Growing Early STEM Talent: An Imperative for Increased Tertiary STEM Enrolment

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Growing Early STEM Talent: An Imperative for Increased Tertiary STEM Enrolment

Author: Novlet Alicia Plunkett

The term Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) has been in the public sphere for over 15 years, with initiatives designed across different countries to increase literacy in this area. Despite the efforts, significant progress with STEM has been hindered due, in part, to the absence of a clear understanding of what STEM is, and the varied definitions that exist. It is believed that existence of the varying perspectives on STEM is as a result of the wide variety of individuals and groups with an interest in the area, and the differing roles they play in schools, institutions of higher education, industries, government and the wider society (Breiner, Harkness, Johnson & Kochler, 2012). These stakeholders have a tendency to define STEM from the perspective of its impact on their lives. For the purpose of this discourse, the operational definition on STEM education, outlined below, will be used.

STEM education is an interdisciplinary approach to learning that removes the traditional barriers separating the four disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics and integrates them into real-world, rigorous and relevant learning experiences for students. (Vasquez, Sneider & Comer, 2013, p. 4).

Regardless of one’s perspective on STEM education, the concepts real-world, rigorous and relevant should not be omitted from any STEM-focused or STEM-related learning experiences provided to students. STEM integrates the four disciplines into a cohesive learning model based on real-world applications.

Why STEM Education?

Despite the varied understandings of its meaning, the importance of STEM to the economic growth of a nation is widely accepted. STEM education has been the focal point of many research efforts, because it is perceived as essential to a country’s ability to respond to a global environment, produce a competent 21st century workforce and continue to create innovations that contribute to quality of life. It is the “scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians who will create the new ideas, products, and entirely new industries of the 21st century” (The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2010). It is reported by Australia’s Chief Scientist that, in the last 50 years, STEM advances have produced approximately 65% of Australia’s economic growth per capita and that, internationally, 75% of the fastest growing occupations now require STEM skills (Reid, 2014).  It is of little wonder, therefore, that the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information (MOEYI) in Jamaica has identified increasing tertiary STEM enrolment as a national imperative (Bernard, 2017). This position taken by the MOEYI is quite apt, at this time, as it represents recognition of the urgent need to increase the level of innovation and critical thinking needed for future careers and economic advancement in Jamaica. How, then, do we ensure that this goal is realized and sustained?

Growing Early STEM Talent

Making a choice to pursue any field of study at the tertiary level is, more often than not, based on one’s strong interest or high level of competence in the particular area or a related field. This interest may have been nurtured over many years, contributing to the enhancement of the individual’s knowledge and skills in the area and the desire to pursue as a career option. It may follow, therefore, that a significant component of the thrust to increase tertiary STEM enrolment should be the development and nurturing of interest and talent in STEM from an early stage.

Research indicates that students often lose interest in science as they progress through the elementary grades (Potvin & Hasni, 2014). By Grade 5 some students have either stopped listening or do not believe they have what it takes to be successful in science (Murphy, 2011). This unfortunate situation exists in the Jamaican context. It is most unfortunate because children at the primary level enter school already possessing the ability to learn science concepts and principles and are at a level of intellectual curiosity and cognitive development where they can handle rigors of STEM. Nurturing this level of curiosity and interest with the appropriate experiences would serve to pique children’s interest and motivation, which is the first step towards developing competence. The appropriate experiences also increase students’ confidence and self-efficacy in relation to their own abilities to be successful in more advanced math and science courses in later school years (DeJarnette, 2012), thereby increasing their likelihood of choosing to pursue careers and future study in STEM.

The Importance of Mathematics and Science

Scientific and mathematical knowledge are essential to modern existence and are the foundations of STEM Education (The Royal Society, 2014). Mathematics and science are therefore at the centre of skills needed for the development of a 21st century workforce and economic advancement. The results of the Grade Six Achievement Test, administered by the MOEYI, reveal that many primary level students are performing below acceptable standards in mathematics and science. Data shows that, over the period 2010 – 2014, the national average grade achieved for science, in the GSAT examination, ranged from 60% to 68% (MOE, 2013).  Over the past five years (2014 – 2017) the average national mathematics grade achieved by students in GSAT ranged from 60% to 62%. The improvement in mathematics achievement at the primary level has been largely due to efforts of the National Mathematics Team consisting of coordinators, specialists and coaches, providing targeted on-the-ground support to teachers and students.  Though this data indicates some level of success, there is much room for improvement of performance in mathematics and science, the two STEM disciplines that students at the primary level encounter most frequently. Continued improvement may result in a change in the existing picture indicating a disproportionate number of students pursuing STEM areas in further study, as compared with the Social Sciences (University of the West Indies, n.d.).

Early Stage STEM Immersion

The National Standards Curriculum Framework promotes the use of STEM methodologies such as inquiry-based instruction and project-based learning in curriculum delivery, across the subject areas (Ministry of Education , n.d.). The MOEYI curriculum team has been engaged in the training of teachers across the island, in an effort to develop their 21st century skills and competencies and equip them to facilitate same in their classrooms. Additional activities, aimed at developing and nurturing STEM talent and interest through immersion in STEM experiences at the primary level would, however, serve to strengthen the efforts already being made.

The Arizona STEM Network (2017) proposes four models which may be used in immersing primary level students in meaningful STEM education. Two of the models are outlined below. I suggest an adoption of those aspects that are not yet in place, across public primary schools in Jamaica.

Exploratory Model

This describes the addition of STEM-related extra-curricular opportunities offered to students, in addition to the regular school day. Experiences provided to students may include the following:

  • Robotics Clubs
  • Summer STEM programmes
  • STEM field trips
  • Video production clubs

The success of this model will require an identification of STEM as a priority and the provision of various levels of support to schools. Training and preparation of members of staff to undertake responsibilities for these specific types of programmes, as additional duties, is one critical area for support in this model.

