic and post-academic careers. We’ve started to see this in our everyday lives, with communities on the Internet, in schools, at summer camps, and at local clubs that foster learning and understanding of different scientific and technological topics.
Component 2: Accessible Learning Activities That Invite Intentional Play and Risk
The second feature of the report was to discard the “right or wrong” attitude and encourage creative expression and intentional play. Though tests in STEM fields have traditionally followed the binary yes/no format, educators have realized that this is often not the most effective way to foster interest in STEM topics. Less structured labs and experiments allow these educational fields to be more accessible by welcoming risk, trial, and error.
Component 3: Educational Experiences That Include Interdisciplinary Approaches to Solving “Grand Challenges”
Non-binary solutions also contribute to the “grand challenge” approach to learning. Instead of putting an individual problem with a yes or no answer in front of students, educators can recommend problem‑solving in a larger context, one that might span disciplines and lead to collaboration and more creative solutions.
After all, that’s what STEM education is all about—developing problem‑solving skills that will prepare students for the challenges they will face in their adult lives. Recontextualizing issues to include various disciplines helps keep students engaged and creative. Asking students to consider solutions to problems such as organizing a city or cleaning up local ecosystems can expand nuanced technical concepts into something more tangible to them.
Component 4: Flexible and Inclusive Learning Spaces
Just as educators recommend moving away from the traditional math or science problems for students to solve, they’re also recommending moving away from traditional classroom and lab configurations. Instead, more and more teachers are opting to create “makerspaces” that could be used across multiple disciplines and that could be available in non-STEM subjects such as social studies. Makerspaces are like labs but less rigid – they include tools and guided exploration so that students can create and learn organically. These classrooms combine elements from computer and science labs, art rooms, and workshops and are expanded in terms of flexibility and inclusivity (more spaces for students to move around and interact while answering overarching STEM questions). For more on how technology is making classrooms more inviting and inclusive, see our recent post.
Component 5: Innovative and Accessible Measures of Learning
Closely connected to components two and three is developing more inclusive ways of measuring academic success in all subjects (specifically, math and science). Many education professionals believe that there is too much redundancy in the standardized tests assigned to today’s youth, meaning there are too many tests that are measuring the same knowledge. Rather than learning more, students are having to test and retest what they have learned. To streamline testing and move away from the binary “right and wrong” grading techniques, STEM 2026 recommends limiting testing and improving measures of cross-disciplinary learning. Project-based grading has become more popular for this reason.
Component 6: Societal and Cultural Images and Environments That Promote Diversity and Opportunity in STEM
Finally, the report called for help from pop culture to revise the image of STEM students. For example the report calls for increasing diversity in advertising for STEM toys and games as well as highlighting different STEM projects in social and traditional media in new and different ways. This is already coming to fruition with an increase in toys that include coding kits and clubs that focus on girls who code.
Everything in the STEM 2026 report is interconnected and points to changes that will need to be made to increase involvement and engagement in STEM. These flow into the approach known as the "whole child approach" used by the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation and the 100Kin10 organization, which emphasizes STEM fields as not just parts of education but as foundations for all learning.