STEM programs are recognized for the practical skills they offer college students. Such courses have been reinvented online—but here’s why they’re just as important in today’s economy.
Attending biology labs, drawing parabolas and examining various life forms under a microscope were once common activities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) classes at colleges and universities. Professors teaching STEM courses have since had to reinvigorate their curriculum with the shift to virtual learning. While STEM-based learning experiences look different, the value that a STEM degree holds today has only gained importance. Below, we highlight the value of STEM degrees in the global economy and how you might reinvent your teaching practices as online labs and manuals become the norm.
- What is STEM?
- A breakdown of each focus area
- How STEM works
- The government’s commitment to STEM education
- STEM classes in various modalities
- STEM and in-person learning
- Collaborative learning spaces
- Coding with robots
- Games and competitions
- STEM and online learning
- Mailed lab kits
- Research and data analysis
- Guest lectures
- Blended learning
- The importance of STEM education
- Underrepresentation of women and minority students in STEM
- STEM programs in higher education
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, MA
- California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA
- Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Terre Haute, IN
- STEM careers
- Demand for STEM-related jobs today
- How Top Hat can help STEM educators
What is STEM?
STEM is an acronym in education that refers to science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses. Classes place emphasis on real-world applications and equip students with the hands-on skills required to successfully navigate the STEM workforce.1
A breakdown of each focus area
Science-based education focuses on studies of the natural and physical world via experimentation and observation. The work of scientists typically involves writing academic papers and proposals, performing research and delivering findings. On the other hand, scientific technicians typically conduct experiments, collect samples and otherwise assist scientists. Science disciplines are categorized by their particular aspect of study, such as:
- Earth science
- Life science
- Space science
Technology-based programs combine work in science and engineering to create computer and information systems. Technical education facilitates communication and typically involves designing, testing, improving and maintaining hardware, software, networks and systems. Technology-heavy disciplines include artificial intelligence, operating systems, robotics, computer science, cryptography and programming.
Engineers tackle real-world problems by combining technology, math and science to develop solutions. Engineering work typically involves developing materials, products, structures and systems. Engineering disciplines tend to be categorized by the industry in which they’re applied, like petroleum, textiles or aerospace and include:
- Civil engineering
- Mechanical engineering
- Industrial engineering
- Electrical engineering
- Materials engineering
Programs in the faculty of mathematics employ logical, spatial and numerical relationships to examine and solve problems. Math work provides the technical foundation for the other three STEM subjects and typically involves identifying patterns in abstract logic or data. Students can use these patterns to draw conclusions, test relationships and model problems. Common math disciplines include:
- Game theory
How STEM works
Creating 21st-century skills is one of the goals of STEM subjects and curriculum. When in middle school and high school, students have the chance to strengthen their soft skills such as collaboration and communication. In post-secondary education, these skills continue to be refined and put into practice through large-scale projects and assessments. College degrees also stress the importance of preparing students for the real-world STEM workforce and help students sharpen their professional development in this domain.
STEM learning embraces the four Cs that are seen as pillars of a 21st-century education: creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication. These four areas are essential for solving complex challenges that employees in STEM-related fields will inevitably face.2 Students learn how to use critical thinking and creative skills to approach problem-solving from a variety of angles. Contrastingly, they learn how to identify errors, collect pertinent data and correctly interpret and apply it to various systems. STEM also teaches students how to develop and source economical solutions, including in unconventional or previously unconsidered ways.
Communication takes place in both oral and written forms in STEM subjects. This includes technical writing, interpersonal communication, public speaking and even teaching, in order to ensure that ideas are effectively translated into action.
STEM programs often incorporate or provide opportunities for internships, research and volunteering to enhance professional development. Internships also help students put their acquired skills and knowledge into practice in their desired field. Here are some reasons3 why college students may benefit from completing a STEM internship, especially with a shaky global economy due to COVID-19.
- Students develop highly marketable skills and expand their resume
- Students get to sample what a full-time career in their area of interest might be like
- Students get to network and gain new mentors and connections for future careers
The government’s commitment to STEM education
STEM is also being prioritized on the governmental level. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos developed a comprehensive STEM priority, which was brought to life through numerous grant programs. The programs work to promote student success for global competitiveness “by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.”4
The U.S. government continues to invest in STEM education. In November 2020, the U.S. Department of Education supplied over $578M in research grants to support STEM subjects such as computer science. This is part of the department’s five-year strategy to better prepare students for high-paying, in-demand careers of the 21st-century STEM workforce.4
STEM classes in various modalities
The coronavirus pandemic disrupted STEM-related classes and extracurriculars across the world. Educators and administrators were left with no choice but to find innovative ways to teach complex material behind a screen, all while conferring the same skill competency and experience. The move to online and blended STEM courses has come with its own set of challenges, as illustrated below.
STEM and in-person learning
When students and instructors are able to meet in person, the opportunities for STEM-related education are virtually unlimited. Immersive learning opportunities, robotics and gamifying the classroom are all parts of in-person STEM learning.
