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What does STEM stand for?

At a glance

  • The National Science Foundation in 2001 introduced the term STEM, which stands for “science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”
  • STEM degree programs vary by discipline and can lead you down a number of different career paths.
  • Arts and humanities play an important role in STEM career, and thus the term “STEAM” was born, adding art into the disciplines.
  • University of Phoenix (UOPX) offers degrees in STEM and STEAM fields. 


What is STEM?

If you’ve researched potential degrees or careers, chances are good you’ve come across “STEM.” This acronym covers a wide range of disciplines and curriculum, especially science and math.

If you’re asking yourself, “What does STEM stand for?” or “What does STEM mean for me and my education?” then you’ve come to the right article.

Here’s what we’ll be covering:

  • STEM and STEAM meaning
  • The main STEM disciplines
  • Common STEM majors
  • STEM and STEAM education and careers

What does STEM stand for?

As a term, STEM was introduced in 2001 by the National Science Foundation and has since grown into popular use. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. While each of these educational disciplines can be broken down into more specific areas and curricula, they have many aspects in common.

For example, all four disciplines focus on analytical approaches to objective, real-world problem-solving. STEM education isn’t focused on poetry or the unanswerable quandaries of philosophy, but on concrete questions with right or wrong answers.

That’s not to say that each of these disciplines follows the same path. A mathematics curriculum might approach a given problem through the lens of equations while engineering uses a practical experiment to come to the same conclusion. Understanding which approach most appeals to you can be an important part of choosing your path in STEM.

What are STEM fields?

We’ll break down below the specifics of each STEM field, which should help answer the question, “What does STEM mean?”


In the context of STEM, science refers to disciplines that describe natural phenomena, also known as the natural sciences. This would include subjects like chemistry, biology, environmental science and physics. Social sciences, like psychology or economics, are not included in the STEM meaning of science.


Chances are you’re reading this blog on a computer, tablet or phone. This would not be possible without students of technology expanding what is possible through innovation.

In STEM, technology includes disciplines like computer science, web development, medical tech and a lot more. Technology also presents a number of security concerns, which is why students pursue a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity to address potential threats.


Engineering is the experimental work that goes into making technology possible. What does that mean exactly? A mechanical engineer probably designed the machinery inside of the car you drove to work, for example. Engineers are responsible for testing, analyzing and improving designs for technologies that we use every day. 


Math forms the basis for work in science, technology and engineering. It can be separated into “pure mathematics” and “applied mathematics.” Pure math focuses on the development of new mathematical concepts on the level of numbers and equations. This would include disciplines like algebra, calculus and geometry.

Applied mathematics, meanwhile, refers to math that’s developed for practical applications. Statistics, data science and theoretical physics, for instance, are mathematical fields that largely attempt to solve specific, real-world problems.

It’s important to remember that in any given discipline there’s a lot of crossover between STEM fields. Many curricula borrow aspects from each discipline to lesser or greater degrees. Together, however, they form the meaning of STEM!

What are STEM majors?

Though you may have a general interest in STEM fields, your choice of major will likely emphasize one or another STEM discipline. Pursuing a Master of Cybersecurity or Master of Information Systems, for example, will likely put you in contact more with technology and engineering than mathematics or science.

Here are some common majors, broken down by discipline:


  • Materials science
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics


  • Software development
  • Database management
  • Computer programming


  • Computer engineering
  • Aerospace engineering
  • Petroleum engineering
  • Nuclear engineering


  • Statistics
  • Actuarial mathematics
  • General mathematics

This list isn’t exhaustive, but it makes for a good bird’s-eye view of the educational paths available in STEM.

Why is STEM important?

We’ll answer this question in two parts. First, let’s cover what STEM means to the world at large.

Innovations made in STEM fields have defined nearly every aspect of modern life, from the cars you see on the road to the medical technology that saves lives every day. None of this would be possible without the committed study and effort of individuals in STEM disciplines.

Every innovation is built on one that came before it. Though it may be hard to see what one new discovery means in the grand scheme of things, it leads to and may even enable another discovery that completely upends the way our world works. It took several centuries of scientific study and experimentation for engineers like Thomas Edison to light up the world.

This speaks to how STEM disciplines affect and influence each other. It may take years of mathematical or scientific questioning to create a firm basis for a technological application. Understanding what STEM means helps us appreciate the intellectual determination that makes modern life possible.

Secondly, and maybe more importantly to you, let’s talk about why STEM is important in education.

