STEM Education for the purpose of Curriculum Integration 

Acronyms are commonplace in education, but when it comes to curriculum integration, one acronym – STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) has snowballed into a variety of different acronyms such as STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and/Arts, Math) STREAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Religion, Arts, Math), and other iterations that may include additional disciplines. Given these iterations, the STEM movement has also given birth to a variety of interpretations and foci. At times, these interpretations have been misunderstood by many stakeholders (students, teachers, or administrators), resulting in the lost potential to meaningfully examine connections between disciplines. Understandably, at the heart of each of these varying interpretations, lies a well-intentioned goal to provide hands-on experiences for our students while helping them to realize potential pathways for their future. As I scroll through Twitter and view these well-intentioned STEM tasks, I wonder if we, as educators, have engaged in discourse with our students during each phase of a STEM task, taking into account how the process and product may connect to personal and real-world experiences.

This blog post will explore how STEM education is necessary for the purpose of curriculum integration and to promote scientific innovation, as well as to support students with the acquisition of skills for future readiness. I will also highlight tensions and implications, specifically how interpretations of STEM have contrasted the intended purpose of curriculum integration. 

Tamara Moore et al. (2014) in their research on implementing engineering in STEM education, have defined integrated STEM education as, “an effort to combine some or all of the four disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics into one class, unit, or lesson that is based on connections between the subjects and real-world problems” (Moore et al., 2014, p.38). Whereas traditional models of education focus on the delivery of subject specific lessons or multidisciplinary lessons, a curriculum integration approach, contextualizes knowledge through the identification of a problem, whereby the structure of the learning is responsive to the nature of the problem that is being investigated. 

While this approach has its merits, there seems to be divergent perspectives with how this model is implemented within schools. Through my own experience, I have witnessed great enthusiasm over STEM initiatives and lessons, which have been manifested in the form of week-long events or one-off activities. These interpretations, though honourable, rarely elicit critical discourse around integrated practices. STEM activities of this nature will certainly evoke student interest and enthusiasm, while nurturing important skills and 21st century competencies – such as collaboration, critical thinking, and global awareness – however, as I have noticed, some of these tasks seem to be short-lived, lacking explicit instruction, meaningful dialogue around connections between disciplines, and a reflective approach that underpins curriculum integration. Jonathan Breiner et. al. (2012), in their study of various conceptions in education, argue that much ambiguity surrounds STEM and how it is most effectively implemented. The authors argue that an engineer and chemist require a thorough understanding of their discipline in addition to technology and math, therefore, students require this same well-rounded approach to the problems they are working through. They assert that, “Although this “real-life” application of STEM is naturally integrated, most K-12 classroom teachers do not teach the content in this fashion” (Breiner et al., 2012, p.5). One limitation of this, as seen in K-12 classrooms, is the compartmentalization of subjects. Understandably, disciplines are taught in this way as the model of traditional schooling, with structured assessment and schedules, has yet to adapt to a problem-based, curriculum-integrated approach. Furthermore, a clear understanding of an integrated STEM framework may not be fully understood by all educators, and therefore, effective implementation of such a model, cannot be realized.   

The ever-changing, 21st century environment varies greatly from that of previous generations. Rapid innovation and advances in technology have prompted policy makers to advance STEM initiatives in an effort to support students with opportunities in new, uncharted fields. As part of this goal, STEM has also been attached to the acquisition of competencies that will allow our students to navigate in a world that is always evolving. The development of these competencies is contextual and dependent on various stakeholders in education to set the appropriate conditions for learning. This can only be possible when the teacher has sufficient pedagogical content knowledge (Nadelson et al. 2012). While it is important to develop these competencies for career readiness, it seems that without pedagogical knowledge and well-developed content knowledge, teachers may be limited from supporting their students through these authentic tasks. An important perspective on this comes from Deborah Ball who researched teacher preparation of subject matter and pedagogy. She maintains that, “In order to teach subject matter effectively and with relevance, teachers must know their subjects well” (Ball., 2000, p. 245). An integrated approach brings with it, an array of questions that require appropriate teacher scaffolding and an understanding of how several frameworks are used as part of STEM to provoke thinking, brainstorm solutions, research, and critically reflect upon all steps of the process in a recursive manner. 

A curriculum integrated approach to STEM education is connected to a variety of approaches including, but not limited to – UDL (Universal Design for Learning), IBL (Inquiry-Based Learning), and Design Thinking. Secondary school models, with subjects traditionally taught in isolation, have adapted to introduce integrated approaches and collaborative partnerships between teachers and organizations. For example, St. Augustine CHS in Markham, Ontario offers a STEM+ specialized program that engages students in real-world challenges and the engineering design process. Additionally, St. Elizabeth CHS in Thornhill, Ontario offers a Smart Start program where students work collaboratively through inquiry tasks, enriched by technological programs in each course with design thinking training for students in grades 9-12. Although much progress has been made to provide curriculum integrated experiences for our students at the secondary level, as evidenced in these specialized program offerings, I wonder how similar integrated models can be implemented at the elementary level.

Levinson’s framework (2010) for levels of civic engagement (pictured above), shows the transition from an individualist to collectivist perspective as evidenced in how students become “conducted into communal ways of knowing through legitimate peripheral participation in particular but changing contexts”. Rather than students being subservient recipients of knowledge, they become active participants in the construction of knowledge and it is contextualized in a relevant context – the very foundation of effective curriculum integration. In my own practice as an educator and in my own experiences as a student, I see greater value in a collectivist perspective that situates the learning and allows students to be actively, critically engaged throughout the process.  

In Derek Hodson’s research (2003) on science education for an alternative future, he asserts that, “School science courses, especially in the later years, continue to be dominated by the basic disciplines of physics, chemistry and biology. There is very little in the way of integration and, in many countries, scant attention given to the earth sciences and environmental science.” Although this research and commentary was published in 2003, my own experiences tell me that little has changed in terms of science curriculum reform to advance integration of this nature and move towards contextualizing scientific literacy. An individualist perspective, therefore, would see scientific literacy as sufficient, however, a collectivist perspective would advocate for viewing SSI critically, aware that matters in Science are informed by wider considerations.

In education, it seems that policy makers are constantly in search of the holy grail to “fix” what they deem is a system in need of repair. As such, acronyms are carelessly tossed around as solutions without a clear understanding of their implementation and possible implications. As outlined, an integrated approach does not isolate disciplines, rather it locates connections between disciplines in the context of a relevant problem. In some schools, this understanding has yet to be realized, however, attempts are being made to have students engage in more contextual ways. Furthermore, the impetus to have students acquire skills for career readiness is vital in our ever-changing world, however, these skills cannot be fulfilled without the appropriate learning frameworks in place and professional development for teachers, to gain more confidence with integrated practices. Perhaps the strongest aim for STEM education is employability and the push for students of today to be skilled workers for jobs of tomorrow. This ideology has been challenged and critiqued, prompting stakeholders in education to examine whose interests are served and whose voices are ignored. While there exists the belief to prepare our students for success beyond school, this approach is often misapplied and misunderstood as it overlooks the diverse makeup of each of our students and the necessity for teachers to be responsive to their individual strengths, needs and interests.  


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