Vision 2026 Sets Course for the Future of STEM

Imagine a STEM education for all students that starts as early as preschool. Imagine it continuing for all students through high school and beyond—lifelong learning.

Imagine classroom designs that make use of technology, the natural world, and community and informal learning centers, engaging students of every grade level in relevant challenges that can be addressed through STEM. Imagine what this looks like in practice:

  • High schools where students are working with employees from national tech companies to solve real-world problems about bringing new and innovative products to market.
  • Games, simulations, and cognitive tutoring systems that help all students access individualized STEM content by adapting activities based on a student’s voiced responses, tactile motions, and past learning behaviors.
  • Learning activities that invite play, risk, and, yes, failure. Failure, after all, lets students do what scientists do: tinker, discover, and take chances as they map out new approaches to solving complex problems. The setbacks they experience develop students’ persistence, even in the face of challenges and uncertainty.

Graphic: Behind STEMNow imagine all of this happening in every community, every school, and for every child, regardless of neighborhood, race, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, or disability.

This could be the future of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) teaching and learning in America. Or, at least it should be, according to a new vision that evolved out of workshops convened by the U.S. Department of Education’s STEM Initiatives Team in the Office of Innovation and Improvement. AIR collaborated on the initiative.

STEM 2026 is grounded in the premise that every student has the right to a foundational and authentic STEM education as part of a well-balanced set of academic experiences. The vision builds on work done over the past decade to advance educational equity and ensure that all students graduate prepared for college and/or careers. It also is grounded in research and data that show that the process of learning and practicing STEM disciplines can develop such lifelong learning skills as teamwork, a passion for inquiry and discovery, persistence, and the application of gained knowledge to new situations.

Yet, the U.S. remains far from providing equal access and opportunity to unlocking these skills:

  • Compared with 43 percent of White students and 61 percent of Asian students, just 13 percent of Black students and 19 percent of Hispanic students score at or above proficiency in eighth-grade mathematics.

How can the nation and its schools turn those numbers around?

STEM 2026 provides examples for policymakers, educators, researchers, and technology developers to see how today’s innovative work could gradually lead to high-level STEM education’s potential for all:

  • The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, one of the more than 250 members of the Remake Learning network, has a MAKESHOP® space where children and families play, design, and create using the same tools professionals use. They can, for example, experiment with programming language, use a saw for the first time, or build and tinker with such old and new technologies as historical and virtual looms to create intricate patterns.
  • The National Geographic and National Park Service’s BioBlitzes are events at national parks where scientists, families, students, teachers, and other community members together identify and count the plants, animals, fungi, and other local organisms.  
  • Virtual tools like EcoMUVE and EcoMOBILE enhance learning and engage students in two ways. Through EcoMUVE, students explore a virtual pond ecosystem in their classrooms. EcoMOBILE software lets students on a class trip to a real pond use their mobile devices to get information, answer questions, and overlay virtual graphics on the pond.
  • Nimble Tools is for students with special needs. Its virtual keyboard can be quickly customized with overlays for each user. Further, an on-screen avatar can ask questions in American Sign Language, and text and images can be adjusted to make text accessible for each student.

In these examples, STEM’s future is well on its way. STEM 2026 is intended to catalyze collaboration and point the way into a learning environment where everyone feels invested and empowered to engage in STEM teaching and learning. 

Courtney Tanenbaum is a principal researcher and the Practice Area Director for STEM at AIR specializing in broadening participation of historically underrepresented groups in STEM education and career pathways.