Introductory Model

In this model, STEM-related experiences are offered in addition to the current curriculum during the regular school day. The experiences provided may include the following:

  • Inter-disciplinary planning
  • Delivery of integrated STEM units (including problem and project-based instruction)
  • Supplemental stand-alone units offered through industry partnerships
  • Product development
  • Maintenance of contact with family and at least one family integrated activity

The Role of Teachers

Increasing primary level students’ interest in STEM as well as their knowledge and understanding of STEM disciplines is heavily reliant on the effectiveness of teachers. Students’ ability to think scientifically, engage in inquiry and understand STEM content is dependent on their teachers’ ability to facilitate the development of STEM knowledge in the classroom (DeJarnett, 2012). The deficiencies of primary level teachers in STEM disciplines, let alone, the integration of these areas, have been long documented. Researchers identify the lack of rigor in primary level teacher preparation mathematics and science courses and the failure of these programs to develop teachers’ knowledge, understanding and attitudes towards STEM as a major contributing factor to the lack of the “relevant discipline and pedagogical expertise” for STEM (Bencze, 2010, p.44; Epstein & Miller, 2011).

The significant role of teachers in developing and nurturing students’ interest and abilities in STEM also make them critical to the goal of increasing tertiary STEM enrolment. Pre- and in-service teacher education should therefore be a major component of the plans to achieve this goal. These programmes should include aspects of the Exploratory and Introductory STEM Immersion models, along with more rigorous science and mathematics preparation, to ensure that graduates from these programmes are adequately equipped to provide meaningful STEM experiences to students. This adjustment to practice will require on-going support from the government and private organizations.

In the meantime, teachers already in the system must benefit from meaningful professional development (PD) opportunities. In the Jamaican context, professional development activities are often organized to treat particular needs that arise in given periods. It is important to note however, that, in planning professional development for STEM disciplines and integrated STEM education, focus must be placed on the quality of the experience as well as the duration (Plunkett, 2016). PD which focuses on scientific inquiry is essential for primary level teachers. In addition, extensive and intensive PD is more effective, along with frequent in-school follow-up support, as opposed to one-shot attempts from which primary level teachers derive little benefit.


Increasing tertiary STEM enrolment is a relevant and timely goal for any education system today. This should, however, be coupled with deliberate plans to cultivate STEM talent and interest at an early stage. Research conducted on this issue across different jurisdictions indicates that efforts must begin early. Providing STEM scholarships at the tertiary level may reap marginal benefits in the short-term. Placing focus on the early years promises more long-term gains and sustainability.


Arizona STEM Network. (2017). The STEM immersion guide. Retrieved from stemguide.sfaz.org

Bencze, J.L. (2010). Promoting student-led science and technology projects in elementary teacher education: entry into core pedagogical practices through technological design. International Journal of Technology and Design Education, 20, 43-62.

Bernard, D. (2017). Key Leadership challenges for present and future executives. National College for Educational Leadership Webinar Series. Retrieved from www.youtube.com

Breiner, J.M., Harkness, S.S., Johnson, C.C. & Koehler, C.M. (2012). What is STEM? A discussion about conceptions of STEM in education and partnerships. School Science and Mathematics, 112(1), 3-11.

Dejarnette, N.K. (2012). America’s children: providing early exposure to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) initiatives. Education, 133(1),77-84. Retrieved from http://www.questia.com/library/journal/

Ministry of Education. (2013). National mathematics policy guidelines. Ministry of Education: Jamaica

Ministry of Education. (n.d.). National curriculum pilot 2014-2016. Retrieved from http://sites.google.com/moey.gov.jm/curriculumpilot2014-2016

Murphy, T. (2011, August 29). STEM education – it’s elementary. US News. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com

Plunkett, N.A. (2016).  Assessing the role of professional development in PK-8 STEM education. The Mico University College Journal of Education, 7, 1-14.

Potvin, P. & Hasni, A. (2014). Analysis of the decline in interest towards school science and technology from grades 5 through 11. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 23(6), 784-802.

Read, L. (2014). Science, technology, engineering and mathematics: Australia’s future. Retrieved from www.sata.asn.au

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. (2010). Prepare and inspire: K-12 education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) for America’s future. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov

The Royal Society. (2014). Vision for science and mathematics education. Retrieved from www.royalsociety.org/vision

University of the West Indies. (n.d.). Academic profile of students. Retrieved from http://www.mona.uwi.edu/opair/profile/academicprofile

Vasquez, J.A., Sneider, C. & Comer, M. (2013). Grades 3 – 8 STEM lesson essentials: Integrating science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


Profile of Writer

Dr. Novlet Plunkett serves as an Institutional Monitoring Officer at the Jamaica Tertiary Education Commission with primary responsibility for institutional support for teacher education. She previously served as Head of the Department of Mathematics at The Mico University College, Regional Mathematics Coordinator for the Ministry of Education’s, Education Transformation Team, and Head of Mathematics Department at St. Andrew High School for Girls. Dr Plunkett holds a Doctor of Education degree in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education from the Nova Southeastern University. In her doctoral research she examined The Relationship between Teacher Self-Efficacy and STEM Instructional Practices of Primary Teachers in Jamaican Classrooms. Dr. Plunkett is also a graduate of the Central Connecticut State University where she earned a Master of Science degree in Educational Leadership with distinction, The University of the West Indies, Mona, where she earned a Bachelor of Education degree in Mathematics Education with First Class Honours and Mico Teachers’ College.




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