STEM degrees can prepare you for a variety of jobs in the technology field. For example, wondering what you can do with a Computer Science degree? Job options range from data analyst to software developer. Most business owners understand that cutting-edge IT skills can translate to a competitive edge. Such skills might mean the difference between a new product that blows away the competition and losing customers to another company’s superior offering.

Making new products isn’t even the half of it, however, when it comes to STEM’s usefulness in business. Just maintaining a proper data center to handle day-to-day business requires a lot of experience. (And this is only the beginning of what you can do with an information technology degree!)

Popular STEM careers

Wondering how else that STEM degree can be put to use? Check out these popular STEM careers, based on information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Job National median salary range Education requirements 2020 Employment
National median salary range $103,380 Education requirements Bachelor’s degree 2020 Employment 167,100
National median salary range $85,290 Education requirements Bachelor’s degree 2020 Employment 46,200
National median salary range $88,570 Education requirements Bachelor’s degree 2020 Employment 309,800
National median salary range $89,190 Education requirements Bachelor’s degree 2020 Employment 185,700
National median salary range $129,850 Education requirements Doctorate, post-doc 2020 Employment 17,400
National median salary range $98,230 Education requirements Bachelor’s degree 2020 Employment 63,200
National median salary range $92,270 Education requirements Master’s degree 2020 Employment 42,000
National median salary range $90,160 Education requirements Bachelor’s/master’s degree 2020 Employment 299,200

The salary ranges are not specific to students or graduates of University of Phoenix. Actual outcomes vary based on multiple factors, including prior work experience, geographic location and other factors specific to the individual. University of Phoenix does not guarantee employment, salary level or career advancement. BLS data is geographically based. Information for a specific state/city can be researched on the BLS website.

How can I get started in my STEM career?

If all this sounds exciting to you, and you feel ready to start your career in STEM, then the best course of action is to pursue a STEM education. Degree programs prove to potential employers that you have the essential STEM knowledge that is a prerequisite in STEM-related fields.

What certificate or degree program you choose will depend on your interests and skill sets. A Bachelor of Science in Cybersecurity, for instance, is perfect for anyone looking for an exciting career where you can learn ways to protect data from cyberthreats. Looking to learn about how to save the planet and reverse ecological harm? Then a program in Environmental Science may be more your speed.

People want different things from their education, which is why many schools offer certificate programs, in addition to traditional degrees. These programs are often shorter and focus on a specific interest but can cost less in tuition and be completed in a shorter time.

Earning your Cloud Computing Certificate, for instance, is a great supplement to education you might have already achieved. These programs demonstrate your knowledge of a specific skill set. Just the thing to help stand out from the rest!

If you’re interested in a STEM career, UOPX offers associate degree, bachelor’s degree and certificate offerings in a variety of technology fields, as well as programs that incorporate STEM into their curriculum. Visit to learn more!

What about the humanities?

Just because you have an interest in STEM (we assume you do since you’re this far into the article), does that mean you have to give up on other pursuits? The humanities, which include everything from philosophy to anthropology to literature, might be an important part of who you are as a person too.

That’s why many in education have advocated for the inclusion of the arts in STEM education. And so the acronym STEAM was born!

Arts and humanities play an important part in many STEM careers. It’s one thing, for instance, to design a phone that’s more functional than the rest. Yet that phone may not sell as well without an attractive design that resonates with potential customers.

STEM fields help us find concrete answers to difficult questions; yet many problems do not have clear-cut solutions. Engineers working with self-driving cars, for example, have to reckon with difficult philosophical decision-making when designing these vehicles. If a self-driving car is about to hit a pedestrian, should it steer off the road, harming the driver but sparing the pedestrian? It’s not a question that can be answered through mathematical equations or clever engineering.

It’s to address problems like these that the humanities have been integrated into STEM education. The arts help workers in STEM fields figure out issues of subjectivity when objectivity won’t cut it.

Understanding what STEM means, and how it figures into your education, can help you figure out the educational path that’s right for you. Do you like working with computers to solve day-to-day business problems? Then an online IT degree might be a great choice. Maybe you’d rather work out complex theoretical equations and discover the secrets of the universe. Get started with an introductory course in calculus.

Wherever you are in your educational journey, and wherever your interests lie, there’s a STEM path for you!

Women have their own take on STEM. Check out how women working in tech overcome challenges to succeed.

Get started in your STEM journey with a technology degree from University of Phoenix!