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What Is STEM? What Does It Stand For?


If you live in the U.S., you’ve probably heard about how important “STEM” education is. But what is STEM, exactly? And why is it so important? 

In this article, we’ll explain everything you need to know about STEM education, including:

  • Explain what STEM stands for
  • Overview the disciplines that STEM includes
  • Answer the question, “What does STEM stand for in school?”
  • Explain the importance of STEM
  • Provide a five question quiz to help you decide if pursuing STEM is right for you

Ready? Let’s dive in! 




What Is STEM? What Does STEM Stand For? 

STEM is an acronym commonly used in education and business. The four letters in STEM stand for:

  • Science
  • Technology
  • Engineering
  • Mathematics

When you hear about STEM education or STEM jobs, it’s referring to these four distinct categories of study! 

So you’re probably wondering why these categories are grouped together under one umbrella term. The purpose of combining these four fields of study into a single acronym is to emphasize that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are interrelated academic disciplines that can be integrated for educational, business, and even economic purposes! 


What Does STEM Include?

Now that we’ve answered the question, “What Is STEM,” let’s take a closer look at the subcategories of science, technology, engineering, and math. 

For each of these fields, we’ll explain what it is, what it encompasses, and why it’s included as part of STEM! 



The “science” in STEM is pretty broad, and it typically covers two of the three main branches of science: the natural sciences and the formal sciences. The third major branch of science is social science (like sociology or economics), but many people don’t include them in STEM. Those fields are usually grouped with the liberal arts or the humanities. 

Natural sciences refers to biology, chemistry, and physics. In the context of STEM, “natural sciences” also includes physical sciences (like astronomy) and life sciences (like ecology). 

Formal sciences typically refers to the fields logic, computer science, and statistics

The skills taught in science subjects are often applied in other STEM subject areas as well. For instance, while logic is heavily associated with the sciences, logical thinking is extremely important for technology and engineering professionals as well. The same is true for a field like ecology, which often combines with other fields like ecological engineering and eco-technology! 



The “technology” in STEM refers to technology and technological fields. For instance, programming, systems analysis, and even information architecture would fall under the “technology” label! 

Oftentimes, the way technology is addressed in STEM education is by teaching students the skills they need to succeed in a technology-driven world. In many high schools, this means learning things like computer programming, web development, and database management.  

Technology is included in STEM because tech is a tool that allows for innovation and exploration in the other STEM areas. For example, the development of new technologies is crucial to the field of biomedical engineering. That combines technology with science and engineering to develop new medical treatments! 

Technology is an important part of STEM because it heavily impacts the other three areas, which depend on technological knowledge, research, and development to change the world.



The “engineering” in STEM includes many different types of engineering. These include aerospace engineering, biomedical engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, industrial engineering, civil engineering, chemical engineering, acoustical engineering, computer engineering, and software engineering. And that’s not even a complete list! 

Engineering is included in STEM because engineers need to understand math, science, and technology in order to do their jobs. Take, for example, building a bridge. A structural engineer needs to be able to do complex calculations to figure out how much weight a bridge can support, which is a combination of math and physics. Then they have to understand the new technologies that can bring the bridge to life! 



Last but not least, the “math” in STEM refers to both pure mathematics and applied mathematics. 

Pure mathematics is the study of mathematical concepts and structures. These are the foundational ideas of mathematics! This includes fields like algebra, geometry, and number theory. 

Applied mathematics is exactly what it sounds like: it’s the application of math in different STEM areas. Some applied mathematical fields include combinatorics, computational biology, theoretical computer science, and theoretical physics.

While math may bring up the end of the STEM acronym, it’s actually foundational to science, technology, and engineering. Here’s what we mean: if you want to understand the data you collect about global warming, you’ll need to use math. If you’re working on new battery technology, you’ll need to figure out how much energy a battery is storing...which also uses math! Even video game developers and programmers rely on math! 



