Powerful Student Learning Through STEM and CTE Partnerships

By Anne Jolly


Every student deserves to go into the world with confidence and aptitudes needed to face a new life filled with opportunities. As 2018 rolls out, educators are still asking: How will we accomplish that? How can we inspire our students and equip them with the mindsets, habits, flexibility, and skills they need to be successful?

So the new year finds educators and others busily designing STEM programs and curriculum to get more students ready for the job-friendly fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. We look for ways to make STEM more effective and available to more students.

One area that’s often absent from this STEM conversation is Career & Technical Education (CTE.)  I confess to once thinking that CTE courses focused only on the skilled trades – carpenters, welders, assemblers, machinists, electricians, and service technicians, for example. (These skilled trades are certainly a significant part of our economy, and they are among the hardest jobs to fill in the United States. We need our schools to continue turning out a well-trained workforce with these skills.)

But today’s CTE focuses on a lot more than skilled trades. For an astonishing eye-opener about state-of-the-art CTE programs, take a glance at three sites: Start with this presentation by an award-winning school: High Point Regional High School in New Jersey. Then check out the Lynchburg City School CTE Courses.  The CTE Essential Standards for the state of North Carolina provides program and course descriptions for a power-packed CTE curriculum.  You can quickly locate others by doing a Web search. And the thing to note is that all of these CTE programs are packed with coursework connections to STEM fields.

For example, courses you’ll run across include healthcare occupations, agriculture, architectural design and drafting, biotechnology, construction, transportation, media technology, communications, engineering design, materials processing, and information technology.  Sound familiar? STEM focuses prepare students for those same areas, among others.  One thing is for sure – CTE needs to be a key player in designing robust STEM curriculum. High schools with progressive CTE programs are in a position to act as a delivery system for many STEM competencies.

But what about CTE in middle schools? As a former middle school teacher, I pondered over what was happening for our middle-level students. Another web search and many mouse clicks later I discovered that middle schools are also broadening their CTE offerings. In fact, current middle-level CTE offerings range from STEM career awareness to exploring biotechnology in agriculture, coding, technological design and innovation, engineering design and modeling. Some middle schools even actively specify a STEM connection and their CTE course(s) focus on integrating science, technology, math, and engineering. You can check out Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia for an impressive middle school CTE program.

Personally, I’m sold on the idea.  STEM and CTE certainly seem like a sensible, workable partnership. Although CTE and STEM strategies and practices don’t totally align, CTE programs provide a strong foundation for STEM competencies and skills.

Consider these ways that CTE and STEM match up at both middle and high school.

  1. Both programs use a hands-on instructional approach. Keep in mind that STEM instruction is inquiry-based. STEM teachers don’t give students a prescribed set of steps or a pattern to follow when designing solutions. That’s not always true in CTE, when kids often need explicit instructions on how to manage specific technologies. But students can then apply that technological expertise to help with solving real-world problems.


  1. Both CTE and STEM apply relevant math and science to authentic situations. To work in partnership, CTE and STEM teachers must make intentional math/science connections between their subject areas. What math and science do students need to know for CTE projects, and how can STEM teachers help? What math and science are students working with in STEM projects and how can CTE teachers reinforce this? Teacher collaboration and joint planning determine whether students see relevance and connections that strengthen their math and science mastery.


  1. CTE and STEM foster many of the same personal qualities and soft skills. Consider some of the target skills listed in the document, CTE Is Your STEM Strategy.
    • Be a responsible and contributing citizen and employee.
    • Communicate clearly, effectively, and thoughtfully.
    • Consider the environmental, social and economic impacts of decisions.
    • Be creative and innovative.
    • Use critical thinking to make sense of problems and persist in solving them.
    • Be ethical, show integrity, and manage effectively.
    • Work productively in teams.

Bingo! These qualities dovetail with STEM goals. Students will have expanded opportunities to reinforce the same interpersonal qualities in both CTE and in STEM.


  1. CTE builds a comfort level with technology. CTE students come technology-ready and are generally comfortable handling materials and creating prototypes. They can be leaders teams of students charged with solving an engineering problem by building prototypes and using technology.


  1. CTE actively pursues diverse groups of students. CTE can provide an entry point and an introduction to STEM competencies and skills for students who are traditionally underserved in our schools. That’s important. The 2018 PEW Research Center survey finds that gender, race, and ethnicity can be an impediment to STEM career success.  Obviously, promoting diversity in the STEM workplace is still a work in progress. But because of the close connections with STEM, CTE courses can play a significant role in increasing the diversity of the STEM workforce.


The bottom line: If you’re looking for a STEM partner in your school or district, you may already have one – right in your school. Check out your CTE program. Intentionally and deliberately coordinate these programs to provide a powerful STEM strategy and powerful student learning.



Anne Jolly is a STEM consultant, MiddleWeb blogger, and online community organizer for the Center for Teaching Quality. She began her career as a middle school science teacher in Mobile County Schools in Alabama and is a former Alabama State Teacher of the Year. Anne has recently co-developed nationally recognized STEM curriculum with support from the National Science Foundation. She writes for a variety of publications. Her most recent book, STEM by Design, is published by Routledge Press. Find her regularly on Twitter @ajollygal, on her blog at MiddleWeb, and on her STEM by Design website


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