Teaching STEM

STEM is the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, and encompasses a vast array of subjects that fall into each of those terms. While it is almost impossible to list every discipline, some common STEM areas include: aerospace engineering, astrophysics, astronomy, biochemistry, biomechanics, chemical engineering, chemistry, civil engineering, computer science, mathematical biology, nanotechnology, neurobiology, nuclear physics, physics, and robotics, among many, many others. As evidenced by the multitude of disciplines, it’s clear that STEM fields affect virtually every component of our everyday lives.

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Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders. Occupations in STEM-related careers are some of the fastest growing and best paid of the 21st century, and they often have the greatest potential for job growth. As America strives to keep up with the current and projected demand for STEM output, it is important that our country remains competitive in fields of science, technology, medicine, and all of the other STEM fields we have mentioned so far. The best way to ensure future success and longevity it is to make sure that American students are well versed in these subjects. Building a solid STEM foundation through a well-rounded curriculum is the best way to ensure that students are exposed to math, science, and technology throughout their educational career.

Students are extremely curious and impressionable, so instilling an interest at an early age could spark a lasting desire to pursue a career in any of these fields. By the time a student is ready to enter the workforce, they must have enough knowledge to make invaluable contributions to our nation’s STEM industries. It is also important that schools have an ample amount of teachers who are experts in STEM, and these subjects should always be considered as high demand subjects. Teachers who follow an alternative route to teacher certification are at an advantage to teach in a STEM field if they majored in one, or are transitioning from a STEM-related career. If you are interested in becoming a teacher and you have studied chemistry, biology, physics, calculus, engineering, or any other STEM subject, you will be a great asset to your school. (Administrators, you count too: many advanced degrees for education leadership focus on subjects in STEM, particularly education technology. Since administrators set the tone for schools and entire districts, it’s important that you care about advancing STEM awareness and proficiency too).

PBS Teachers has an abundance of professional development resources to train educators on teaching STEM classes, as well as a useful STEM Resources Center for those who already teach STEM and are looking to further enrich their lessons.

We’ve put together an infographic highlighting the beginnings of the STEM focus in America, the decline in STEM interest, its recent resurgence as we strive for global competitive advantage through mastery of STEM research and education. The infographic below highlights the continued need for a serious focus on STEM teachers and STEM education:


Students begin studying science in elementary school and continue through high school and beyond. During elementary school, teaching science is not as specific or analytical as it is observational. Elementary school students will be introduced to the most basic aspects of biology, ecology, geology and astronomy through observation of the world around them and general readings. In middle school, students may begin studying biology, geology and astronomy to greater depth, but serious examination of science does not begin until high school. High school students are typically required to take focused classes in both biology and chemistry, with elections available in physics, geology, meteorology, astronomy and other fields.


Biology is the study of living organisms. It is taught in different stages throughout elementary, middle and high school, with many different focuses. Introductory biology is often an exploration of anatomy, bodily functions and metabolic processes, with forays into ecology and the interaction between living organisms and their environment. High school biology offers students a more in-depth analysis of the topics covered in elementary and middle school. Through lectures, readings, examinations, research assignments and lab exercises, high school biology courses provide students with the opportunity to explore microbiology, biotechnology, and biomedical issues. Additionally, Advanced Placement biology courses cover three major topic areas: molecules and cells, heredity and evolution, and organisms and populations.

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Chemistry is the study of matter and it’s composition. It is one of the most important branches of science in that it serves as a foundation for more advanced areas of biology, geology, astronomy and more. It stems from the periodic table of the elements: the elements’ discovery, composition and uses. Chemistry students study the atom and atomic structure, learning how they fuse together to create compounds.

