The Heart of STEM Education

If we want more STEM graduates, we must promote ideas, language, people, and programs that demonstrate relevance and foster a sense of belonging.

Despite billions in annual spending to promote science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, the United States is not producing enough graduates to meet the needs of our companies or country. The problem isn’t lack of focus; it’s that we haven’t won the hearts of students.

Changing your story can change your trajectory, and it’s time to change America’s STEM story, and with it, our trajectory. We need all students believing that STEM is at the root of public service, personal freedom, creativity, and belonging, because that’s exactly what it is.

Unfortunately, there’s a national narrative that STEM is hard, dull, and without emotional meaning. One study indicated that nearly 90 percent of high-school graduates are not interested in a career or a college major involving science, technology, engineering, or math. This is due, in part, to the fact that it’s socially acceptable to be bad at math. A Change the Equation survey revealed that 53 percent of Americans aged 18 to 35 often admit that they can’t do math. It is not OK to say, “I’m not good at reading or talking,” but it is OK to say, “I’m not good at math.” And when parents (and others) say they weren’t good at math either—sometimes to make their struggling children feel better—they inadvertently give kids permission to quit. And kids do—in droves.

STEM can be tough to learn, just like anything else. But we need to tell students they can do it, and we need to hold them accountable. This is how it was in my home; STEM was like oxygen—it was everywhere. My mother was a seamstress and my father was a carpenter. Math had emotional, professional, and financial meaning. My parents taught me to believe that I could overcome any challenge, including physics, and “can’t” just wasn’t acceptable.

The responsibility for creating STEM relevancy rests with us adults, with parents and mentors. We must begin now to shift our language and help students learn that STEM isn’t about STEM; it’s about making a difference in the world. It’s about the ability to excel, even if you’re an artist or social worker, because the world has changed, and technology and math are at the heart of everything. We must tell young people that understanding STEM means they can create things that change the world. This is the language of a new generation, and we must learn to speak it.

We can start by immersing young people in hands-on programs that break down stereotypes about STEM careers and give visibility to role models. One well-known example is Girls Who Code, where girls can find like-minded friends and relevance for STEM learning. In Austin, Texas, another girls-focused organization, Girlstart, runs multiple STEM modules during a summer camp to unpack the diversity of STEM careers. Through its Eco Girl module, for example, girls meet environmental engineer practitioners, discover how they can generate energy from the earth, and workshop ways to proactively solve global problems. They build solar cars, design solar homes, and construct buildings with rooftop gardens.

It takes a family and social support network, not just great teachers, to learn STEM and stay with it long-term, just as it requires years of practice, discipline, support, and coaches to master a sport. One program that specifically targets parents is Start with STEM, a recent initiative launched by a group of passionate Intel engineers to help parents understand STEM and career possibilities. While exploring the root-cause analysis of declining interest in STEM, the team uncovered the importance of parental knowledge and involvement. One parent shared, “When you know better, you will do better. My impression of STEM jobs has totally changed.” The engineers hope to reach thousands of parents and encourage them to support their budding scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and technologists.

If we want more STEM graduates, then we must promote ideas, language, people, and programs that demonstrate relevance and foster a sense of belonging. At Intel, we’ve found that we can offer new graduates great opportunities, but they will still ask, “Will I enjoy doing this and how does this matter in life?” People want to work on things that matter and connect the dots between their work and making a difference. We know that if a subject interests a student, education happens. It’s our job to make it interesting.

We’ve got to make the emotional connection to STEM, or we will fail.

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  • Jackie Fielder's avatar

    BY Jackie Fielder

    ON February 14, 2014 07:31 PM

    Yeah and how do you respond to this:
    Only 6 percent of U.S. tech workers are African American and 7 percent are Latino; ...Five companies - Apple, Google, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Intel - successfully petitioned the Department of Labor in 2012 to not disclose their demographic breakdowns, claiming it would cause “competitive harm.”

  • BY Keshia Ashe

    ON February 17, 2014 07:55 PM

    Thank you for this article, it’s very refreshing to hear a different take on what needs to be done to get young people engaged in the STEM fields. If the heart is ignited, the head will follow. STEM can be difficult, but it’s also so very very worthwhile due to the positive impact that can be had on the world. Quite frankly, that’s been my “secret” plan all along with my STEM mentoring nonprofit, ManyMentors. Using technology and peer mentors to help students understand it’s not just about the numbers and equations, but it’s about the power to change the world. Again, thank you for writing this article. We are happy to pass the message along smile

  • Barbara M. 's avatar

    BY Barbara M.

    ON February 18, 2014 06:23 AM

    @Jackie- Intel believes that transparency with our data is the best way to have a genuine dialogue on this industry challenge. We continually release our data and Intel is one of the few companies to make its employment diversity information public on our website. Our chief diversity officer stated it best, “We are tech companies and data drives our business; we need to get beyond our fears that the numbers are a poor reflection on our individual organizations and work together to address the issue collectively.” Source:

  • Barbara M. 's avatar

    BY Barbara M.

    ON February 18, 2014 06:36 AM

    @Keshia- You are welcome! I’m reminded of Einstein’s quote ” “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  You are spot on with connecting students to how these roles have the power to change the world. This is super important and a language we all need to shift towards. Thanks for the work you are doing in this area and continue making a difference.  The students need you.

