STEM Programs for 21st Century Skills

STEM Programs for 21st Century Skills

What is a STEM Education Program?

Most people who’ve been in a school since the nineties will be familiar with what a STEM education program is—a blend of technology, engineering, math, and science education that is popular in classrooms, education grants, and political speeches. But like a tired metaphor, it’s become so familiar that we don’t stop and think about how it came to be. Why are these subjects lumped together? Do mathematicians really fit alongside engineers? What kind of subject is technology, anyway? These are the types of questions we explore when understanding what is at the core of a STEM program or a STEM school.

On the US Department of Education website, the explanation of this initialism from the Committee on STEM Education (CoSTEM) points out a few key, career-related ideas—these subjects, while distinct, are related by a common base of 21st-century skills such as problem-solving and  evaluating evidence. Mastery of and interest in these subjects is the gateway to good jobs that are in high-tech economy: computer systems analysts, software developers, medical scientists, and biomedical engineers. [1]

But even if math or science education supports lucrative career opportunities, why stop there? The most employable graduates are people who have a suite of interconnected skills, far beyond just fast calculation or deft pipetting:

[Employers] are looking for well-rounded individuals with a holistic education who can comprehend and solve complex problems embedded within sophisticated systems that transcend disciplines, understand the needs, desires, and motivations of others, and communicate clearly. [1]

If our goal is to support competent kids with skills like this, why build them only into science and engineering lessons? To be fair, educators are already exploring the arbitrariness of this initialism by taking more letters on: The NAS consensus study mentioned above prefers STEMM education, adding “medicine” as a fifth area of focus. Adding the word “arts” to form STEAM education1, or even “reading” to create STREAM education2 are initiatives that are alive and well in schools and curricula today. But as the list gets longer, we find ourselves more and more embroiled in the question: what disciplines to include, and what to exclude? Why? What are we even doing here?


Integrated Curriculum for 21st Century Skills

Stepping away from the idea that the four STEM subjects are unique, we come to the underlying motivation for the name—math and science teacher across the nation are hip to the idea that an integrated curriculum best supports higher-order thinking, creative problem-solving, enhanced communication, and increased joy in learning. In 2018, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a consensus study which marked out these goals and further, suggested that integration of learning—even integration across the humanities, arts, and sciences—is a necessary step for STEM student success:

Faculty and administrators, who are concerned that an education focused on a single discipline will not best prepare graduates for the challenges and opportunities presented by work, life, and citizenship in the 21st century, are advocating for an approach…that intentionally integrates knowledge in the arts, humanities, physical and life sciences, social sciences, engineering, technology, mathematics, and the biomedical disciplines. [2]

This approach, which the NAS report simply calls integration, presents new challenges. Curriculum redesign isn’t the only task: we also need to hire and train faculty to work within and across subjects, to flexibly switch between thinking strategies, and to illustrate how different habits of mind are used by experts. But the investment is worth it. We can’t expect to prepare students for the future, to build 21st-century skills, soft skills, workplace skills, etc. without an integrated curriculum. [4]

Luckily, integration is fun! The rewards are especially great for high school students, who often are alienated from meaning in their coursework, and see themselves as “good at,” at most, a couple subjects. Working on math in English class, or doing a project that bridges PE and biology, brings a strange and delighted thrill over the classroom. Quiet students speak up, and it suddenly becomes easier to see your fellow classmates as team members whose diverse skills are an asset, not a threat.

Specificity in STEM for school

When answering the question, what is a STEM program, any college student will tell you that work looks different in different technical classes. It’s not just that you’re learning different content, but you’re also expected to read, write, and think differently. In humanities, for example, studying World War II requires one set of skills when reading Catch-22 in your literature seminar, and another when you’re diagramming the supply lines for tungsten in a historical research paper. Undergraduate students need to develop “disciplinary habits of mind,” different frameworks that support how they filter, remember, and engage with information. [3]

A classic example you will remember from your own schooldays is the Scientific Method. Though we might squabble over number of steps (three?3 four?4 ten?!3), any list will include some formulation of Have a hypothesis to drive your experiment, Avoid bias through good experimental design, and Communicate your results clearly to the scientific community for criticism. Of course, some of these habits of mind are broadly applicable to other fields: but some are not! (Aspiring law students, for one, will find their colleagues much less open to the idea of exploring truth through experimentation on their clients…)

In an integrated curriculum, students still need to do discipline-specific work. Rather than sectioning courses off based purely on the title of the textbook or the topics on the test, teachers instead need to plan around how we want students to think. Communication about disciplinary habits of mind—“For this project, we need to think like historians…”—spawns a rich dialogue on metacognition, and support students with all interests in exploring professional and academic thinking frameworks that can lead to valuable careers.

Modern courseware is catching up. Integrated curricula, such as the Big History Project, shine a light on how even those who work in one discipline—engineers, artists, historians—collaborate with and use tools from other disciplines every day, in every part of their work. At The MEG School, our STEM program touches a vast area of study, but hones in specific lessons as well. Students will learn broad application, while going deep into scientific and technical concepts. We hope we’ve been able to answer some of your basic STEM questions. If you’d like to know more about our STEM curriculum, please reach out to us at!   

Imagine your favorite and least favorite subjects from your school days—can you imagine what it would have been like, to learn them together? Leave us an integrated lesson idea in the comments below!



[1] “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math: Education for Global Leadership.” U.S. Department of Education.

[2] . Skorton D, Bear A (2018) The Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences,

Engineering, and Medicine in Higher Education: Branches from the Same Tree (National Academies Press, Washington, DC).

[3] “Education: Learning to Think in a Discipline.” Berkeley Graduate Division — Graduate Student Instructor Teaching & Resource Center. Link.

[4] Mohr, Kimberly and Welker, Robert W., “The Role of Integrated Curriculum in the 21st Century School” (2017). Dissertations. 688. Link.

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