Is STEM Interest Fading with Students? or Are the Waters Just Muddied?

Is STEM interest fading with students? With no singular accepted definition of STEM and the evolution of the global market due to technological advances, analyzing “interest” in STEM is a bit tricky. With changing hiring practices and a focus on intangibles over content expertise, industry as a whole has shifted their definition towards one that focuses on skills and innovation. K-16 Education has moved into an age of random acts of STEM where many teachers know they need to be building STEM into their instruction, but typically aren’t provided with pedagogical change support and end up trying a bit of everything. Experts and researchers have pushed for a more comprehensive definition around a culture of learning and involving transdisciplinary content connections. Many government entities are pushing a STEM definition which is hyper-focused on careers in old school STEM silos still which often require advanced degrees. However, without a clear definition, how do we accurately measure interest?

Some surveys try measuring STEM interest by using an antiquated silo’d approach where if students are interested in science, mathematics, engineering, or technology it must mean they are interested in STEM. But does this make sense? If the definition of STEM has moved past the silo’d approach, why do we try to measure with a silo’d tool? Some surveys have used careers as an indicator of STEM interest. Marian Wright Edelman once stated, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” which begs the question; if students don’t understand or connect to careers, is this type of survey a valid indicator of interest? Many of these career surveys utilize the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as sources for STEM careers; which in both instances focus on silo’d advanced degrees. Knowing that over 35% of STEM jobs only require sub-baccalaureate training, is it fair to focus on only the advanced degrees as an indicator of interest?

Moving past some of the flaws in any singular survey, there are some important takeaways when you dig into the meta-data across the surveys. One such point is the fact that as girls progress through their schooling, they become less interested in STEM.

In high school alone, 60% of girls who were interested in STEM as a freshman are no longer interested by graduation.

Could this be due to the fact that 35% of high school girls feel as if they get no support in STEM? Support is critical, especially in the middle school and high school years where self-perceptions are being solidified, as it has a profound impact on girls. Girls who received encouragement from their teachers saw a 25% higher chance of exploring a STEM pathway through high school and into career or college.

Misconceptions, and breaking misconceptions impact student’s perception and interest in STEM. 52% of Americans don’t (or didn’t) pursue STEM because they perceive that it is “too hard”; and for many individuals perception is reality. Students make a conscious decision whether they are good or not at math and science by 6th grade; but it’s important to note this decision is based on their perceptions of math and science and not their own ability. These are misconceptions that are embedded in our culture, that math is hard, and science is for the “smart” kids. However, seeing is believing. On one survey, 77% of girls shared they feel powerful and smart after taking part in STEM activities, up from only 34% feeling that way prior to the activity. We need to help students see that STEM is beyond content and is about using creativity, critical thinking, and other skills being used to solve real problems and bring change to the world.

Only one-third of girls think that STEM can be used to help people and positively impact the world however over two-thirds of women in STEM feel that their work is making the world a better place.

When STEM was all about content expertise, it was easy to measure, and students could form concrete understanding of what STEM looked like in their future. With STEM evolving, it is harder for accurate measurements to be collected as students in one class could be digging into STEM as a culture encompassing multiple content areas while another class could understand STEM to be a bunch of disjointed tasks and technologies that only happen in isolation. STEM has become more abstract and with so many definitions students may not truly understand what they are being asked. It could easily be argued that you would be hard pressed to find a student who wasn’t interested in working in an industry that uses STEM skills, innovative technologies, or STEM thinking dispositions; the disconnect between STEM as a definition, student understanding of STEM, and what it looks like in the real world has just muddied the waters.

What’s Your STEM Story?

How do we inspire the next generation of leaders and innovators around STEM? This is the question that everyone is trying to answer. There is no one answer or silver bullet. Everyone is inspired by different things, ideas, topics, passions, experience… however almost all of them do have one thing in common – a story. A narrative is a powerful tool, even more powerful than data and statistics. We rarely connect or remember numbers, however stories touch us and connect to our emotions and dreams.

As an Einstein Fellow in the U.S. Senate years ago, I worked for Sen. Michael Bennet from Colorado and he shared with me a thought that has stayed with me. He never would speak on the floor of the senate or discuss data without a story attached. The idea that no one would listen to data, that personal stories bring on personal connections; which is what we all remember. There could be data that part of the continent was about to split off and sink into the ocean; and without a story connecting the “who cares” – he wouldn’t speak about it. No one would be moved to act unless there was a narrative. A narrative can inspire.

Growing up a child of the 80’s, there were inspiring narratives all around me in pop culture. From astronauts taking off in the space shuttle to Top Gun & Space Camp in theatres, STEM was part of life; and an exciting one at that. Video games and computers were just becoming “the thing” and finding Carmen Sandiego was on the to do list of every kid. Inspiration for creativity, critical thinking, and going into STEM was endless. Then, something changed; I can’t pinpoint the exact time, but our culture evolved. Well maybe not “evolved,” but definitely changed.