  • Reuben Miller's avatar

    BY Reuben Miller

    ON February 18, 2014 06:51 AM

    Barbara, thanks for placing in writing what we are all so passionate about.  You cleared up the notion that we aren’t solely trying to make a bunch of engineers.  We are trying to have students and parents recognize the importance of a sound, foundational STEM education.  And after acquiring this, it can lead to so many other careers.  It would be great that one amongst those careers to choose from is engineering.  Yes, we are all in this together and it will take all of us to make a difference.

  • Mateo Acuna's avatar

    BY Mateo Acuna

    ON February 18, 2014 11:29 AM

    Several experts hint that academia, the government and tech companies in the private sector are placing “just too much emphasis” in STEM (see articles from Huffington Post’s Alfie Kohn’s, NPR’s Kate McGee and IEE Spectrum’s Robert Charette). While it is true that the United States’ anxiety to grow the number of STEM professionals dates back to World War II, what critics seem to overlook is that in today’s economic landscape, the 4%  of the US workforce who are scientists and engineers create the jobs for the other 96% (National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators 2010). This simple fact makes it imperative for the US government to promote STEM education and jobs.

    The suggestions from the ‘Start With STEM’ campaign and others is not that a good grounding in humanities, arts, history and literature is not needed by folks pursuing STEM careers. In fact, if you look at the benefits humanity has gotten from folks like Da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin, it could be inferred that it is very important for STEM-minded individuals to also think broadly in order to sparkle innovation. What you and the references mentioned in your blog are pointing out is that recognizing the importance of a sound STEM education is key to enabling our students to pursue not just a STEM-career, but any career. The power to change the world must come from an understanding of how the world works, before you decide to engineer solutions to change it!

    Kudos for calling out the need to make the emotional connections between workforce shortage, breaking down stereotypes, parental knowledge and involvement, and creating things which can change the world. Bravo.

  • Insightful words!  We really MUST better equip our parents and teachers with the tools to spark a fundamental and foundational understanding of and thus (hopefully) an interest in STEM in today’s students.

  • Lisa M. Smith's avatar

    BY Lisa M. Smith

    ON February 18, 2014 03:33 PM

    Barbara your article hits the true issues of why students shy away from STEM. It also hits the key actions we, as influential leaders of generations to come, must and should do to guide and expose them to a perspective that reiterates the endless possibilities in the area of STEM. Early exposure, along with a changed perception of STEM has high potential to lead someone down a path of comprehending and implementing concepts that support possibility thinking, problem solving and creativity. Let’s not forget the other effects of leading someone to consider a higher education career path in STEM.

  • BY Daniel F. Bassill

    ON February 20, 2014 07:06 AM

    Business leaders who want more young people to take careers in STEM, health care, manufacturing or any other career need to adopt practices used by big companies to sell merchandise through a variety of retail outlets, and that retail companies use to operate stores in multiple locations. 

    If you think of STEM as a product, like “soap” and you are a company that manufactures soap, like Proctor and Gamble, then look at everything that company does to get its soap on the shelves of Wal Mart, CVS, Walgreens, K-Mart and thousands of other locations. They provide training, advertising, merchandising support and many other incentives for a retailer to carry their brand. 

    The manufacturer and the retailer are using maps and other tools to look for places where they can find customers, and build new stores to reach those customers. They also do all sorts of things to help stores have well trained people, good equipment and facilities, and advertising that draw customers.

    If we want STEM learning and mentoring to reach kids throughout a region, such as Chicago, planners would want to be able to motivate schools, and non-school programs, to include STEM activities in their on-going efforts. The best way to do this is to encourage STEM workers to become volunteers, board members, donors, who support such programs and help them integrate STEM activities into their core efforts.

    At some point leaders should be able to look at a map and see how many neighborhoods include STEM programming and mentors and financial support and where more programs need to be built.

    I’ve had interns help me visualize strategies like I’m describing. This is one project done in the past month.  Diagramming and creating blueprints of strategy should be an activity that many STEM companies could encourage as a way of communicating strategies that make more of these programs available in more places.

  • Finalists from our Changemakers’s are also a great source for inspiration of effective solutions for STEM Education. here’s a list of the top winners, finalists, and semi-finalists which presented great models:

  • quadrupole's avatar

    BY quadrupole

    ON March 3, 2014 03:52 PM

    I’m in STEM.  Physics/Math (String Theory) followed by a career in engineering when I decided I actually wanted to build real things. I’ve seen a lot of folks succeed and fail at it.  I’ve seen a lot of what makes folks turn towards it or against it.  Here’s what I’ve noticed:

    1)  STEM is very vertical.  Fewer and fewer students have even the most basic skills (mostly math) needed to even engage with it.  It doesn’t matter how you move the heart if the basic building blocks are missing… you would just be enticing folks into hitting a brick wall.

    2)  Very few of the instructors prior to college have any capacity to understand much less teach these underlying skills… so even if you inspire students early, they are more likely to get fairy tales about science than any real capacity to pursue it.

  • Hi all,

    I am a grade 2/3 teacher and my school is planning on bringing the STEM initiative for the following year. Is there any resource you may recommend I study so that I have a better and clear understanding of what this looks like in an elementary classroom and how to go about with incorporating this idea into my teaching practice.

  • Barbara H. McAllister's avatar

    BY Barbara H. McAllister

    ON August 21, 2014 10:42 PM

  • BY Tristan MacLean

    ON March 2, 2015 03:44 PM

    This is something we believe in so strongly we have started a nonprofit with curiosity at it’s heart - Keep on Questioning - Promoting Curiosity (

    To achieve our mission we are looking for scientists and schools to take part in our incredibly successful program - I’m a Scientist (

    Further details are available on our websites.

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