STEM Is Not Too Hard for Students — When It’s Done Right

Blog post Gene Bottoms, SREB Senior Vice President
Male STEM students examines a molecure model.

It is no secret that in the modern economy, STEM fields are in constant need of qualified workers. There simply are not enough people with STEM skills to fill vacancies, even though those who hold STEM degrees make 26 percent more than their contemporaries who hold non-STEM degrees. Countless studies have chronicled various reasons why too few students participate in STEM education; however, a new survey from Pew Research Center finds that the number one reason students are not studying STEM might be that they view these fields as too difficult.

Considering the importance of STEM skills for the future, we cannot accept any preconceived notion that STEM is just too hard for any student. SREB Advanced Career (AC) courses were launched in 2009 to prepare more students to find success with STEM. An SREB Commission report on high schools, chaired by Governor Sonny Perdue of Georgia, highlighted the need for more students to graduate from high school both college and career ready.

Advanced Career Curricula

SREB’s AC curricula address this issue with courses designed around challenging real-world projects that require students to use core academic skills in literacy, math and science along with technology and 21st-century skills to complete.  

Leaders from industry, postsecondary and secondary education, and government came together to develop the nine AC pathways made up of four courses each. These courses immerse students in the technical, academic and soft skills needed for success in STEM career fields. For example, each project requires students to use mathematics as it would be applied in the workforce to solve technical problems; practice research methods in identifying potential solutions; and develop presentation skills while speaking with industry professionals. Knowledge and skills are not taught in isolation but are connected to completion of a rigorous project assignment.

Learning Skills in Isolation — a Big Turnoff

Teaching skills in isolation is perhaps the biggest reason students aren’t interested in STEM. They simply are not engaged when each letter in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — is treated as an isolated skill. In too many high schools in the U.S., the “S” is reserved for science class; the “T” is reserved for a computer class; the “E” is reserved for a technical elective; and the “M” is reserved for math classes. The four disciplines are not brought together and applied to complete a rigorous assignment as is done in every AC project.

AC Combines STEM With Academics

In AC, students solve problems over several weeks and, in the process, apply skills in all four STEM disciplines. The application of STEM skills is further enhanced when the AC teacher works with the math, science, and English/language arts teachers to plan ways to connect knowledge and skills from the academic classroom with AC content.

AC was launched just four years ago, and today, high schools in more than 20 states have adopted one or more of the nine AC STEM pathways. These pathways offer thousands of students the chance to participate in true preparation for both college and careers in STEM fields.