STEM is a pretty common buzzword when it comes to education. Generally speaking, STEM in education refers to a core curriculum designed to help students prepare for careers in the sciences and technology! 


What Does STEM Stand for in Education?

We can’t talk about STEM without answering the question, “What does STEM stand for in school?” In educational contexts, STEM refers to a curriculum that takes an integrated approach to the teaching of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

STEM has become the primary focus of U.S. schools in recent years because many of the fastest-growing careers—like nurse practitioners and data scientists—fall under one or more of STEM’s core subject areas. 

Additionally, STEM curriculum is heavily supported by the U.S. government as a way to prepare students for high-paying careers in growing economic sectors. According to the U.S. Government, then, the answer to the question, “What does STEM stand for in school?” would economic prosperity, global influence, and progress.

Since STEM education prepares students for competitive careers, a STEM curriculum emphasizes real-world applications of STEM’s core subjects. Because science, tech, engineering, and math frequently work together in real-world professional situations, educators believe students should start learning how to integrate these subjects while they are in school. 

As students study STEM subjects, they develop the skills they need to succeed in a tech-heavy, science-driven world. These skills include things like problem solving, finding and using evidence, collaborating on projects, and thinking critically.

That doesn’t mean that every school teaches STEM subjects the same way. The science and math subjects that students will take in school are already well-established, but there are many different subfields of engineering and technology that could be integrated into math and science curriculum depending on a school’s teaching staff and financial resources. 

In other words, not every school will approach STEM curriculum in the same way, but every U.S. school will have a STEM curriculum. And in most schools, STEM subjects will be prioritized! 


Why Is STEM So Important?

STEM education equips students from all walks of life with crucial skills and knowledge for navigating the challenges of twenty-first century society. By studying STEM, you open the door to many secure, fulfilling, and well-paying careers.

STEM is also important from a social and political standpoint, too. The U.S. Government views STEM learning as crucial for the future of the country’s economy and global influence. It’s generally believed that, in order to be prepared for jobs in STEM and compete with students from other parts of the world, U.S. students need to master the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics skills.

However, recent statistics have shown that the United States is trailing many other countries in terms of STEM education. Additionally, while there is a high demand for STEM professionals in a range of careers, there are not enough students who show an interest and excellence in STEM fields to fill those jobs. To compensate, the U.S. education system has placed heavy emphasis on STEM education in recent years. 

Despite these seemingly disappointing statistics, many organizations have worked hard to make STEM education a priority, especially for marginalized groups. Given this, some people might answer the question, “What does STEM stand for in education?” by responding with “opportunity for inclusion.” For example, there are many opportunities for women, people of color, and immigrants in STEM, including college scholarships and internship opportunities! 




How to Decide If STEM Is Right for You

If you are considering pursuing a STEM-related college major or career path, there are many important factors to consider. To help you decide if STEM is the right path for you, take our quick five question quiz below:

  • Do you enjoy a blended learning environment that brings together multiple subjects?
  • Are you gifted in math and science?
  • Are you intrigued by the opportunity to apply academic questions to real-world issues?
  • Do you want to pursue a career in rapidly growing fields?
  • Are you eager to develop your critical thinking, logic, problem solving, and analytical skills?

If you answered “yes” to the majority of the questions above, it might be worth looking into the possibilities for your future in STEM! 

Ultimately, coming up with your own answers to the questions, “What is STEM?” and “What does STEM stand for in education?” will ensure that you’ve thoroughly considered how you perceive the STEM field, it’s importance, and whether a career in a STEM field is right for you. 




What’s Next? 

If you’re still unsure about whether you should major in STEM, check out this article. 

Looking to make a STEM field one of your application spikes? We recommend entering one of these 11 STEM competitions for high school students! 

If you want to be an engineer, there’s good news: there are lots of scholarships out there specifically for engineering students! Make sure you check out our list of engineering scholarships so you can earn some free money for college. 



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Ashley Robinson
About the Author

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.

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