Students are first introduced to overarching principles of chemistry such as the states of matter, conservation of matter and the composition of matter as collections of molecules and atoms. These topics are then explored through simple chemical reactions and everyday applications of chemistry. Introductory Chemistry is a required course at most high schools in the United States. High school chemistry instructors teach students the mathematical reasoning behind the principles of chemistry. Curricula for Introductory Chemistry focus on chemical bonds and compounds, as well as stoichiometry, the mathematical analysis of chemical reactions. Students establish familiarity with chemistry equations and the periodic table of the elements, preparing them for Advanced Placement Chemistry, which involves a more in-depth mathematical analysis of the concepts covered in Introductory Chemistry.


Physics encompasses the science of matter, motion and energy. A highly advanced and complex area of science, physics is not usually taught at the elementary and middle school levels. However, elements of physics are incorporated into the general science education that younger students receive. In elementary and middle school, students begin to learn about gravity, friction and kinetic energy all of which are basic principles of physics.

Physics is often offered in high school after students have completed introductory levels of biology and chemistry. High school physics begins to incorporate mathematics through physics equations and formulas. A typical high school physics curriculum begins with general theories of motion, including force, kinetic energy, friction and acceleration. Classes then cover more advanced motion, such as tension.


Students in the United States begin studying mathematics at around five or six years of age, continuing through secondary school and into higher education. In elementary school, children are introduced to basic mathematics, and the theories and methods covered in math classes become increasingly complex as students age. Many schools will offer different levels of classes as students may show a greater or lesser aptitude for complex math courses.

During elementary school, students are taught basic arithmetic: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. These concepts are elaborated on in middle school, where students will study basic algebra and concepts of variable, integers and polynomials. Many students will have completed some form of pre-algebra or even algebra 1 by the time they enter high school, although geometry is occasionally taught in eighth grade as an honors course. In high school, the general math curriculum includes algebra 1, algebra 2 and geometry in ninth and tenth grades. High school mathematics can continue with the study of algebra 3, otherwise known as trigonometry, around 11th grade. Students will complete their high school math courses senior year with either pre-calculus or calculus, although that is usually only offered at an honors level.


Algebra is an area of mathematics that focuses on the rules of operations and relations, and the constructions and concepts that arise from them. Subjects within algebra include terms, polynomials, equations and algebraic structures.

Algebra is a required mathematics class in all 50 states and is taught in several different stages. While stages may vary from school to school, the general stages include pre-algebra, algebra 1 and algebra 2. Pre-algebra is often taught at the middle school level, and introduces the basic concepts of polynomials and variables, thus bridging the gap between basic arithmetic and advanced algebra. Elementary algebra that is, the beginning levels of algebra introduces the concept of variables representing numbers.

Some districts introduce algebra 1 to middle school students as an honors class, though for the most part, this stage is taught at the high school level. In high school, students must complete algebra 1 and algebra 2, followed by trigonometry or pre-calculus (algebra 3). The complexity of these subjects increases as the grade level increases, but they all generally incorporate elements of powers, roots, polynomials, quadratic functions, coordinate geometry, exponential and logarithmic functions, probability, matrices and basic to advanced trigonometry.


Geometry is an area of mathematics concerned with questions of size, shape, relative positions of figures and the properties of space. Geometry deals with measurements, such as volume, length, angles, proofs, area, circumferences, etc. It includes algebraic forms, such as Cartesian coordinates. Geometry also overlaps somewhat with trigonometry, serving as a foundation for a more specialized area of mathematics. The study of triangular shapes is introduced in geometry, which introduces students to the basic concepts of trigonometry.

Geometry is sometimes taught as early as eighth grade as an honor’s class, though it becomes a fundamental part of the general curriculum in high school. Elementary geometry builds off the general arithmetic students learn in elementary and middle school. It is most commonly taught beginning in tenth grade. Geometry lessons are often taught in the form of queries requiring step-by-step proofs which the student must develop.


Trigonometry comprises what is sometimes known as algebra 3. Along with pre-calculus, it constitutes the later part of a student’s secondary school mathematics education. Trigonometry focuses on the study of triangles, specifically the relationships between sides and angles, as well as trigonometric functions and the motion of waves.


