Since the start of the twenty-first century, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education has been dedicated to meeting future workforce demands and reinforcing the nation’s core competitiveness in the global arena (Ritchie, 2019). Accordingly, STEM has risen to a national strategic level in major developed countries. For instance, as the origin of STEM education, US governments have long prioritized STEM education (e.g., U.S. Department of Education, 2008; U.S. Department of Education, 2015). In addition, the Australian government has progressed from implementing STEM education in certain states (e.g., Queensland) to establishing a national policy since 2013 (Australian Industry Group, 2013). Like many other nations, China has also embraced STEM education due to industrial policies around innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship since 2011 (Aziz and Rowland, 2018; Lyu et al., 2022). Challenges such as insufficient capacity in fundamental industries, absence of major original innovations, and stagnation of key technologies are weakening China’s global Competitiveness (Huang, Audretsch, and Hewitt, 2013). In this setting, high-quality STEM education has become an essential means of cultivating scientific and technological talents with high-level thinking skills to highlight the connection between curriculum and labor market (Zhong et al., 2022). In the past decade, China has made some headway in exploring the practical paths of STEM education in response to the national and social demands (Dong et al., 2020). However, many problems remain, typically represented by the sharp contrast between the stagnation of STEM education and the governmental emphasis on science and technology revitalization strategy. In this regard, the crucial causes and approaches to break through these problems would be addressed in this article.

Achievement and insufficient actions

Proudly, China has gained significant theoretical and practical achievements in STEM education in the past decade. Except the trend continued with international publication (Li, 2020), STEM-related topics abound in diverse Chinese educational academic conferences and journals, and scholars’ enthusiasm for STEM education has expanded to all school stages (Fig. 1). Especially in primary and secondary schools, substantial research and practical exploration have been conducted.

Fig. 1: The number of empirical studies on STEM/STEAM covered in different school stages from 2011 to 2021 (data extracted from CNKI).
figure 1

STEM topics abound in diverse Chinese educational academic conferences and journals covering all school stages. Especially in primary and secondary schools, substantial research and practical exploration have been conducted.

Meanwhile, various academic platforms have been established to promote STEM education. For instance, the “STEM Education Alliance of Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area” was founded in 2016 by the China Education Information Industry Innovation Platform. Since its establishment, around 30 Greater Bay Area schools (including Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, and Macau, etc.) have performed STEM education practices to prepare for the future development of localized curriculum. In the next year, the National Institute of Education Sciences (NIES), an academic institute affiliated to the Chinese Ministry of Education, established the STEM Education Research Center. It undertakes four basic functions, including: (1) providing decision-making for the Ministry of Education; (2) enriching the theoretical system of STEM education; (3) promoting the practice of STEM education; and (4) constructing a collaborative mechanism for STEM education. As a new form of research team, the SIG-MIE (Special Interest Group-Maker and Interdisciplinary Education) was launched in 2022 by the Information Technology Education Professional Committee of China Association for Educational Technology. SIG-MIE aims to continuously improve the local development of Maker education and Interdisciplinary education through research design and iterative practice. Additionally, a large group of universities have set up relevant research institutes and curricula, such as the STEM Education Research Center administrated by South China Normal University.

Although there is no specific policy in the national level, the Chinese government has encouraged relevant actions to make STEM education a new teaching model. For instance, the “13th Five-Year Plan for Educational Informatization” released by the Ministry of Education in 2016 claimed to develop new educational models such as makerspaces, interdisciplinary learning (STEAM education), and maker education” (Ministry of Education of China, 2016). Subsequently, some provinces have also issued relevant plans to promote STEM education, such as the “Jiangsu Provincial Basic Education STEM Curriculum Guidance (Trial)” proposed in September 2018.

However, the Chinese government prefers to employ indigenous terminology in relation to STEM education. For instance, the terms “New Engineering” (Ministry of Education of China, 2017), “New Liberal Arts” (Ministry of Education of China, 2021) and “New Teacher Training” (Ministry of Education of China, 2018) are frequently mentioned in higher education reform launched by Ministry of Education in China. Additionally, terms like Comprehensive Practical Activities, Integration of Information Technology and Disciplines, Integration of Five Educational Fields (IFEF), and Interdisciplinary Education/Interdisciplinary Learning are frequently adopted in K-12 education (Zhong and Liu, 2022). Some teachers and educational administrators are easily confused by these similar concepts, which could lead to be off-target with STEM education initiatives. Consequently, the inconsistency of terminology risks leading to misuse of the STEM label. Worse still, two important government departments (i.e., Ministry of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security) in China have not yet considered adding STEM-related indicators to their census.

Thankfully, China keeps investigating and absorbing international experience in recent years. For instance, in 2017, the NIES released the “China STEM Education White Paper”. Meanwhile, the Education Management Information Center of the Ministry of Education issued the “Report on the Development of STEAM Education in China”. Coincidentally, both reports took typical countries (e.g., the US, UK, Germany, etc.) as examples to sort out the international background and trends of STEM education, then analyzed the current state of STEM education in China. More importantly, the “China STEM Education 2029 Innovation Action Plan”, presented in the “China STEM Education White Paper”, established a vision of STEM education for the following decade in response to China’s national conditions. Unfortunately, with the lack of national development strategies, social linkage mechanisms, and faculty training guidelines, STEM curriculum development and talent training in China are still in the initial stages. Meanwhile, cultural and social inclusion should be systematically incorporated into STEM education to diversify science (Davis et al., 2020; Johnson, 2007). In this vein, the significant opportunity gaps suffered by vulnerable groups (e.g., ethnic minorities, low-income group, disabled, LGBTQ, etc.) in pursuing STEM programs or employment should be addressed (Chirikov et al., 2020; Forrester, 2020), which also requires nation-level supports. Given that STEM education is a priority of educational and scientific reform with international consensus in the twenty-first century, China deserves to do more. The disorder of Chinese STEM-related actions urges a top-level design in the government level.


