Skip to main content

Integrated STEM learning - the Lady Gaga of education

By Hui-Hui Wang

Departments of Education in Minnesota and in many other states have taken the position that learning science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) should be integrated. In other words, science and engineering should be taught together, or math and technology taught together. Now it is up to us as educators to decide how to integrate them.

Surprisingly, how to integrate STEM integration is a topic as controversial as Lady Gaga! Some people adore her as new queen of pop music, but some people think that she belittles the value of music and has a bad influence on people who listen to it.

Likewise, some people think that integrating STEM can provide a real-world, hands-on learning experience for youth. On the other hand, some educators and researchers believe that integrated STEM programs cannot comprehensively include the essential knowledge and skills from each STEM subject that youth should learn.

For example, robotics projects integrate science and engineering learning. But what exactly should the youth be learning when they do robotics? A good robotics program should involve such science concepts as force and torque, some engineering design, and some programming (mathematics). But the youth leader must have a clear learning outcome in mind. For the learner, without knowing all the content behind why and how a robot works, assembling a robot and making it to work is just a series of trials and errors. This is like a gambler throwing dice -- after enough throws, the gambler will eventually get lucky and hit the jackpot, without learning anything about math.

What is learned by this trial and error if learners have no idea why and how the robot works? We need to take a minute to think about the meaning of our STEM programs. What do we really want our STEM programs to achieve?

In my opinion, program designers and educators need to know what STEM knowledge and/or skills that they want to integrate in STEM programs before designing an activity. Otherwise, learners may seem to have learned something but actually learn nothing. If we don't carefully design and identify the integrated STEM knowledge and/or skills for a specific learning outcome, we could have a program that addresses only one of the STEM areas, or none of them.

Much of my research focuses on how to integrate STEM learning. So I am very interested in your opinion on this evolving question. I am also interested in how nonformal learning should complement the formal learning environment, which departments of education in many states have mandated be integrated.

What do you think? Should nonformal learning programs be integrated or focus on one of the STEM areas? Does experiential learning necessitate an integrated approach? How are we preparing ourselves to do this?

-- Hui-Hui Wang, former assistant professor and Extension educator, STEM education

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
Print Friendly and PDF


  1. Hui Hui - Your point that STEM learning in nonformal programs may be by chance gives me a lot to think about because it rang true and yet I am not entirely sure I want to do away with it. I think about how much of what we know about the world has been learned by chance. And, dare I say it, I think about how much learning even in formal classrooms is "by chance?" Random acts of learning are not limited to nonformal programs.
    I think back to times when I have been close enough to witness new learning - in myself, in a peer, in a young person, in my own children - and I know that learning sticks with certain conditions that reinforce the learning. It makes a difference when more advanced learners recognize new learning in others and build upon it, reference it, acknowledge it. These "learning partnerships" are important building blocks for young people as they develop critical thinking, problem solving, and STEM knowledge.
    Maybe what I understand about the point you make isn't that learning by chance is necessarily "bad" but that offering nonformal learning programs where learners might learn "by chance" without the benefit of adult facilitators who recognize what the young person has learned is not doing the best that we can do for young people. I would love to hear more about what you mean by this.

  2. Thanks for your post, Hui Hui! At first blush, I would find it hard to argue against integrated learning rather than isolated content. I tend to think of youth programs as an ideal context for young people to connect and apply knowledge to complex, relevant, real world problems. But your robotic example of trial and error gave me pause. Maybe it’s not an either-or question. Perhaps it’s a matter of sequencing content knowledge and application. Does your research suggest anything about whether some degree of foundational knowledge maximizes integrated learning? Do artists like Lady Gaga need to have some technical proficiency before they can improvise?