Calculus is one of the higher levels of mathematics and is only taught to secondary school students. The level of complexity in this area of mathematics is very advanced and incorporates concepts from all levels of algebra, trigonometry and pre-calculus. It focuses on limits, functions, derivatives, integrals and infinite series. Calculus requires a solid foundation in mathematics for students to grasp the various concepts.

Following the completion of algebra and trigonometry, high school students, begin studying calculus in several stages. Pre-calculus is the most common and most widely taught form of calculus. Calculus is almost always an honors-level class, if it is even taught at all, because of its highly advanced content. It is usually not taught as part of a normal curriculum before 11th or 12th grade in high school.

STEM Initiatives

Despite America’s competitive edge in STEM industries, our nation has been experiencing a decline in the output of STEM talent that is not conducive to high demands. School curricula have been lacking in their math and science components, and in response to this decrease in STEM education, several initiatives have been started to reclaim the lead and produce literate, savvy, and driven young talent that will leave their indelible marks on STEM industries.

The American Competitiveness Initiative: The American Competitiveness Initiative was instituted by President George W. Bush in 2006 to address the shortfalls in federal support of STEM educational development. The initiative called for a significant increase in federal funding with the hopes of seeing an increase in college graduates with STEM degrees. It sought to double federal spending for advanced research in physical sciences, and to improve science and mathematics education in public schools. It also aimed to provide additional training for teachers in science, math, and technology. The American Competitiveness Initiative has since been replaced by the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010.

The STEM Education Coalition: The STEM Education Coalition supports STEM programs for teachers and students at agencies that offer STEM related programs, such as the US Department of Education and the National Science Foundation. The STEM Education Coalition defines itself as “an alliance of more than 500 business, professional, and education organizations, [that] works aggressively to raise awareness in Congress, the Administration, and other organizations about the critical role that STEM education plays in enabling the U.S. to remain the economic and technological leader of the global marketplace of the 21st century.”

100Kin10: 100Kin10 is a new initiative founded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Opportunity Education, and NewSchools Venture Fund to “recruit, prepare, retain, and support 100,000 excellent STEM teachers over the coming 10 years in order to prepare all students with the high-quality STEM knowledge and skills needed to address the most pressing national and global challenges of tomorrow.” Since their inception in January 2011, they have recruited over 80 partner organizations that have committed to help increase the supply of teachers, develop and retain excellent teachers, and ensure that all students are literate enough in STEM to become excellent contributors to society.

Corporations and Institutions Promoting STEM Education

Rossier School of Education, USC: In June 2011, Karen Symms Gallagher, dean of the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education participated in the inaugural Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) America. CGI America united over 600 business, nonprofit, and governmental leaders to brainstorm initiatives for increasing economic growth in the United States. USC Rossier is a part of 100Kin10, thus becoming the first school to join that Initiative. Dean Gallagher and 100Kin10 joined the Opportunity Equation, Teach for America, the National Math + Science Initiative, and many others at CGI in being recognized by Bill Clinton for “a commitment to increasing the supply of excellent teachers in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

Northeastern University: Northeastern University’s Center for STEM Education offers support and resources for STEM related scholarships, education programs and more.

Intel: One of the leaders in innovative computer technology, Intel, has demonstrated their commitment to STEM. As a prime example of a company completely centered around STEM, Intel represents one of many industries who’s prosperity, and therefore the prosperity of our country, relies on future generations’ interest in these fields. Their Education page seeks to help teachers enrich their STEM classes and inspire students to become future leaders in the industry. Through guidance for lesson plans, curriculum design, and interactive multimedia resources, Intel empowers teachers to create fun and exciting lessons that will engage with their students while also bringing STEM to the forefront of the classroom.

Do you know of other great STEM programs or initiatives? Let us know by sending an email to info@teach.com with the subject STEM Education.

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