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STEM: Stamina and the competitive skill

By Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer

Is STEM—the focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—a concept or a curriculum? Is it a reaction or a reinvention? Is it four distinct disciplines (S, T, E, M) or one (S+T+E+M)? Let’s open with a bit of background on STEM and look at its challenges.

Based on the depth of your search, you will find that STEM originated in

  • 1957 with the launch of Sputnik (Powell, 2007),

  • 1961 with Kennedy’s call to send an American safely to the moon (NASA, 2013),

  • 1998 with Papert’s keys to the new learning of the digital century (Papert, 2000), or

  • 2001 with the birth of the acronym SMET, which became STEM (Heitin, 2013).

Whether STEM emerged in the mid-20th century or with the onset of the 21st, it represents the intersection between US education and a global workforce operating in a digital world.


A 2011 New York Times article (Drew, 2011) brings fascinating insight into the STEM discussion. The journalist writes of middle and high school students being fully engaged and truly enjoying “building their erector sets and dropping eggs into water to test the first law of motion.” However, that enthusiasm for engineering disappears as they encounter the “math-science death march” their freshman year of college. Approximately 40% of freshmen who enter college with a STEM-declared major change majors or fail to obtain a degree because college math and science is just too hard.

“Approximately 40% of freshmen who enter college with a STEM-declared major change majors or fail to obtain a degree because college math and science is just too hard.”

This is certainly no indictment of Pre-K to 12th grade education. Engagement, active learning, design, and problem solving are critical to learning. However, when students enter college, in addition to a solid math and science foundation, they must organize their study schedule and complete multiple assignments with resources they find, evaluate, and use. Our students are prepared academically, but the stamina for extensive—and constant—amounts of work eludes perhaps as many of 40% of them.

Teachers guide students to greater stamina by leading them just beyond the edges of capability. There is little need to add mountains of new challenges for students to solve because part of stamina is the willingness to return to a project again and again, perfecting it just a bit more with each fresh approach. If the egg didn’t break from six feet, what design changes are required to protect it from 12 feet? How would you test your design theory without risking an egg? Do you anticipate dropping many eggs in your career? If not, what design challenges might you face in your line of work?

“Teachers guide students to greater stamina by leading them just beyond the edges of capability.”

Someone designed the ergonomic keyboard, the standing desk, and that “chair” that is really you sitting on a large balance ball. Some person, or more likely a team of persons, identified a challenge, solved it, and then solved it again and again, each time in a new way. Stamina.

Building vast vocabulary reserves builds stamina. In the middle grades, learning vocabulary shifts. Explicit instruction—particularly in the content areas—leads the way and is supported by independent learning. By middle school, explicit instruction is supported to a greater degree than before by independent vocabulary acquisition via context and independent reading. Approximately 2% of the words fifth-grade students read while engaged in independent reading are unfamiliar. They learn about 20% of those unfamiliar words on their own (Anderson and Nagy, 1993). If they read 10,000 words a year, that’s 400 new words. What if they read 100,000? 1,000,000? Stamina.

STEM disciplines require significant vocabulary acquisition skills. Furthermore, these disciplines require computer-like efficiency with basic math facts and operational skills. Less than half of seventh graders are fluent in math facts to the degree that recall is automatic. Stamina, in part, is the skillful allocation of resources. Knowing 6 x 7 is not enough; students must know it to the degree of automaticity that 42 is applied to the equation without conscious effort. Stamina.

The competitive skill

If we are to reach the global competitiveness that drives STEM, we must, as Papert (2013) states, focus on the one “competitive skill”: the ability to learn. Our students will not be asked to give the right answer to questions about existing knowledge as much as they will be asked to respond to unfamiliar tasks. Successful students use existing knowledge to ask the right questions. Think again of the egg drop and the balance-ball chair. What if it weren’t an egg but a safety device for a car? What have you learned about dropping an egg that will help you ask the right questions about a better child-seat design?

STEM, stamina, and skill: their thoughts

Ask your students what types of challenges in science, technology, engineering, and math they think they will be called upon to resolve within the next five to ten years. Share their thoughts, and how you might lead them to success, in the comments below.

Intrigued? See how Renaissance Star 360® can help you lead your students to success.



Heitin, L. (2015). When did science education become STEM? Education Week. Retrieved from
Drew, C. (2011). Why science majors change their minds (It’s just so darn hard). The New York Times. Retrieved from
NASA (2013)
US-Statlite (2013)
Papert, S. (2000). Child-Power: Keys to the new learning of the digital century. Retrieved from
Powell, A. (2007). How Sputnik changed U.S. education. Harvard Gazette. Retrieved from

Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer
Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer
Jan Bryan has more than 20 years of classroom and university teaching experience. Her work at Renaissance focuses on formative assessment, exploring data in a growth mindset, and literacy development.


  1. Donna Nichols says:

    I completely agree. Our students need the ability to learn, problem solve and critical think. Those are the skills that STEM education fosters.

