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What is STEM?

Wyatt Dalton
Wyatt Dalton

May 11, 2019

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STEM degree

I’m sure you’ve heard how important STEM is. You’ve also probably heard that people with STEM careers typically do pretty well financially. But what you might not have heard is what STEM actually is.

Getting a definition for STEM is easy enough: it stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. So 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.

STEM is pretty different. And, like, really difficult.

Don’t worry if you’re still a little confused about all this. STEM is a complicated idea to wrap your head around. It might be easier to fully understand how STEM subjects become a STEM program if you knew what a college-level STEM program actually looks like for a student.

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 in class?) for a large portion of potential students, science and math are very much not fun. Unfortunately, being able to quickly master these two subjects is an integral part of doing well in STEM.

Science and math are particularly important in STEM because technology and engineering are dependant on them. If an Architectural Engineering student needed to design a 10-story building, they would first need to understand the underlying mathematical and scientific principles that make a building like this possible. STEM careers share this heavy reliance on either math or science—often both. This is why students who don’t perform well in math or science so often quit STEM to follow an easier academic program. Or they just fail out.

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.

For the rest of you super smart left brain types who excel at math and science, don’t get too excited just yet. Math and science are only the tip of the iceberg.

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 incoming freshman are used to—typically some form of memorization and recitation of information—is pretty much out the window.

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.

Of course, STEM teachers won’t assume that incoming freshmen in a basic technology class already have mastery of advanced, graduate-level mathematics. Students in STEM are guided in their learning to build up mastery of the four disciplines over time, just like non-STEM students. However, when the time comes for them to apply what they’ve learned, whether a student does well or not depends heavily on how well they’re able to solve the problem, not how much they’ve memorized.

STEM gives less freedom to choose classes for fun.

Because 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 (and in what order they take them) than students in other programs. 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.

As a result, STEM students might not be able to take many extra classes outside of their STEM requirements. So if you’re a STEM student with a passion for photography, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to take many photography classes during your time in college. This lack of freedom can force students to take a series of classes that they might struggle in back-to-back, or even at the same time.

And since STEM programs don’t work unless a student makes steady progress in all four disciplines simultaneously, stacking difficult classes on top of each other like this can easily lead to falling behind and failing out.

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 simply take a break becomes extremely important for STEM students. Otherwise they could quickly burn out.

STEM programs are a ton of work.

Even STEM students who are already gifted in all four disciplines are often challenged by the sheer amount of homework and studying required by each class. These programs are famous for having super heavy workloads, which makes sense as the subjects covered in STEM programs are extremely complex. Being able to adequately understand them requires hours of extra work outside of class.

But 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 jobs these students will be doing after they graduate.

If a software developer makes a single error in a piece of code, they can break an important program and cause a company to lose thousands of dollars. Even a tiny miscalculation in a rocket launch can cost lives. So many STEM careers require perfect execution in high-stress environments—it makes sense that a STEM education will require the same thing.

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.

This type of education, learning by doing, will be a large part of your day in a STEM program.

What can I do with a STEM education after graduation?

Technology advances by leaps and bounds seemingly every day. Yet everything from new software to new metal alloys for spacecraft to the discovery of new sources of renewable energy or the cure for a previously incurable disease all need to be produced by someone. And as technology continues to advance, the already high demand for STEM professionals continues to climb.

Going through a STEM program is pretty intense. It requires a lot of dedication, perseverance, and sacrifice to make it all the way through. However, this style of education builds the skills and mindsets that employers find incredibly valuable. And since the demand for STEM professionals is so high, employers in STEM fields are willing to offer some of the most generous starting salaries that recent graduates can get.

The most in-demand STEM careers right now:

Computing is one of the fastest growing STEM fields. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 71% of STEM careers are in computing. Not sure what “computing” is, exactly? Just think along the lines of Software Developers, Statisticians, or Computer Systems Analysts. If they work with computers or programs, they probably have a career in computing.

This high demand for computing professionals makes sense if you consider how much of our lives have become reliant on some form of digital technology. It’s how we communicate and keep in touch. It’s how we entertain ourselves. It starts the engines in our cars; in medical practices, it keeps us alive; it drives massive segments of our economy; and for better or worse, advances in digital technology will continue to control the future direction of our society. As our daily lives become more reliant on software and digital devices, jobs in computing will become increasingly more important.

Engineering and Physical Science is the next largest category of in-demand STEM careers. These are careers like Orthodontists, Petroleum Engineers, Biochemists, Nurse Anesthetists, Civil Engineers, and Cartographers. Yes, cartographers—map makers—are still a thing and they earn a median salary of $63,990. (Cool, I know.) These types of careers have much less to do with computers and more to do with rolling up your sleeves and getting elbow deep in real work, with real results that you can see right now.

Life Sciences and Mathematics are much smaller fields than the previous two, but they make up the third most significant chunk of STEM careers. These two fields involve the more theoretical STEM careers that account for only a small amount of the demand for STEM professionals. These are careers like being a Clinical Research Associate or an Economist that—while still in demand—might be harder to find a position in.

However, these are by no means your only options when it comes to STEM careers. It doesn’t matter whether you prefer working with computers, building robots, drawing blueprints for skyscrapers, or developing groundbreaking medicine. If you can make it through a STEM program in college, there’s a STEM career for you.

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. It would be difficult to get a better education (other than maybe getting a couple years of on-the-job experience). However, not everyone is cut out for a college-level STEM program. Want to know if STEM is for you? Ask yourself a few 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? I don’t think I pulled many punches in this article. STEM is hard. Likely the most difficult challenge you’ve ever considered taking on. 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.

If you think STEM would be a good fit for you after everything you’ve read, then you might be exactly the type of person who should pursue a STEM education.


Want to know if a STEM degree is the right choice for your goals? Or perhaps you’re interested in shaving a couple $s off your STEM degree? Unbound can help you out! We’ll help you build a customized college plan designed to help you reach your goals (and save money along the way). Click here to learn more.

Wyatt Dalton
Wyatt Dalton

Wyatt is an Unbound graduate and a driven entrepreneur. He’s passionate about building businesses and gets annoyed when someone says the only way to be successful is to get a “real” job. When not working on a new business idea or general self-development, Wyatt spends his time pursuing the life moments that make him feel alive.

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