Collaborative learning spaces
Collaborative learning spaces have always been a staple of in-person STEM courses. These interactive classroom spaces helped foster greater participation, engagement and creativity among students. In such settings, educators may encourage experimentation and ask questions that are more open-ended than closed-ended. These collaborative spaces designed for open communication align with evidence-based teaching practices found to be more effective in STEM-related education.5
Coding with robots
Robotics is an effective medium for teaching students about coding best practices in STEM education. Robots lend themselves to more engaging and hands-on learning, helping students better absorb, retain and apply information. Robotics extracurricular activities or curriculum allow students to learn:
- The fundamentals of engineering
- A basic understanding of technology
- The science behind mechanical systems and materials
- Programming concepts and logical applied math
- Soft skills such as teamwork and problem solving6
Games and competitions
While games and competitions can certainly translate to online settings, there is much to be gained from the visceral experience of engaging in competition with other people in one’s immediate presence. The sheer immediacy and shared energy of the group dynamic that can be lost in online settings can be employed in in-person settings to help students more fully explore, comprehend and apply complex material.
STEM and online learning
When STEM education moved online, educators and students alike faced a new set of challenges. Relying on technology has lent itself to distractions, while digital learning has made it difficult to interact with professors and peers. Lab-based classes, a staple of many STEM courses, pose significant challenges. Some colleges have expanded Wi-Fi hotspot access and laptop lending programs. Teachers have also adopted creative teaching methods and activities to accommodate the remote learning experience.
Mailed lab kits
For labs involving non-hazardous materials and activities, educators can send lab kits to students for them to experiment with at home. Students can demonstrate their understanding of a concept via webcam or can follow along with the professor over a live video feed.
Research and data analysis
While many activities may not be conducive to distance learning, research and data analysis tasks are ideal for online learning. Provide your students with a dataset and have them analyze it according to a set of rules or logic. You could additionally follow up with a reflection paper to have students hone their writing skills.
One of the advantages of online teaching is that guests from around the world can join your class session. Scheduling and budgeting also become easier for you or your teaching assistants. Similarly, live webinars can be an effective way to make STEM learning more interactive and engaging. Consider assigning one or two bonus points for each student who attends a webinar.
STEM and blended learning
Returning to normal life will not occur instantly but rather, in stages. A blended learning environment, where learning is split equally between in-person and online spaces, may become more prevalent as technology continues to adapt and evolve. Teachers need to develop methods of teaching effectively in both scenarios in order to keep learning fresh and engaging, no matter where it takes place.
One effective way to do this is to incorporate digital learning, such as a research task, in your in-person classes and hands-on experiments. Encouraging experimentation helps push students to explore new and innovative ways to approach problems. Collaborative tasks such as reading a lab manual in pairs and answering pre-lab questions help bridge the gap between in-person and online learning.
Nothing in 2020 was by the book—especially for STEM classes. Download our free 2021 Online Teaching Toolkit for templates and tools to use in your STEM classroom.
The importance of STEM education
Those in STEM fields play an important role in the growth and stability of the U.S. economy. With COVID-19, STEM has gained new importance in order to solve complex problems and challenges that have come as a result of the pandemic. STEM education, however, is made up of a predominantly white male demographic. Below, we share a more eye-opening look at the numbers behind student enrollment and demographic statistics.
Underrepresentation of women and minority students in STEM
The gender gap is easily seen in STEM majors in higher education. For example, 21 percent of engineering majors are women and only 19 percent of computer science majors are female.7 In health care, women make up nearly 80 percent of the workforce, however, they are mostly represented in lower-paying roles such as nurses and home health workers.8 The underrepresentation of women in STEM-related fields is believed to be a key factor in the prevailing gender pay gap.
The number of male employees who enter STEM fields consistently outweighs their non-white, female counterparts. Their salaries are nearly $15,000 higher per year than women. Contrastingly, Black women in STEM earn around $33,000 less than white males in the same industry.9
Enrollment numbers at postsecondary institutions are overwhelmingly centered around white male students. The Smithsonian Education Center cited that only 3.3 percent of Alaska Natives and Native Americans, 2.7 percent of Blacks and 2.2 percent of individuals who identify as Latinx have a university degree in STEM. Even more concerning, in 2016, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine reported that historically Black colleges and Latinx-serving institutions experienced lower completion rates in STEM-related majors than in other postsecondary institutions.
Improving college outreach efforts to close the STEM gender gap starts in the following four ways:10
- Give women the skills and confidence to succeed in math and science
- Improve STEM education and support for girls starting in K-12 education to ensure eligibility in college programs
- Work to attract, recruit and retain women in STEM majors
- Improve job hiring, retention and promotion pathways and intentionally inclusive cultures
STEM programs in higher education
Numerous schools and faculties offer noteworthy STEM-related programs that help students earn reputable careers. Here are three institutions in the United States that offer renowned STEM education programs.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, MA
MIT is seen as one of the world’s most reputable research universities. The school has produced almost 100 Nobel laureates. Its 30 departments are divided amongst five schools, three of which focus on STEM-related subjects including architecture and planning, engineering and science.
