The STEM cycle explains why all students must be exposed to STEM: because STEM skills are life skills. Locked in the STEM cycle are the seeds of critical thinking—creative, evaluative, and analytical thinking skills that are transferrable and that make students trainable. These skills are the key to workforce development and the underpinnings of a student’s future college and career opportunities.
When we think about the STEM cycle of innovation, we think about the relationships between science, technology, engineering and math.
Science is knowledge from experimentation. Scientists pose questions and work to answer them by testing hypotheses and gathering data, giving us scientific knowledge.
Engineering uses that scientific knowledge to design solutions, then test those solutions to evaluate how well they solve real-world problems.
Scaled up, these solutions are technology, which enables further scientific exploration, deeper questions and new hypotheses, allowing scientists to ask the bigger and better questions. Their new knowledge then allows engineers to iterate and improve the prototypes that keep the cycle going.
Math is at the center of the cycle because it is a tool for quantifying, analyzing and communicating the observations or findings from an experiment or a prototype. It also makes certain the processes and insights are replicable for both scientists and engineers.
When thinking about the cycle in the context of curriculum, it becomes important that these connections are clear to students— and to teachers, as they are the keepers of the message. The reality is, if you were to walk into a meeting and ask "What is science? What is engineering?" you’d likely get a wide variety of answers. This is a problem, one the National Research Council (NRC) has endeavored to remedy by defining what effective STEM instruction is.
The 8 STEM Practices
In 2011, the NRC issued a new, specific definition of what effective STEM instruction is. Effective STEM instruction:
- Capitalizes on students’ early interests and experiences.
- Identifies and builds on what students know.
- Provides students with the experiences to engage in the practices of science and sustain their interest.
It’s very intentional language that describes a process that is at its core nurturing: it identifies and builds on what students know, then offers them experiences designed to engage them in the practices of science and engineering. The word "practices" is very intentional as well. It’s a dimension of the new Next Generation Science Standards, and focuses on keeping a scope, sequence and pace that is appropriate for the content and the methodologies used to engage students.
At a high level, the eight STEM practices—the eight practice skills a student must be able to demonstrate as a result of effective STEM education—are:
- Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
- Developing and using model
- Planning and carrying out investigations
- Analyzing and interpreting data
- Using mathematics and computational thinking
- Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
- Engaging in argument from evidence
- Obtaining, evaluating and communicating information
Unfortunately, curriculum often falls short when it comes to developing these practices. It’s simply not something students are usually asked to develop in the classroom. These are thinking-oriented skills — something that must be built up to and learned intentionally. They are also higher order, and a critical benchmark in evaluating the effectiveness of STEM instruction.
To obtain this level of understanding, instruction must achieve a high level of readiness, specifically mastery readiness.