Interest and efforts to integrate the teaching of science, technology, engineering, and math has increased in recent years. Integrative STEM teaching refers to approaches that combine instruction for two or more STEM subjects or a STEM subject and other school subjects.
Although research on the effects of integrated STEM education on student outcomes is at an early stage, there is evidence of beneficial effects on student learning. Two studies have synthesized existing research on the effects of integrated STEM K-16 teaching approaches using meta-analysis– one involving 28 studies of STEM integration (1) and the other involving 31 studies of science-math integration (2). Overall, both studies found that STEM or science-math integration approaches increased student learning compared to traditional non-integrated approaches.
One study found that the benefits of STEM integration are largest in elementary school and smallest in college, with middle school/high school being in the middle. The study of science-math integration did not report a clear pattern by grade level. Both studies found that integration was more beneficial for science learning than for math learning.
The science-math integration study examined the relative efficacy of different levels/types of integration: sequenced, parallel (taught separately and simultaneously using parallel concepts), partial (taught partially together and partially separate), enhanced (one subject is the major discipline with the other included in instruction), and total (subjects are taught together in intended equality). The "total" method was found to be most effective for student learning (especially for science), and the parallel method was found to be least effective.
In sum, the integration of STEM subjects generally benefits student learning, with the benefits being larger or smaller depending on the subject and the method of integration, and with some suggestion that benefits are larger at lower grade levels.
Teacher preparation and professional development
Excellence in teaching STEM requires deep content knowledge, a strong grasp of how children learn, and mastery of the teaching skills needed to help students meet proficiency standards in STEM subject areas. Major changes are needed in preparing teachers to provide instruction in science in grades K-8. These changes are described in the following passage from Taking science to school: Learning and teaching science in grades K-8:
Professional development is key to supporting effective science instruction. We call for a dramatic departure from current professional development practice, both in scope and kind. Teachers need opportunities to deepen their knowledge of the science content of the K-8 curriculum. They also need opportunities to learn how students learn science and how to teach it. They need to know how children's understanding of core ideas in science builds across K-8, not just at a given grade or grade band. They need to learn about the conceptual ideas that students have in the earliest grades and their ideas about science itself. They need to learn how to assess children's developing ideas over time and how to interpret and respond (instructionally) to the results of assessment. In sum, teachers need opportunities to learn how to teach science as an integrated body of knowledge and practice—to teach for scientific proficiency. They need to learn how to teach science to diverse student populations, to provide adequate opportunities for all students to learn science. These needs represent a significant change from what virtually all active teachers learned in college and what most colleges teach aspiring teachers today (3).
K-8 teachers need deeper content knowledge in the STEM subjects they teach. This requires more coursework in college-level science and math outside of the department of education than typically occurs currently in teacher preparation programs. The science courses should include engineering and technology content.
Greater opportunities to learn the teaching skills to teach STEM subjects effectively are also needed for K-8 teachers, including skills in helping underrepresented groups succeed in STEM subjects. Methods or pedagogy courses should be connected to residencies or professional development schools to help teacher candidates learn specific practices and tools they can apply in student teaching. Student teaching experiences should be carefully selected and supervised, well matched to the context in which candidates will likely teach, and where good teaching skills are modeled.
An example of a K-8 teacher preparation initiative that contains these elements is the STEM Certificate required of all elementary education majors at St. Catherine's University. The certificate requires that elementary education majors complete three courses: one engineering course, one chemistry course, and one biology course. They also must complete a one-semester residency in an elementary school before student teaching in which they teach math, science, and social studies in an integrated block.
Research indicates that top-performing teachers can make a dramatic difference in student achievement and suggests that assigning top-performing teachers to student groups currently underrepresented in STEM fields could make a substantial difference in helping such students successfully prepare for STEM fields. However, frequently low-income and minority students have less access to the best math and science teachers. It is also important for teacher preparation programs to emphasize recruiting, supporting, and preparing aspiring teachers of color and diverse backgrounds for K-8 teaching so that teacher demographics more closely match student demographics.
Professional development: Professional learning communities (PLCs)
A National Science Foundation funded "knowledge synthesis" study of STEM teachers in professional learning communities (PLCs) was recently completed (4). The study analyzed nearly 200 research articles and reports and found that strong PLCs increase teacher effectiveness and student achievement. Teachers participating in STEM PLCs successfully engaged with STEM teachers in discussions about the math and science they taught, understood the math and science better, felt more prepared to teach math and science, and used more research-based methods for teaching these subjects (e.g., more use of student inquiry). Effective STEM PLCs shared the following key design and implementation characteristics or principles:
Fulton and Britton (4) also recommend that PLCs focus on a single academic subject. This recommendation, however, would likely not apply to PLCs doing integrated STEM instruction.
The University of Chicago’s 100Kin10 initiative is a cross-sector movement to address STEM teacher shortages and improve student learning in STEM by training 100,000 excellent STEM teachers by 2021. The process includes development of shared metrics for understanding successful preparation and quality of STEM teachers (5).
1. Becker, K., & Park, K. (2011). Effects of integrative approaches among science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects on students' learning: A preliminary meta-analysis. Journal of STEM Education, 12(5 /6), 23-37. Retrieved from: http://ojs.jstem.org/index.php?journal=JSTEM&page=article&op=view&path=1509&path=1394
2. Hurley, M. (2001). Reviewing integrated science and mathematics: The search for evidence and definitions from new perspectives. Science and Mathematics, 101, 259–268.
3. National Research Council. (2007). Taking science to school: Learning and teaching science in grades K-8. Retrieved from The National Academies Press website: http://nap.edu/download.php?record_id=11625
4. Fulton, K., & Britton, T. (2011). STEM teachers in professional learning communities: From good teachers to great teaching. Retrieved from http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED521328.pdf
5. 100Kin10. (n.d.). 100Kin10. Retrieved from http://www.100kin10.org/
Committee on STEM Education, National Science and Technology Council. (2013). Federal science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, 5-year strategic plan. Retrieved from: http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/stem_stratplan_2013.pdf
Committee on the Study of Teacher Preparation Programs in the United States, National Research Council. (2010). Preparing teachers: Building evidence for sound policy. Retrieved from The National Academies Press website: http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12882
Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). The flat world and education: How America's commitment to equity will determine our future. New York: Teachers College Press.
MN P-20 Education Partnership. (2011). STEM achievement gap strategic planning workgroup final report. Retrieved from http://mnp20.org/working_groups/documents/
National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, & Institute of Medicine. (2011).
Expanding underrepresented minority participation: America's science and technology talent at the crossroads. Retrieved from The National Academies Press website: http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12984