California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA
The California Institute of Technology (or Caltech) is especially known for its science and engineering programs. Five out of six of Caltech’s academic divisions are STEM-focused, including the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering and the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy.11
Graduates have won Nobel Prizes, developed the silicon chip design, discovered gravitational waves and created the pH meter, among other accomplishments.
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Terre Haute, IN
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology has been committed exclusively to STEM-related education since 1874. This private college earned the top spot in the U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of undergraduate education in engineering for two decades and counting. Its notable experimentation facilities include the multidisciplinary Branam Innovation Center, the MiNDS Lab for nanotech and the Oakley Observatory for researching comets, supernovae and star photometry. Rose-Hulman Ventures also highlights some of the many innovations that students produce ranging from respiratory to orthopaedic technology.12
College students with a degree in a STEM-related major have a plethora of career choices to explore. The following list shows a sample of STEM careers in various occupational groups.
- Management: Architectural manager, engineering manager, computer and information systems manager and natural sciences manager
- Computers and math: Actuary, computer network architect, computer systems analyst, database administrator, operations research analyst, statistician, and software or web developer
- Engineering and architecture: Aerospace engineer, agricultural engineer, biomedical engineer, environmental technician, mechanical drafter, surveying and mapping technician
- Social, physical and life sciences: Food technician, biochemist, biophysicist, conservation scientist, epidemiologist, forensic technician, forester, hydrologist and nuclear technician
- Training, education and library: Postsecondary teachers in agriculture, architecture, biology, computers, the environment, math and physics
- Sales: Sales engineers, sales representatives of manufacturing and wholesale scientific or technical products
Demand for STEM-related jobs today
In today’s global world, STEM careers are more important than ever. The STEM Education Coalition, a nonprofit organization, shows that occupations in STEM fields grew faster than those in non-STEM fields over the last decade by a wide margin. STEM careers grew by 24.4 percent versus 4 percent for non-STEM jobs.13 The U.S. Department of Commerce also projects an 8.9 percent annual growth rate for STEM careers between 2014 and 2024, versus a 6.4 percent growth rate for non-STEM jobs.
How Top Hat can help STEM educators
Top Hat helps educators keep labs engaging and interactive—no matter where learning takes place. Create or adopt customizable lab manuals filled with PhET simulations, media and more in the Top Hat Marketplace. Manuals are packed with pre-lab activities to keep students engaged, even from a distance. Recorded demonstrations help students put complex STEM concepts into practice.
Top Hat Intro Courses additionally bring your course to life through immersive textbooks, lectures, pre-built assignments and more. Our anatomy and physiology course offers student-friendly learning tools, a customizable textbook with 3D models and an in-depth guide to help you prepare for class. Learn more about the course here.
Bring life to your next online or hybrid STEM class. Learn more about what Top Hat can do for your labs here.
- Hom, E. (2014, Feb. 11). What is STEM Education? Live Science. https://www.livescience.com/43296-what-is-stem-education.html
- Brewer, S. (n.d.). STEM and STEAM Education. STEAM Powered Family. https://www.steampoweredfamily.com/education/what-is-stem/
- University of Hawai’i: Kaua’i Community College. (n.d.). STEM Internships. https://sites.google.com/a/hawaii.edu/stem/benefits/
- Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, including Computer Science. (n.d.). U.S. Department of Education. https://www.ed.gov/stem/
- STEM shifts in higher ed. (n.d.). University Business. https://universitybusiness.com/stem-shifts-in-higher-ed/
- Robotics for STEM Education. (n.d.). Intelitek. https://intelitek.com/stem-education-2/robotics-for-stem-education/
- Chapter 2: Higher Education in Science and Engineering. (2018). National Science Board Science & Engineering Indicators 2018. https://nsf.gov/statistics/2018/nsb20181/report/sections/higher-education-in-science-and-engineering/undergraduate-education-enrollment-and-degrees-in-the-united-states
- Women’s representation in STEM jobs varies by education. (2018). Pew Research Center. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2018/01/09/women-and-men-in-stem-often-at-odds-over-workplace-equity/ps_2018-01-09_stem_a-05/
- There are racial earnings gaps in the STEM workforce for both men and women. (2018). Pew Research Center. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2018/01/09/women-and-men-in-stem-often-at-odds-over-workplace-equity/ps_2018-01-09_stem_a-09/
- The STEM Gap: Women and Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. (n.d.). American Association of University Women. https://www.aauw.org/resources/research/the-stem-gap/
- Majors & Minors. (n.d.). Caltech. http://www.admissions.caltech.edu/explore/academics/majors-minors
- Rose-Hulman Ventures. (n.d.). https://www.rhventures.org/
- The Case for STEM Education as a National Priority: Good Jobs and American Competitiveness. (n.d.). STEM Education Coalition. http://www.stemedcoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Sept-2019-Fact-Sheet-PDF-STEM-Education-Good-Jobs-and-American-Competitiveness.pdf