Insight Education

Are schools
losing the S in STEM?

Are schools losing the S in STEM?

Janice Koch, PhD, Professor Emerita of Science Education at Hofstra University and adjunct Professor for STEM education at American University, explains why the growing trend of treating STEM as one subject could come at the expense of authentic science experiences for students.

Science education in the early grades has faced many challenges in American public schools. The No Child Left Behind Act (2002), in an attempt to ensure that literacy and mathematics preparation was equitably implemented across the country, mandated uniform testing in english language arts and mathematics at regular intervals in the elementary school grades.

The study of science, therefore, was often ignored as teachers prepped students for these high-stakes tests. This was the beginning of a decline in the amount of time spent teaching science in kindergarten through fifth grade.

School science typically addresses concepts in life science, physical science and earth and space sciences and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS, 2013) emphasize the connections between scientific concepts, science and engineering practices, and engineering design. The intentional inclusion of engineering in these new science standards encourages teachers to engage students in design and problem solving and aligns with the worldwide movement toward STEM education.

STEM, however, is an acronym, not a disciplinary subject. Standing for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM education has become very popular and a buzzword for improving the education of students in an increasingly technological world.

Investigating vs making: where is the science?

When we think of elementary school science, however, the hope is that students are engaged in planning and carrying out investigations, analysing data and staking claims about natural phenomena for which they have evidence. As they reason from their evidence, the students participate in the process of doing science to understand fundamental concepts about how the natural world works.

This requires a great deal of teacher preparation and planning for students to learn science through participating in authentic science investigations. This process of learning about the natural world helps young students understand, for example: the causes of night and day; the difference between weather and climate; the abiotic and biotic factors in an environment, to name a few concepts. Students explore the resources in and on our planet - which are renewable, and which are non-renewable.

Importantly, we must ask: “How can we make sense of caring for the natural world if we are unsure of how it works?”

The answers to these questions and many others are inherent in quality science education, where the goals are for students to gain an understanding of disciplinary core ideas while learning how science works.

I fear that science education is taking a back seat to the more current trends of design and construction."

In the last few years however, the proliferation of STEM schools at the elementary level (grades K-5) have engaged students in problem solving and design through construction tasks, tinkering, and playful experimentation with materials. While these experiences have value and are important for promoting individuals’ competence with materials and design, when observing these STEM classes and ‘maker spaces’ it is hard to discern the presence of a recognisable science concept.

As a result, I fear that science education is taking a back seat to the more current trends of design and construction. I believe it is incumbent on elementary schools to ask: “where is the science?”, “how is science being taught?”, “is there a connection between scientific ideas and engineering and design concepts?”, and “what do the students know about the natural world?”

Hence, while STEM education is very important and pivotal for our contemporary culture, it runs the risk of marginalising the implementation of authentic science experiences. Although mathematics represents the M in STEM, we would not imagine an elementary school not implementing the formal instruction of mathematics. Yet, at many STEM schools we are losing the S.

Picture a genius: removing barriers for women in STEM

My research addresses the participation of girls and young women in science by encouraging schools to create a ‘gender agenda’ and focus the students’ understanding on the fact that men and women do science and participate in rich and fulfilling careers in science and engineering. One way this is accomplished is by introducing the history of women in STEM fields and encouraging contemporary women in STEM to visit classes to talk about their work and contributions.

Over 30 years of working in this area, however, I have learned that the greatest barriers for girls and STEM are internal ones; the preconceived ideas that teachers and students often share about who excels in STEM.

Recently, New York University’s Alumni Magazine (Spring/Summer 2019) addressed this issue with the following challenge: “Quick, picture a genius.” In this article, the reader is reminded that images of success in STEM fields persist in conjuring up images of males.

Why is it so hard for people to see a woman of the same genius caliber as Einstein, Mozart, and Jobs and what can be done about it?"

Assumptions about gender related competence in these fields stubbornly persists and often influences teachers in their interactions with boys and girls in the same classroom. Calling attention to women’s success in STEM fields is an important intervention.

This year we acknowledged that, for the first time, a woman, Karen Uhlenbeck of the University of Texas at Austin, won the Abel Prize in Mathematics. Still, the question remains: “Why is it so hard for people to see a woman of the same genius caliber as Einstein, Mozart, and Jobs and what can be done about it?” (Van Gelder, 2019).

Gender issues and the emergence of gender identity differences in students reminds us that equitable education is not striving for treating everyone equally. We pursue equality of outcomes through equitable teaching practices that help all students succeed in STEM fields by addressing the needs of diverse student populations as they explore the natural world (Koch, 2014).


Janice Koch PhD is Professor Emerita of Science Education at Hofstra University in New York. Her textbooks for teachers include Science Stories: Science Methods for Elementary and Middle School Teachers (6th ed) and TEACH (4th ed). Dr. Koch was named one of the Top Fifty Women on Long Island by Long Island Business News in 2004 and 2005. She is the past president of the Association for Science Teacher Education (2007-2008). Since leaving the university and relocating to the Washington, DC area, she advises and evaluates National Science Foundation and Department of Education funded projects and speaks broadly about topics in education, notably encouraging the participation of girls and women in STEM fields. Locally, in Washington, DC, she is adjunct Professor of STEM education at American University and recently served on the Committee for Precollege Engineering Education for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

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