Ready, SET…wait STEM? Or is it STEAM?

How the ever evolving acronym for science and technology literacy points to improvements in the movement and clues for program development.

Just like its associated, ever-changing acronym, the STE(a)M movement acknowledges that careers of the future now, more than ever, are a moving target. The technology, systems and even job positions that are in growing fields across the country will be obsolete by the time students are ready to work, and probably much sooner than that. Paralleling how quickly your phone or tablet become outdated, the science, technology and engineering sectors are rapidly changing. This presents the daunting question of how to prepare young people academically for careers that don’t exist yet. Although leaving math out originally might have just been an oversight, the addition of “A” as a stand-in for arts or architecture could be essential for the effectiveness of STE(a)M efforts.

While STEM points to specific subject matters, the “A” explicitly calls out the design processes that underlie all of these fields. Although the fields of science, technology and engineering will evolve, fundamental critical thinking processes will still be applicable. STEM outreach that explores subjects like rocketry or robotics becomes more effective by STE(a)M outreach when the program emphasizes an experimental or design process as well. Interactive, do-test-improve processes that youth develop while creating a recipe for slime will still be useful skills when slime is made outdated by some new super-goo. Designing a bridge via repeated calculations and numerous test models will still be a relevant way of working even when those processes switched from paper and balsa wood to being done on a computer.

The approach Michigan State University Extension takes through 4-H programming is utilizing a do,reflect and apply model of experiential learning which is essentially a design style, iterative process. This way of programming also puts the learning process into the hands of the participants, making it much more self-guided. Ultimately, any program model, whether focusing on STEM topics or not, can incorporate these underlying processes by allowing youth to test ideas, make mistakes and adjust for improvements. Even more, programs focused on any topic can begin to call out details related to STEM whether it is looking at how temperature affects athletic performance or the science behind music vibration. Of course, testing those ideas with call upon those “A” design-based processes.

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