Is STEM just a rebranding of PBL?

Problem-based, Project-based or Challenge-based learning have been popular teaching strategies for several decades. What differentiates them from other methods is the elements of self-directed discovery, inquiry and hands-on nature that many students find engaging . In addition, PBL allows students to develop personal and social capabilities (leadership, teamwork and communication) and critical and creative thinking skills. While all good STEM education activities should be PBL, not all PBL includes the rigorous content knowledge that categorizes effective STEM projects.

As noted by the NSW Department of Education, STEM education provides students with opportunities to organise and connect information across disciplines and contexts. The self-directed nature of PBL can provide a high level of interest and motivation, giving students choices about how and what they learn.

To develop fluency and automaticity, students must acquire component skills, practise integrating them and know when to apply what they have learned – students learn skills and knowledge necessary to perform complex tasks, integrating them to develop fluency. STEM immerses students in the application and integration of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

There are many so-called STEM challenges that students can complete without understanding the principles behind the task and end product. For example, building a spaghetti tower to support a marshmallow is often used as quick classroom activity to engage students and encourage problem solving and teamwork. Experienced teachers with science knowledge will suggest that students think about other tall structures and how they are made and ask students about the forces involved and the characteristics of the materials used. Such questioning prompts students to make comparisons and transfer their knowledge between contexts.

Effective STEM education also gives students the opportunity to use the same basic process, often called design thinking, multiple times over the school year, so students have opportunities to develop a set of specific skills – research, planning, creating, evaluating, improving and communicating. These skills are transferable across many disciplines and have parallels to the scientific method, the engineering design process, environmental management systems and the action-research cycle. While each step in the process is required to complete the production of an artefact, not all steps need to be taught explicitly or assessed after each project.  Which parts of the process need to be focused on for explicit teaching and assessment depends on the learning needs of students, the success criteria defined by the teacher and the school context. If a particular project is part of the first term curriculum, then it may be useful to focus on the research and planning phases, while evaluation and communication may come later.

Some teachers argue that STEM is not assessed and reported against, so it is not possible to fit STEM learning into an already ‘over-crowded’ curriculum. However, I believe STEM is a way that multiple areas of the curriculum can be addressed using one activity . By providing an authentic problem that can be solved using science, technology or maths knowledge, students have the opportunity to investigate several areas of the curriculum simultaneously . However, it is important that the teacher incorporates some direct instruction and monitor that students have understood specific concepts, so that they are ready to apply that knowledge in context.

STEM programs are an alternative method of delivering the curriculum, not compromising or adding to the existing curriculum.

So, while STEM has become an often-used acronym, PBL is not new to schools and many teachers have been successfully integrating Science, Technology and Mathematics learning for decades. The reason STEM has become a focus in recent years is due to the focus of government and industry on filling future science, technology, engineering and mathematics positions with suitably trained employees. As educators, I believe our responsibility is to assist students to find their passions by providing them with many different opportunities for learning. STEM education is a way we can achieve this while addressing multiple curriculum outcomes in several key learning areas.


“STEM – we know what it stands for, but what does it mean?” by Byron Scaf, published Education HQ Australia, 19 June 2017

“Planning STEM projects – Integrated STEM in primary and secondary schools” by NSW Department of Education

“Principles of STEM education” by NSW Department of Education

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *