150 Years of Requesting STEM Integration in Education

The history of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education in the United States is rich and evolving, shaped by myriad policies, societal needs, and educational reforms. It is an ongoing process that began over a century and a half ago and is still evolving. To understand where we are currently on this historical STEM integration timeline, it's useful to visit the history of where we have been.

THE MORRILL ACT of 1862 DURING A CIVIL WAR

The Morrill Act of 1862, also known as the Land-Grant College Act, is a monumental piece of legislation in the history of American education. Enacted by President Lincoln on July 2, 1862, it was a bold step toward promoting higher education in the US at a tenuous time in our history. The act provided states with federal land to fund the establishment of colleges, which was instrumental in shaping the nation's educational landscape. It's important to note that in 1862, the United States didn’t look like it does today. Comprised of only 34 states, there were 11 Confederate states at that time, which did not have representation in Congress due to their secession from the nation. As a result, these states did not experience an immediate benefit from the Morrill Act. It wasn't until after the Civil War that the Confederate states eventually established their land-grant institutions and could experience the benefits of the Act.

The Morrill Act created many land-grant colleges and universities, significantly expanding access to higher education. It democratized higher education by making it accessible to broader population segments, including those from rural and working-class backgrounds. By focusing on agriculture, engineering, and the mechanical arts, the act was the first real movement for STEM integration into higher education curricula. A pattern that would continue, this integration was designed to help align education with the needs of the economy. What was described then as “practical and vocational” translates today into integrated STEM-focused. It is also worth noting that the delay for the southern states gaining access to this act, at a minimum, set them back a generation (25 years) in developing their higher education infrastructure.

EARLY 20TH CENTURY EDUCATION REFORMS

The Progressive education movement, which gained momentum in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, came on the heels of the Morrill Act’s influence on Higher Education. The Progressive movement in K-12 education was reformist in nature, responding to the traditional, rigid, and authoritarian education systems of the time (do these still exist?). The Progressives emphasized the child's development, focusing on experiential learning, critical thinking, and applying knowledge to real-world problems. Like John Dewey, key figures in this movement played a significant role in shaping modern educational practices, particularly in science and mathematics education. For example, Dewey and colleagues called for progressive education to promote the integration of subjects, breaking down the silos that often separate disciplines. This approach is particularly relevant in STEM education, where the connections between science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are deemed essential.

POST-WAR ERA AND THE COLD WAR INFLUENCES

World War II highlighted the importance of scientific and technical expertise. In no small way, the eventual Allied Powers' victory was related to a combination of strategic, economic, technological, and logistical factors. For our purposes here, the production of radar and intelligence technologies, cryptography, and atomic weapons were developed in partnership between industrial manufacturing and the growing higher education industry that had been maturing for 75 years since the Morrill Act. The GI Bill also expanded access to higher education, including STEM fields. The post-World War II era saw a growing recognition of the importance of science and technology for national security and economic prosperity. Many veterans pursued degrees in STEM fields, spurred by their military training and experiences that often involved technical and scientific skills. The GI Bill facilitated this by covering the costs of education in these fields, thus encouraging veterans to continue their technical training and apply it in civilian careers.

This trend continued with the new call to arms in the Cold War Era when the Soviet satellite Sputnik spurred the US government to prioritize science and technology education to compete in the space race. This led to the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958, which funded STEM education at all levels. It also funded Reports like "A Nation at Risk" (1983), which criticized the state of American education (just like Dewey), leading to increased emphasis on educational standards and accountability, including in STEM. A Nation at Risk specifically states that High School students in the US should take at least 3 years of science, 3 years of mathematics, and, for the first time, at least a half-year of computer science. You read that right; in the early 1980s, US policymakers were already calling for Computer Science study.

BRINGING STEM INTO THE MODERN ERA

Pivotal legislation, similar to Morrill, Reformists like Dewey, and the Post-War era, has continued to be passed. The more recent changes came from a mixture of federal organizations like the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other organizations that promoted integrated STEM education, emphasizing interdisciplinary learning and real-world applications beginning in the 1990s. These included legislative and executive acts, like:

  • The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) increased the focus on standardized testing and accountability, influencing STEM education by setting specific achievement targets.
  • President Obama launched the "Educate to Innovate" campaign to improve STEM education through public-private partnerships and encourage innovation and competitiveness.
  • The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) were developed to provide a cohesive framework for K-12 science education, emphasizing cross-cutting concepts, science practices, and core ideas.
  • The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed into law in 2015, replaced the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), providing more flexibility to states in setting educational standards and accountability measures. This included statute-based encouragement to use SSAEG funds to develop and enhance STEM courses, provide professional development for STEM teachers, and improve access to STEM resources and technology. ESSA also redefined access, aiming to bring access to high-quality education to all students, including those from underserved and underrepresented groups. This includes increasing access to rigorous STEM coursework for students from low-income families, students of color, and students with disabilities.

