What are STEM Programs?

STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Taken together these are four areas representing many academic and professional disciplines, which in turn are the core professions for an advanced, technologically savvy society. There has been a campaign among federal agencies, education associations and professional societies to develop the educational resources that produce graduates in these fields in sufficient numbers to meet the country's professional needs.

The term is used in the teaching field to refer to the sciences and mathematics taught in middle school and high school, which are also the teaching specializations for which the teacher shortage is most acute. For that reason there have been a number of initiatives to entice students who are majoring in physics, chemistry, biology, math, economics, statistics or a related field to turn to a teaching career by completing a master's in teaching degree.

In January of 2010 President Obama announced the continuation of a program that is designed to increase the number of public school teachers in STEM academic areas that is supported by a coalition of private organizations. This particular announcement highlighted a commitment by Intel Corporation to spend $200 million over ten years in an effort to improve the quality of math and science education through increased professional development opportunities for teachers. The goal is not only to increase the number of math and science teachers but to elevate the quality of teaching in those areas. One of the ways to do that is expose teachers to mathematical and scientific applications in the technology workplace.

One portion of this effort aims at college curricula for science and math teachers. There is a belief that those fields as they are being taught in middle school and high school are substantially outmoded. The Woodrow Wilson Foundation, active in revitalizing STEM teacher education programs on a school by school basis, is asking participating universities to "throw out their program and start over, in many cases."

There are many examples of federal programs designed to draw working teachers into the forefront of scientific endeavor. The Department of Energy has a quasi-internship program that invites STEM teachers for grades 5-12 into a professional development program through mentoring from the scientists at their national laboratories. The program takes place of a period of weeks over three consecutive summers. This is a similar approach to that suggested by Intel and executed by other participants such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in providing professional development opportunities to teachers.

The TEACH grant program sponsored by the Department of Education offers support for educational costs to students in exchange for teaching in a low income school and in one of the STEM academic areas along with other acute needs such as bilingual education and special education. In Texas the UTeach program was founded thirteen years ago to help prepare science, math and computer science teachers through the provision of paid internships with participating corporations. The program is now being duplicated in several other states. In California the STEM Learning Network is working to improve STEM teaching in grades 4-8, where the state ranks 46th among 50 in performance of its students in those grades in math and science.