School Choice Series: STEM School Versus Traditional School – Everything You Need To Know

By: Susan Kehl | Last Updated: December 30, 2022

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Gone are the days when kids went to the school down the street simply because it was…well, down the street. Today, families have more school choices than ever. As part of our School Choice Series, we’ll explore options to help you determine the best-fit school for your family.

What’s the school du jour? STEM School. If you’d describe your child as analytical –  “little engineer,” “budding scientist,” “math whiz” – or if traditional school doesn’t seem to challenge her – a STEM school might be just what the doctor (or scientist) ordered.

But STEM school isn’t necessarily just for tech-oriented students. Certified Educational Planner Judi Robinovitz believes STEM education teaches all students invaluable skills in innovative, real-world ways.

STEM schools aren’t just for ‘brainiacs’ or math and science prodigies,” she said. “STEM education helps students develop high-level critical thinking skills and encourages exploration, creativity, and ingenuity. It teaches students to think outside the box, in part by applying what they learn in the classroom to the real world.”

So… how does STEM School differ from traditional school, and which is best for your child? Here’s everything you need to know:

Understanding STEM Education

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Despite the name, STEM education encompasses more than those subjects alone, and it involves more than sitting behind a computer to plot scientific graphs. STEM is an innovative, student-focused approach to learning that differs from traditional education in several ways:

Learn By Reading/Memorizing versus Learn By Doing

Traditional schools have come a long way since the days where students sat obediently in rows and engaged in passive learning. In fact, many traditional schools now have special interest programs, like engineering and medical academies. But generally speaking, students in traditional schools learn by rote memorization, or absorbing material through repetition. However, many experts believe rote learning is outdated, and that memorizing facts inhibits a deeper understanding of concepts. Generally, there is one correct answer in a traditional classroom.

In contrast, STEM schools teach science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – subjects often labeled as ‘boring’ or ‘difficult’ – in innovative ways. Rather than simply memorizing information, STEM students immerse themselves in an inquiry-based environment that focuses on applying what they learn. Students engage in experiments and other hands-on, interactive learning where there are often multiple possible solutions to a problem. Many STEM schools even collaborate with outside technology-oriented businesses to provide meaningful, real-world examples that incorporate what students learn in class.

The Four Cs of STEM

STEM instruction emphasizes collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking as well as research and problem-solving skills.

Jack of All Trades versus Master of Some 

Traditional schools often promote a buffet-style, ‘all-you-can-learn’ curriculum, touching upon a broad variety of subjects. STEM schools fully explore science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, aiming to ignite in students a lifelong passion and understanding for these subjects.

Subject Segregation versus Subject Integration

Traditional classes tend to teach subjects individually, and students often don’t understand how the various concepts fit together. STEM classrooms integrate learning by connecting and correlating subjects and relating them to each other. This gives students greater breadth and depth in understanding their coursework and how disciplines work together. For example, a STEM instructor might teach a science lesson using an engineering design process.

Teacher-Driven versus Student-Directed

In general, teachers in traditional schools take center stage, presiding over the classroom with lectures and pre-planned lessons while students take notes. STEM teachers typically allow students to take the lead in classroom discussions, conducting experiments to find their own answers, and engaging in activities designed to spark their curiosity about how things work.

Teacher Quality

Statistics indicate that traditional schools are currently experiencing a shortage of qualified instructors for STEM subjects. STEM-specific schools, on the other hand, hire teachers specifically trained or certified to instruct STEM subjects.

Individual Results versus Teamwork

Traditional schools generally discourage talking during class, and for the most part, students take individual tests and complete their own assignments. STEM schools encourage open discussions, teamwork, and collaboration. In addition, STEM schools often have smaller class sizes, and each student has access to a computer.

STEM Stats

STEM is an emerging field that’s expected to continue to grow and create new opportunities. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2019–2029 employment projections indicate that occupations in the STEM field are expected to grow 8.0 percent by 2029, compared with 3.7 percent for all occupations. STEM schools, as well as traditional schools that offer STEM programs, allow students to develop sought-after skills at an early age and – hopefully – foster a long-term proficiency and interest in the subjects. But when it comes to STEM education, the U.S. is currently lagging in certain areas.

Although women currently account for about half of the U.S. workforce, only about 27 percent of women are employed in the STEM workforce. In addition, statistics demonstrate that minority students withdraw from STEM majors at a higher rate than white students. In response, The U.S. Department of Education introduced its “YOU Belong In STEM” initiative in October 2022 to promote STEM education to students ranging from pre-kindergarten to college. The initiative aims to make quality STEM education available to all students and to empower both teachers and students to feel like they belong in the STEM field. There’s even a National STEM Day to encourage students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. STEM schools and traditional schools with STEM programs are also helping bridge these gaps and expand STEM opportunities.

STEM Beyond the K-12 Classroom

Primary school STEM education can prepare students for a college major in STEM, and even a career in the industry. In addition, students can further develop their STEM skills by participating in STEM summer camps, after-school programs, school-sponsored clubs (like the robotics team or physics club), online courses, and other STEM-related activities. Also available are a variety of STEM toys and games – and even STEM toy subscription services. The field is diverse, with jobs ranging from aerospace engineers to zoologists – and everything in between.

Opportunities abound, as revealed by this partial list of STEM courses and careers:

  • Aerospace Engineering
  • Architecture
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Astronomy
  • Biochemistry
  • Biology
  • Chemical Engineering
  • Chemistry
  • Civil Engineering
  • Computer Science
  • Cyber Security
  • Data Analysis
  • Electrical Engineering
  • Environmental Science
  • Financial Actuary/Actuarial Sciences
  • Information Technology
  • Mathematics
  • Mechanical Engineering
  • Microbiology
  • Physics
  • Psychology
  • Software Engineering
  • Statistics
  • Zoology

How Do I Find a STEM School For My Child?

If you’re considering a STEM school or program for your child, you’ll want to know how to find one and, once you do find a candidate school, how to ensure that it checks all the boxes. Talk to other parents, your student’s guidance counselor, and visit potential schools to compare and contrast. Ask pertinent questions to ensure that the program meets your child’s needs. For even greater peace of mind, seek professional assistance from an educational consultant.

Barb Leventhal, an Independent Educational Consultant on our team specializing in school choice, says that she or any specialized educational consultant can help you find the best-fit school and the best-available education for your child.

With options including neighborhood schools, parochial schools for all faiths, private schools, and public and charter magnet programs, making the right choice can be daunting for families,” she said. “Experienced educational consultants alleviate your stress and help you choose a school where your child – and your family – will thrive.”

Leventhal added that parents should look for schools that teach students how to tackle problems and work with others to find solutions, emphasizing that these skills will always be in demand in every type of job. She believes that STEM education can be a great option for many students and that the future of the industry is bright.

Robinovitz agrees.

STEM education teaches important life skills and empowers students to feed their curiosity and dream big,” she said. “STEM students will be our future innovators, explorers, and inventors – your STEM school graduate may even change the world.”

Need help choosing an elementary, middle, high school, or college? Give us a call. We continually visit schools to remain current on their offerings, and we’ve been successfully guiding families in their selection since 1992. We’ll help you find, apply to – and succeed in – the best-fit school for your child and your family.

Topics: School Selection


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