The shuttle program was retired, and astronauts became unknowns to kids. Look at some of the top “STEM” movies of the last few years; Gravity, The Martian, and Interstellar; and tell me which one inspires you to be an astronaut. Granted Hidden Figures was a gem in a swathe of negative films about space. Hidden Figures was powerful and moving and provided a look at minorities (especially women) making an impact in our history through STEM.

People connected to Hidden Figures because of the narrative. It was a moving and powerful story…. And that story made more of an impact than all the collective of data showing the critical need of minorities and women in STEM fields. The problem is that this narrative only takes students to inspiration, not past. It doesn’t help our students move past the initial inspiration. Unfortunately, the pathways towards a career in STEM is out of date.

This is where we all need to pick up the mantle and “complete the equation” per-say. The current world our students live in cannot be counted on to create the innovators needed for the future. Even if our students become inspired by a movie or story, rarely does it highlight the pathways to follow in order to make the idea real and tangible for a students future. We have a heavy focus on “STEM Heros” (which is great) but very little focus on removing the pedestal and replacing it with steps. The STEM Heros (which includes educators) of today need to share their stories, not just their accomplishments.

When I started to develop my own STEM story I looked for examples and found there are some great templates and examples already created. Pixar has mastered the art of the narrative and created “22 Tips on Storytelling” including ones like “You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.” One of my favorite articles on telling a story is on Sparkol titled “8 Classic Storytelling Techniques for Engaging Presentations” which helps think through and actually plan your narrative.

I challenge you to begin to think, plan and tell your own STEM story. What brought you to this point in your career? Why STEM for you? What pathway did you follow to get here? What pathways are available for the students of today? We won’t inspire students to be the innovators of the future if we don’t being the giants of today and help our future climb onto our backs.

Link: Blank STEM Story Template

Transdisciplinary STEM: Making Pedagogy Real

So what does transdisciplinary teaching and learning actually look like? Following up on a post around the pedagogical importance of this idea: Transdisciplinary STEM: Teaching to Mirror the World. To understand what transdisciplinary teaching and learning is and move from abstract to concrete, let’s first explore what it’s NOT:

  • It is NOT thematic teaching.
  • It is NOT forcing content together.
  • It is NOT stopping curriculum and teaching a separate unit.
  • It is NOT doing a project or just teaching through PBL.

Secondly, what CAN transdisciplinary teaching and learning include:

  • It CAN be taught through a PBL.
  • It CAN include a project.
  • It CAN include multiple curriculum connected through interdisciplinary instruction.

Finally, what does transdisciplinary teaching and learning REQUIRE:

  • It REQUIRES planning.
  • It REQUIRES bridging connections between content and the outside world.
  • It REQUIRES collaboration.

There are a great number of graphics that can help showcase the idea of transdisciplinary pedagogy. The way to think about this pedagogy is to focus on the prefix “trans”; coming from latin origins meaning “beyond.” The topic idea must transverse all disciplines, connecting to each through real-world or organic experiences. 

Credit: Greenwich Schools, CT
Credit: University of Technology Sydney
Credit: Gendered Knowledges Blog UK

To effectively implement a transdisciplinary model of instruction, educators and leaders need to brainstorm and select concepts that are not disciplinary in nature but touch (or go beyond) all disciplines. The example we will use is that of “Design”. The idea of design can be connected to any discipline from engineering and science to physical education or the fine arts – not necessarily by teaching design but through utilizing the idea or reading about it or framing disciplinary content with the idea.


An inquiry into how ideas are transformed into tangible artifacts.

Once the transdisciplinary topic is set, educators now dig into the content they are asked to teach during the year and look for connections – again not necessarily teaching design in separate disciplines, but through utilizing the design process itself or reading/analyzing the idea of design or framing content with the idea of design.

Here are some examples of resources in a number of disciplines which engage the topic of “design” whether directly or indirectly AND teach standards that are required relative to a specific discipline.


The James Dyson FoundationThe Design Process Box – Challenges students to find inspiration in everyday objects and develop ideas and to identify problems and use their creativity to find solutions.



EVERFI – Endeavor: STEM Career Exploration – Lets students explore STEM careers via interactive gameplay and real-world scenarios. A manufacturing module has students explore 3D printers then design and rapid prototype their own sneakers.



Wonderopolis – Is Design a Science or an Art – Have you ever wondered is design a science or an art? What is the origin of the word “design”? How does good design combine science and art?



Visible Thinking Routines – Tug of War – A routine for exploring the complexity of opposing dilemmas through metacognitive visible thinking.