  3. Pam:
    Thank you for your comments. I think what I want to say is that we need to know what we are doing, as educators and program designers, before we embrace any new idea. A lot of STEM integrated programs that I have visited did not have a clearly learning outcomes that they want learners to achieve. Trials and errors are essential in STEM field, but we need to know the meaning behind trials and errors, so we can answer our questions or improve our engineering design. Many programs use STEM integration as an "excitement". I don't against that, but I just feel besides giving chances to learner to experience some exciting new things, we need to know ultimately what we really want to achieve by teaching/using STEM integrated programs (or any other educational programs). If as an educator, or as an program designer we fail to do that, we probably lost the initial beliefs of teaching/using STEM integrated or any other educational programs. :)

  4. Kate:
    Thank you for your comments. I agree with you. I think the question definitely relates to what youth have already know and how can they apply their knowledge. Therefore, it is hard to say if elementary or middle school age youth are too young for STEM integration, because they did not have enough background knowledge. One of my research goal is to explore what is a good STEM integration model and how can we implement it. Can the model be applied to both formal school and out-of-school time programs? By the way, yes, I think Lady Gaga plays piano very well and knows how to compose music besides her meat costume. :)

  5. Thanks for providing an interesting discussion topic about integrating STEM. As an engineer myself, I see very little technology integration in current school curriculum, technology is most often used as a way to present information (PowerPoint, Excel spreadsheets, word processing, etc.).
    Building robots (like those used in FIRST LEGO League) uses technology, and trial and error are often used to learn how to program the LEGO Mindstorms robot. This is not a bad method to learn a skill, in fact, having lots of failures (the robot did not do what you thought it was going to do), is a learning method in itself. Analyzing why it didn't work will help determine what to try next in the next program or next design of the robot.
    I do agree with you that many youth leaders to not see the connection between math and programming skills, they believe that these are separate areas of learning. Computer programming is not taught in most schools today, if it is taught it is usually a separate topic from math.
    From an engineering viewpoint, providing problems for students to solve is the best way to experience and integrate STEM learning. For example: giving the challenge for the students to design and program a robot to do certain tasks (for example: pick up an item and move it to a certain location) will have many possible solutions.
    If a lesson is prescribed (such as "today we will learn about force and torque") by building a robot in a provided design, the student loses the opportunity to just experiment and create their own product.
    I think your area of researching STEM integration and integrating informal learning into our formal learning environments is needed. I am especially interested in whether informal learning leads to more success in school.

  6. The world doesn't have these strict boundaries between subjects, so we shouldn't either. I would argue for going beyond "STEM" however. There is math in our design and sewing of clothes. There is technology in putting on a theatre production. There is science in cooking our dinner. We can marvel at the engineering behind a stapler. I think youth (and adults) would find STEM and learning in general much more engaging if we could step back from our silos and naming of things as 'science', and just let them experience STEM in their day-to-day world.
    We can pose questions and facilitate their inquiry, to get beyond the trial and error. But today's youth learn as they play video games. They don't read the manual or instructions. They start doing stuff. If they crash and burn, they start over. Trial and error can be a learning style that fits well with today's online youth. And it can fit well with them taking leadership for what they want to learn. What did they learn from that failure? What makes sense to try next? Failure can encourage us to wonder about how things work and send us in search of knowledge to understand why we failed this time. I don't know that a leader's question would be as engaging. But there remains need for some structure which we as leaders provide.

  7. Thank you Cheryl
    I agree with you that from what I have observed, technology often used as a way to present information. This is a small T. If we are talking about a big "T", technology can mean a pencil, paper, or a cup. However, many people do not recognize that. When they think about technology, they just think about computer.
    To me, I think trying is great, but youth need to know the meaning behind why they are trying. In a real world, an engineer has to have a strong background knowledge about what he/she does. For example, in genetic engineering field, he/she will have to have strong knowledge abut biology. I just feel engineers do not try things without planing carefully. They have to consider budget, constraints and so fourth before they do the test run. I just feel that youth should plan and know what they are doing before let them to try their ideas.

  8. Love to see Lady Gaga Pictures????? see more of her in my blog .
    see Lady Gaga Pictures in my blog