This is part of the new monthly “Ask the Expert” series in which NC State College of Education faculty answer some of the most commonly asked questions about education.
What is STEM education? For NC State College of Education Associate Professor Cameron Denson, STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — education is a way for students to develop the problem solving skills required to create change in the world.
He says STEM education requires an interdisciplinary approach in which science and math serve as tools that inform a student’s thinking process, leading them to engineer a solution to a problem and potentially develop a technological solution.
“In the classroom, if educators are doing STEM in an interdisciplinary fashion, you would have a collaborative teaching effort where students would be able to apply the math and science skills that they’ve learned, they would use engineering as a way to problem solve and then usually the result is some type of technology,” Denson said.
As the largest producer of STEM educators in North Carolina, the NC State College of Education graduates highly qualified teachers with strong pedagogical content knowledge and a deep understanding of instructional strategies needed to teach STEM content in a state that faces a shortage of qualified STEM teachers.
Highly qualified STEM educators are crucial, Denson said, because they can spark student interest in the discipline at a young age, fostering a generation who will be capable of contributing to an increasingly technological society.
“Usually, K-12 schools are a student’s first introduction to these content areas. It’s very important because, when we think about the U.S., [STEM subjects] are the areas that help spur innovation, invention, creativity and entrepreneurship. When we look at our economy, those are probably the most important segments for it,” he said.
Through his research, Denson places specific emphasis in fostering interest in STEM education among traditionally underrepresented students. Through mentoring, extra-curricular activities and informal learning environments, his work aims to expose students to STEM at an early age in a way that builds their confidence in the subjects.
“The demographics of the U.S. are changing, so we are not going to be able to meet the demands for STEM careers unless we change the way that these STEM professionals look. That means bringing in more black students, Hispanic students and females, who have been largely underrepresented,” he said.
Denson notes that underrepresented students often struggle to see themselves in a STEM career because it’s difficult for them to find people who look like them in the field. To address that problem, Denson is using a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop an e-mentoring program that pairs underrepresented high school students in rural North Carolina with engineering majors of similar background, race, gender and experiences.
Internationally, he has also partnered with researchers in Botswana to help introduce underrepresented students, particularly girls and women, to STEM and help change their perceptions of and interest in the discipline.
“My research is grounded in critical race theory and also self-efficacy, which is one of the most important predictors if somebody is going to pursue a particular career,” Denson said. “We want to provide [underrepresented groups] with every opportunity to be successful in whatever career they choose.”