Fine Art: 

Joel Sartore – Photo Ark – A groundbreaking effort to document species before they disappear and to get people to care while there’s still time. Highlight the importance of storytelling in conservation, and empower students to spread the word about species extinction.


Physical Education:

Try Engineering – Engineered Sports – Students examine principles of aerospace engineering and how they have impacted golf ball design. Students analyze the use of dimples on golf balls, and discuss adding dimples to airplanes to increase fuel efficiency. Students take engineering principles and apply them to sporting equipment.


When these resources (and others connecting the idea of “design”) are infused into everyday content and teaching; connections are made through context to the transdisciplinary concept. Teachers aren’t “teaching” design in each subject area, but framing the learning and standards that already must be taught with the context of this concept that goes beyond a singular discipline.

Want to read more about this pedagogy? Check out the book Transitioning to Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction: How to Bring Content and Process Together by H. Lynn Erickson and Lois A. Lanning.

Transdisciplinary STEM: Teaching to Mirror the World

At what time do you start your mathematics for the day? At what time do you stop using critical thinking and solving problems for the day? On which day of the week do you investigate connections between the past and your world today? These questions are seemingly ridiculous to any adult. Life itself is not divided into segments in which content and skills are only used at specific times and days. So, it begs the question; why do we teach students in this way?

John Donne penned a famous poem stating, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” This is how we need to begin to change our thinking when it comes to content in schools. In the world outside of education we use content, ideas, skills, and strategies across disciplines to make sense of situations, solve problems, and complete everyday tasks. Our pathways are not directed by the disciplines, but by larger concepts or ideas which utilize all the disciplines and their associated skills as tools to be successful in our endeavors.

STEM education as well as education as a whole, needs to move away from presenting content in highly focused silos centered around isolated disciplines. It is essential that STEM education shifts to a more inclusive model of pedagogy which helps prepare students for all aspects of the world, not just having disciplinary expertise. In a world where the internet and google don’t exist, content expertise is ultimately important; however, we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where employers don’t just value content expertise, but value “what else can you do” or “how can you use that expertise” even more. The world outside our classrooms is less about facts, and more about what our students can do with them.

Learning is essentially a matter of creating meaning from the real activities of daily living. 

David Stein, Situated Learning in Adult Education, 1998.

Learning truly happens within the context of the world, experiences in utilizing knowledge to create meaning. The idea of transdisciplinary STEM is based directly in this notion, that our students are better prepared for the world beyond the classroom when they understand the “why” of needing to know and the “how” of content connecting across disciplines. Basarab Nicolescu shares in The Transdisciplinary Evolution of Learning that in the 21stcentury we need to change our emphasis from just “Learning to Know” to a broader purpose. Teachers need to equally emphasize instruction on “Learning to Do”, “Learning to Live Together”, and “Learning to Be”; in other words, preparing students for life beyond the classroom.

In the classroom, the idea of transdisciplinary STEM presents itself in not what we teach, but how we teach. Centering our standards and content around larger concepts in which all disciplines can engage and add to understanding the connectedness of the real-world. Concepts such as Innovation and Interdependence provide opportunities for all disciplines to build learning experiences which mirror real-life and provide openings for students to make sense of the world around them. This pedagogy is not about forced integration of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics into other content areas, but about building understanding and meaning about the world through all disciplines. With all disciplines building connections to a larger concept, students begin to see the interconnectedness of content and skills in the world around them. Science skills, reading skills, mathematics skills, as well as the litany of skills labeled by a discipline become real-life skills in the context of learning. The walls come down and bridges are built.

No content is an island entire of itself; every content is a piece of the continent, a part of a transdisciplinary world. Transdisciplinary STEM not only provides students with the content and tools for success, but develops students into life-long learners who will leave a lasting impact on the world.

Deconstructing a STEM Classroom

STEM has moved beyond a siloed approach to content and towards a pedagogy of how we interact with the world. To prepare our students to be the leaders and innovators of tomorrow, we must allow STEM to evolve to include the multiple elements that transform it into a culture. Integrating these elements into everyday instruction and supporting instruction with connected experiences will solidify a high-quality STEM experience for all students.

What does a STEM Classroom look like though? How do you create a culture of STEM in your classroom or school?

Some great starting reference points are the S²TEM Centers SC & the University of Chicago: Outlier Research & Evaluation. The S²TEM Centers SC created an in depth STEM Theory of Action for districts and schools who are looking to analyze, reflect, and dig deep into developing multidimensional inclusion practices around STEM. Outlier Research conducted a National Science Foundation study called the STEM School Study (S3) which sought to understand the landscape of inclusive STEM high schools across the United States. S3 examined how the most successful STEM schools defined themselves, the strategies they used, and their student experiences.

Below you will find an infographic to give an abridged version of the ideas and elements that are needed to develop a highly effective STEM classroom.