Background: Despite increasing attention to STEM education worldwide, there is considerable uncertainty as to what constitutes STEM education and what it means in terms of curriculum and student outcomes. The purpose of this study was to investigate the commonalities and variations in educators’ conceptualizations of STEM education. Sensemaking theory framed our analysis of ideas that were being selected and retained in relation to professional learning experiences in three contexts: two traditional middle schools, a STEM-focused school, and state-wide STEM professional development. Concept maps and interview transcripts from 34 educators holding different roles were analyzed: STEM and non-STEM teachers, administrators, and STEM professional development providers.
Results: Three themes were included on over 70% of the 34 concept maps: interdisciplinary connections; the need for new, ambitious instructional practices in enacting a STEM approach; and the engagement of students in realworld problem solving. Conceptualizations of STEM education were related to educational contexts, which included the STEM education professional development activities in which educators engaged. We also identified differences across educators in different roles (e.g., non-STEM teacher, administrator). Two important attributes of STEM education addressed in the literature appeared infrequently across all contexts and role groups: students’ use of technology and the potential of STEM-focused education to provide access and opportunities for all students’ successful participation in STEM.
Conclusions: Given the variety of institutionalized practices and school contexts within which STEM education is enacted, we are not convinced that a single worldwide definition of STEM education is critical. What we do see as essential is that those working in the same system explore the common elements that are being attributed to STEM education and co-construct a vision that provides opportunities for all their students to attain STEM-related goals. This is especially important in the current reform contexts related to STEM education. We also see that common conceptions of STEM education appear across roles and contexts, and these could provide starting points for these discussions. Explicitly identifying the ideas educators are and are not selecting and retaining can inform professional learning activities at local and larger scales.