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What Is Stem?

You entering the final year of High School and have started looking at the various undergraduate degree majors that are on offer at colleges. One of the areas of study often spoken about is the STEM career field. You ask yourself what does STEM actually mean?

The simple definition for STEM is easy enough: it stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Simple terms if you take a biology class in college, and technically you’re taking a class that’s a part of STEM. However, STEM is much more than just a useful way of grouping subjects in a catchy acronym. 

At its core, STEM is a teaching philosophy that integrates all four disciplines together into a single, cross-disciplinary program which offers instruction in real-world (as opposed to purely academic) applications and teaching methods. 

This is important to understand because getting a math degree doesn’t necessarily mean you completed a STEM program, even if math is a STEM subject. Without the integration of all four disciplines and the use of real-world teaching methods, you don’t get the educational benefits that make STEM degrees so valuable and careers in STEM fields so desirable. Let us look further into the field of STEM…

STEM is extra heavy on science and math.

Remember, the disciplines that STEM focuses on are Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. While technology and engineering might sound like fun (I mean, who wouldn’t want to build robots?) for a large portion of potential students, science and math are very much not fun.

Science and math are particularly important in STEM because technology and engineering are reliant on them. However, this doesn’t mean that STEM is beyond reach if you’ve struggled with these subjects in the past. It just means that STEM will likely be more difficult for you than others. Alternatively, you might find that understanding these two subjects is actually easier for you than it has been in the past, given the practical way these subjects are taught in a STEM program.

STEM is a new way of learning.

As a philosophy, STEM is meant to create a program that integrates all four disciplines in a way that forces the student to use cross-disciplinary knowledge to solve problems. Which essentially means that the traditional learning style for incoming freshman are used to – typically some form of memorization and recitation of information.

You’ll rarely be given the explicit solution to a problem. Instead, you’ll often be required to use what you already know to figure out the right answer for yourself. This requires a significant amount of creativity and flexible thinking, as well as technical knowledge and mastery of each individual discipline.

This approach to education is often why those of us who are extremely analytical, but not especially creative, tend to struggle with STEM. Successful students quickly learn how to think for themselves and abandon their expectations of being told what to think. 

STEM gives less freedom to choose classes for fun.

STEM students require a solid foundational understanding of a broad array of subjects in order to succeed, they typically have less control over what courses they take. After all, while other students are only required to gain a mastery of a single discipline, STEM students are required to gain mastery of four. 

This might not seem like an issue to an especially driven student. Most people go into STEM with an idea of the difficulties that come with the program and are willing to take on the challenge. However, with this restrictive schedule and high-stress environment, finding time to explore your passions or having down time becomes extremely important for STEM students, finding the right balance is key.

It’s not all busy work. STEM students have to be careful that their eyes never glaze over while completing a project, because making mistakes can be costly. STEM students are expected to deliver the highest quality of work—regardless of how much homework they have. Which, again, makes sense if you consider the potential jobs available once you graduate.

STEM forces students to approach education in an active and exploratory way.

Despite all the hard work, STEM can be lots of fun too. Remember, at the core of these programs are real-world applications and study methods, which means you won’t simply be learning about robots in a classroom setting. You’re actually going to build robots in order to learn about them.

A good example of this is California Institute of Technology (one of the best STEM colleges in the nation) which teaches Biological Science by combining classroom instruction with student participation in their research programs. Their students have an active role in producing whatever cutting edge technologies or ground-breaking discoveries the university is currently working on—actively doing real work in the discipline that they’re in the process of mastering. 

Should You Pursue a STEM Education?

If you’re expecting to find a great career straight out of college, going through a STEM is one of the best ways to do that. However, not everyone is cut out for a college-level STEM program. Ask yourself the following questions:

Are you serious about your education? STEM requires an insane amount of commitment and hard work. There isn’t much room in these programs for students who just want to have their “last four years of freedom” before getting a real job. 

Are you actually interested in STEM? So much of being successful in a STEM program comes down to a student’s ability to stay focused on, curious about, and actively interested in a subject. It’s extremely unlikely that you’ll do well if you’re falling asleep in class because you’re bored.

Are you willing to take on the challenge? STEM is hard. Even the most gifted and driven students struggle with it. The students who succeed are the ones apply themselves every day and approach that challenge head on. 

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