Integrated STEM Education Should be a Lasagna, not a Smoothie

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.


Mmmm… STEM education!

The report suggests that there are three key implications from the research for STEM educators.

  1. 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?]
  2. 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.]
  3. 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.

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2 Responses to Integrated STEM Education Should be a Lasagna, not a Smoothie

  1. Doug says:

    Hi Adam… I know this isn’t on topic per se, but I’ve had this question at the back of my mind and I wonder if you can shed any light on it. If this isn’t the forum for it, maybe we could just email back and forth–let me know:

    Do you know what are the implications of the NGSS for the College Board’s AP classes? Will the NGSS render AP defunct? Or does AP complement NGSS in some way?

    • Hi Doug,

      The NGSS are supposed to be the minimum expectation for all students, but are definitely not a cap on what students can achieve. A good way to look at it might be that much of the NGSS could be foundational for later AP classes. In terms of the overall approach to science education, I’ve found the re-vamped AP courses (for example, the new AP Biology) to be quite complementary to the NGSS, with additional focus on science practices and depth of coverage over breadth.

      You might be interested in the upcoming NGSS Accelerated Pathways, which are intended to shed more light on how the NGSS can lead into AP classes. According to the NGSS website, these are coming “early 2014” so hopefully that will be soon!

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