    • carolina says:

      So true! sometimes they lack it because we are in such a hurry to go on to the next thing that we do not give them enough time to absorb what they learn.

      • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

        Absolutely. I am working through the Mayo Guide to Stress Free Living (two thumbs up/five stars/excellent read). We are rapidly losing our ability to focus and to concentrate. Our brains are attuned to 100+ tasks at any given moment. We must be purposeful in lingering a while with a concept and hanging out with a project for a bit longer. Time to focus gives students time to absorb. Excellent comment. Thank you for posting.

  2. Carly Schwartz says:

    Although not required by our state, I integrate engineering and math activities in my science lessons. Example. Force and Motion. In addition to discussing the science, my students work in teams to design an airplane that slides over a straw to be projected. Limitations such as paper size and tape amount are included. Students test and measure (math) the distance of their flight. As part of the engineering process they get to improve upon their designs. We also graph the range of flights tested. That said, I’ve had to work extra hard to develop lesson plans that meet state standards in science but exceed in engineering. With all the time we spend on testing, doing hands-on lessons are a challenge. Reading and testing from lessons in a book would be so much easier to deliver. I do feel the stress of allowing the students time to explore, collaborate, and create when testing mandates take away from my teaching time and I’m expected to keep up with a pacing guide and a grading system that doesn’t fit my style of teaching. I’ve yet to get in trouble for not entering enough grades and my testing scores are strong, so I plan to continue providing students with engineering opportunities that develop their social, emotional, and academic abilities.

  3. carol roberts says:

    Awesome article!

  4. D. Maza says:

    The old saying “think outside of the box”. I think sometimes our students don’t realize just how much they do know. We have to stimulate to think further… Sometimes with just a little guidance and a little encouragement, they can problem solve and think more critically. We have to build their confidence (and stamina as the article suggested) to do this.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      You make a critical point, D. Maza. Students must have time to understand what they know. The brain continually builds connections between what we know and what is new. Brilliant teachers introduce new concepts by guiding students to tap into existing schema (concepts). In a recent meeting where Dylan Wilaim was leading a discussion, he stated that learning all comes down to reading and to prior knowledge. Interesting. Stay brilliant and keep taking to everyone about tapping into prior knowledge.

  5. Rita Platt says:

    Great food for thought! I really hadn’t thought about stamina in quite this way before.

  6. Renee Graham says:

    My second graders think they will have to solve problems with pollution. They think they will have to find ways to keep our Earth clean. We have been discussing how we can do our part to help, even as second graders. One of my students would like to recycle our paper. I can help by encouraging them to come up with ways they can begin to help with this problem.

  7. Lloyd says:

    I like the concept of just asking another question, or pushing just a little bit farther.

  8. Sarah Swanzy says:

    STEM activities are amazing! Awesome article.

  9. Amber says:

    Great article. Our school incorporates STEM in our Demon Den time. D3 students get to choose a nine weeks project that allows them to learn a new technology by creating something new. The kids really enjoy learning something new on their own with help from teachers and use higher order thinking skills to complete their projects.

  10. Hillary Cox says:

    So many students want the answers given to them. We need to spend time giving them time to think and solve their own problems. Teaching students that not all problems or questions have immediate answers will help them with school and in life.

  11. P R says:

    When students feel that their ideas matter and might just help the world, they are more apt to attempt problem solving that they would most not likely attempt in other situations. They need to feel that their thoughts and ideas matter and just might help us all. Also, with this newfound feeling of acceptance, they are building higher order thinking skills.

  12. Fatima Peters says:

    My school has done an amazing job with offering an after school STEM club and the students love it!!!!

  13. David Keech says:

    Our 7th grade math classes have introduced Genius Hour, time when students can explore topics of interest and present to the class, and are largely tied to science. Students are also required to connect to our culture and daily lives. STEM connections are part of all we do.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Wow, David. This is amazing. My colleagues and I are exploring personalized learning. It requires relevance and some autonomy in what they learn. This is a pathway to personalization.

  14. Virginia D. Wiedenfeld, M.Ed. says:

    Stamina is so important to any problem solving. I appreciate how STEMS is integrating science and math into real world solutions!

  15. Virginia Travis says:

    We love STEM activities! This was a great article!

  16. Laura says:

    My second Grade Students love it when we have a STEAM day. I pick a topic and we complete STEAM activities for the whole day. We did bats in October, making Pumpkins in November, the colors of a rainbow/color wheel in December. Now in January Static Electricity, and February Healthy Hearts. My class thinks it is a”prize or award” (even though it isn’t) and look forward to these special days

  17. KElsie says:

    As important it is for students to learn facts and figures, they need to learn how to problem solve and come up with different solutions. They need to know that there is not always only one right answers but many right answers to a problem. My students love STEM activities and I try to incorporate them as often as I can

  18. Kathy Krupa says:

    I believe it is very important in today’s world for students to learn how to problem solve. This is where STEM can take them. This is probably where some of the difficulty lies with students because we haven’t readied our students for that type of curriculum.