 

Phew. Take a break. That was a lot of acronyms. However, there is one clear pattern: We have been calling for STEM integration for over 150 years and still don’t have it. Why not?

DESPITE CALLING FOR IT, STEM INTEGRATION HASN’T HAPPENED

Integrating STEM subjects and interdisciplinary learning has faced several challenges in the US educational system. The top 4 reasons for the lack of STEM integration, established in research on this subject matter, seem to be:

  • Traditional Education Structures: Schools are often organized in “departments,” which has created silos that make interdisciplinary expertise a rarity in the educational workforce.
  • Curriculum Constraints: The emphasis on Standardized assessments was geared towards achieving minimal compliance. It locked rigidity into the traditional curriculum and discouraged interdisciplinary learning, as standard assessments are subject-specific.
  • Teacher Preparation: Most teachers are trained in specific subject areas and may lack the preparation or confidence to teach interdisciplinary. There is often insufficient professional development focused on interdisciplinary teaching strategies, leaving teachers without the support to implement these methods effectively.
  • Cultural and Institutional Resistance: Educational institutions are notorious for resisting change, especially when it involves significant teaching methods and organizational structure shifts. These are easy to legislate but hard to enact at the grassroots level.

 

DIDN’T YOU SAY THERE WAS A PROMISE OF STEM INTEGRATION?

So, here we are. After 150 years of calling for STEM integration, national policy, and funding to implement it, and other than a few non-scalable examples, we haven’t built a significant movement at the grassroots level. Why?  The promise is there, but only in recognizing that real expertise matters. Let me elaborate.

When I look at the linking mechanisms between the promise of STEM integration and the pragmatic reality of my career in training educators for the last 15 years, prominent math education researchers and I have come to a concise conclusion — teacher expertise matters. There is a type of mathematics expertise that is deep and conceptual and does not come from being a math major. It comes from understanding the deep and embedded nature of the mathematics discipline for teaching. With a deep level of expertise in the topics in the mathematics discipline, practitioners can more readily recognize overlapping skills from other disciplines (e.g., computational thinking) and how other disciplines might provide more practical means for developing skill sets that are beneficial for learning mathematics.

At MathTrack Institute, we have put forth a two-pronged approach to solving the problem of interdisciplinary inquiry and STEM integration. First, mathematics educators need programming that helps them develop a deep, conceptual understanding of their discipline and how to apply it in teaching. The GROWTH framework was designed to do this, synthesizing 40 years of research into one framework that has demonstrated improvement in teacher confidence, classroom behavior, student engagement, and learning growth. Second, having developed deep conceptual expertise through the GROWTH Framework, the educator can recognize the utility of other disciplines as part of the concrete “hands-on” learning experiences and mistake-making vital to building mathematical knowledge.

Everyone might see the value of using experiences like robotics, which literally  “makes fractions move around the classroom,” but only a mathematics teacher with a deep understanding of the discipline could do it successfully in the context of math. We develop this capacity with teachers through a STEM Integration credential, an add-on to our credential for being a licensed and well-trained mathematics teacher. Mathematics is the host discipline; STEM integration happens to enrich mathematics education, not to teach robotics or computer science and math.

ABOUT MATHTRACK INSTITUTE

MathTrack Institute (MTI) is an Indiana-based distance learning institution aiming to empower math teaching expertise within every school community. In response to these challenges, MathTrack introduced its talent development platform for mathematics teachers, an innovative approach designed to scale math teaching expertise equitably.

The GROWTH Framework was developed to provide educators of all levels with the ability to deeply understand mathematics for teaching and integrate effectively with other STEM content domains. The framework is delivered through four work-integrated learning programs to serve all stages of educator development:

  • Pre-apprenticeship: Dual credit training and career development for high school students interested in teaching.
  • Apprenticeship pathway to degree and license: For degree-seeking educators
  • Transition to Teaching: For certification-seeking educators
  • Professional Development: GROWTH Certification and STEM Integration specialist certificates that enhance the ability of all educators to understand mathematics and STEM Integration

 

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