The STEAM-Active (Project Number: 2021-1-ES01-KA220-HED-000032107) project is funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.

Inquiring into the Nature of STEM Problems, Implications for Pre-college Education

Partners' Institution
University of Perugia
Year of publication
Educational stage
Secondary Level
Journal name
Science & Education
Thematic Area
STEAM intervention (teaching strategies, evaluation...), Definition and characteristics of STEAM
The study is a dissertation focused on the nature and problems of STEM education. Specifically, the first part is devoted to the discussion of past efforts to describe the nature of STEM and the related shortcomings. In the second part a framework for the nature of STEM problems is established and used to identify different typologies, this helps describing the characteristics of STEM problems and highlights the presence of both STEM and non-STEM related components like social, cultural, political, or ethical matters. The last part of the paper shows how the understanding of the nature of STEM problems can influence the decision-making in STEM education, while also giving a practical example.
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
The paper analyses how past effort to examine the nature of STEM were not successful because they interpreted it as a shorthand for science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. If STEM is just a way to refer to these fields, then its nature is would simply be the characteristics of those fields that overlap. The study argues that in order to classify STEM as an interdisciplinary space and not just an overlap of the individual STEM fields, the more productive approach is to examine the nature of the STEM problems. A focus on problems is more consistent with how STEM education is conceptualized: An approach that emphasizes how different fields can be integrated to address problems that require science and technology and engineering and mathematics; and prepare students to engage with real-world problems.
Given the association between STEM education and problem solving, the study proposes a framework that can be used to identify which problems can be classified as STEM problems. As the understanding of STEM problems implies positioning them in relation to other classes of problems, the paper gives a definition for each of them:
- Science addresses problems of knowledge related to the natural world. Knowledge includes fundamental ideas as well as applications of those ideas to the natural world.
- Mathematics addresses problems of knowledge related to mathematical entities. Knowledge includes fundamental ideas about the properties of and relationships between those entities as well as how those ideas can be applied.
- Technological problems are about enabling certain human actions via the creation or novel use of objects, systems, and processes.
- Engineering problems are a subset of technological problems that focus on the functional design, development, and analysis of technological objects and systems.
Each STEM field addresses problems that are different from one another, but many interactions exist between the fields. Nevertheless, labeling one of the fields as “STEM” is unproductive because it erases the important differences between those fields and the kinds of problem they address. It also fails to indicate how STEM refers to a class of problems that are different from those of its constituent fields.
Following this classification, the paper proposes firstly a hierarchical conceptualization of STEM problems. It is a problem that can be decomposed in a set of intersecting sub-problems, which can all be framed as scientific problems, mathematical problems, technological problems, or engineering problems. This interpretation is complicated by the fact that many of the problems have components that are aligned with both STEM and non-STEM fields (political, social ethical, etc.). This matter brings up the importance of how the problems are framed and creates 2 typologies of STEM problems:
1) Pure STEM problems, which can be decomposed into component problems aligned with the four categories
2) STEM-relevant problems, which exhibit sub-problems both of the STEM fields and non-STEM fields.
Once the boundaries of the STEM problems are provided the study focuses on the characteristics of pure STEM problems (which by extension also concern STEM-relevant problems). The description of each characteristic is through a “family resemblance” method instead of a set of rigid criteria, meaning that the identified aspect of the STEM problem does not necessarily apply to all instances.
- Foreground novel technologies. STEM problems necessarily include novel technologies, which may be entirely new, an extension of an existing technological system, or the translation of an existing technology to a new context.
- Foreground S-T-E-M knowledge. Each of the STEM fields has a knowledge base that is utilized to address problems within that field. Considering that STEM problems are combinations of sub-problems in the STEM fields, they involve knowledge production and application from each of those fields.
- Foreground S-T-E-M methods. As for the knowledge, each of the STEM fields uses well-established methods to address specific problems in that field. Thus, methods of those fields are foregrounded in STEM problems.
- Context-specific. STEM problems are context-specific because technological and engineering problems are sensitive to economic, technological, and social circumstances.
- Reductive. Even though STEM problems are tied to specific set of contextual circumstances, any real-world problem involves a limitless set of potentially relevant factors. Only by reducing the complexity of the situation is possible to deploy the tools of the STEM fields.
The last part of the study shows how the understanding of the nature of the STEM problems allows to critically examine the current instructional approaches for STEM education. One of them, with a growing amount of interest, concerns the use of engineering design-based STEM instructions. Students are entrusted with the design of a technology that will require to learn and/or use science and mathematics concepts. The problem associated with this approach is that sometimes these designs are not STEM problems based on the characteristic explained above. Moreover, this approach doesn’t align with the necessity to prepare students for the complex problems they will encounter in the world.
A more recent approach within science education is in the framework of socioscientific issues (SSI), in which students reason about complex problems that have scientific, social, cultural, and moral/ethical components. The examination of these issues reveal that SSIs are congruent with STEM-relevant problems and much more similar to those that students might encounter in the real world.
Point of Strength
The study is an in-depth analysis of the characteristics of the STEM fields from an interesting problem-sided point of view. The paper presents a multitude of examples of pure STEM problems, STEM-relevant problems and SSIs that can be used as inspirations. Moreover, the developed framework is used to give an example of how differently a problem-solving scenario can be framed in a non-STEM, pure STEM or STEM-relevant way.
nature of STEM, nature of science, nature of engineering, nature of mathematics, STEM education