A new National Research Council report makes it clear that if we want integrated Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education to succeed, we need to start paying closer attention to what works and what doesn’t. Most importantly, not just any blend of STEM education is likely to succeed. A carefully constructed learning experience is preferable to any old blend of subjects. In culinary terms, we’re talking lasagna, not smoothie.The report suggests that there are three key implications from the research for STEM educators.
- Integration needs to be explicit. While teachers are often able to see and understand the connections between different STEM subjects, this is difficult for students. Without calling attention to these connections, students are likely to overlook them. [Isn’t it wonderful how noodles, cheese, meat and tomato sauce go together in this lasagna?]
- Integrated STEM education shouldn’t trump strong education within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In many cases, strong understanding of an individual subject area is required in order to transfer that knowledge to a context with multiple relevant subjects and concepts. [We don’t have to have lasagna every night. Spaghetti is just fine sometimes.]
- More integration is not necessarily better. While integrated experiences can be more authentic and improve conceptual understanding, they also pose significant cognitive challenges for students. [No one likes a mushy lasagna- assemble and bake with care!]
Perhaps most significant is the overall assessment of the research behind integrated STEM programs.
The level of evidence gathered by the committee is not sufficient to suggest that integrated STEM education could or should replace high-quality education focused on individual STEM subjects. Indeed, integrated STEM education requires that students hone their expertise in the very disciplines that are being connected.
In general, the report is quite cautious about the research basis behind integrated STEM. While there is reason to be optimistic, few benefits have been clearly shown from integrated STEM programs to date, primarily as a result of insufficient research. In other words, there’s no need to rush to jump on the STEM bandwagon or start changing things around if you already have strong programs for science, math, engineering, and technology.