Above, we have outlined the major problems of STEM education in China. This section will explore the primary contributors of the problems, which are also the fundamental challenges confronted by STEM education in China.

The dilemma of cultural conflict and international exchange

As we all know, the concept of STEM education has initiated from the US with the intention of resolving concerns such as the technological competitiveness and manufacturing woes, and its evolution was determined by multiple factors such as national economy, politics and culture. With the backing of the entire society, the US has established an integrated and comprehensive model for STEM education development, which has propelled reforms in curriculum, evaluation, teacher education, and higher education (Ross et al., 2022). Historically influenced by traditional Confucian culture, Chinese educational systems have typically advocated teacher-directed learning rather than the student-centered learning emphasized in the US (Davis et al., 2020; Lyu et al., 2022). Given this, a direct copy of the US model in China may not reach desired effects. Actually, it has generated many problems including misusing the STEM label, which indicates the demand for a localized STEM education paradigm tailored to the national conditions and educational characteristics.

Since 1949, China has undertaken eight educational reforms to learn from the international community. As brilliant as the political, economic and military achievements have been, education has also made great strides. This is evidenced by the outstanding performance of Chinese students in the PISA tests. Indeed, China has also been pursuing its own educational paradigm and development path. Especially in this new era, China is demanding more independent and autonomous educational concepts, methods and ideas. Consequently, an increasing number of educational researchers and practitioners seek localized STEM-related terminology. The development of STEM education is deeply rooted in sociocultural and political contexts (Zeidler, 2016). As an ancient civilization with a splendid history and dazzling culture, China stresses the adoption of localized terminology and actions, exhibiting a strong indigenous cultural complex (like Oedipus complex). Whereas, referring to Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations” (Samuel, 1993), nations with diverse cultures are most likely to be alienated and indifferent, even highly hostile. Just as Harris (2010) underscored, multiculturalism, moral relativism, political correctness, tolerance, and even intolerance are common consequences of disparities in facts and values. In this sense, the clash of civilizations between diverse countries may impede the international exchange and cooperation of Chinese STEM education. To avoid the disaster, understanding and respecting mutual cultures is crucial, but crossing barriers across civilizations is equally important. Hence, China’s indigenous cultural complex should not mean fewer international collaborations.

Discipline-centrism entrenched in K-12 education, along with underdevelopment of technology and engineering education

Despite the widespread recognition of STEM education, there are still several barriers in implementing STEM education in Chinese schools. Some scholars claimed that STEM education is not a meaningful concept, as the STEM contents are already covered in diverse curricula in China such as mathematics, science and technology courses (Wan, 2020). However, these courses are essentially discipline-centric, rather than the interdisciplinary integration that STEM education addresses. Although China’s K-12 education curriculum reform has also advocated the paradigm shift from the current over-emphasis on discipline-based curriculum to the integrated curriculum, the effect is limited. One of the leading causes lies in the lack of scaffold on how to integrate the curriculum, specifically, what is the anchor for integration? How to represent and assess the objectives and effectiveness of integration?

STEM education’s concern on interdisciplinary integration needs to be triggered substantially by engineering practice, which will naturally involve multi-disciplinary knowledge and thinking styles. Accordingly, engineering education deserves to be considered as a platform for connecting knowledge across disciplines. The visual artifacts produced by engineering practice could inspire and sustain students’ sense of learning motivation and achievement, more importantly, promote their future development. Unfortunately, the K-12 education in China failed to promote engineering education in the long run. Similarly, the science and technology education also received insufficient development. All of these impede the implementation of STEM education in the primary and secondary schools in China.

The loss of attraction of talent and girls in STEM education

In 2018, four Chinese regions (i.e., Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang) took the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test, and earned the first place in reading, mathematics, and science literacy. Whereas in terms of the career expectations, PISA results indicated that 15.1% of Chinese boys and 9.1% Chinese girls intended to enter science and engineering professionals in the future, compared to 26% (male) and 14.5% (female) in OECD, and 27.8% (male) and 10.4% (female) in the US (OECD, 2019).

This depressed result is not only represented in the PISA test. Moreover, in 2018, a team from Nanjing Normal University conducted a survey on technology literacy among K-12 students sampled from eight Chinese provinces and municipalities (Zhang et al., 2018). Results indicated that only 2.06% of students were willing to work in engineering professionals, compared to 75.25% of students preferring a career related to the role of teacher, doctor, or actor. Besides, there are two notable phenomena: First, the gender balance is severely lopsided, with only 0.36% girls with intentions to be involved in engineering careers. Second, the students’ willingness to be engineers were substantially decreased from primary school to junior school, which implies a negative tendency on STEM career expectations when growing up. This might lie in the shortage of technology and engineering education in China’s K-12 education, resulting in students’ poor comprehension on technical engineering professionals.


To be STEM or not

The term STEM might be substituted, but it is urgent to determine a new consensus term. From the rebranding of SMET to STEM, then progressing through STEAM to STEMx, STEM education in the US has undergone a distinct evolutionary trajectory, which indicated that the rules of STEM education were neither carved in stone nor a tree without roots. They were, and are still, socially constructed (Lyons, 2020). In this vein, STEM education must collide and merge with the nation’s indigenous ideology, cultural contexts and social settings in the process of internationalizing education. As Germany, a major European economy, has localized the US-style STEM as MINT (Mathematik, Informatik, Naturwissenschafe and Technik) to produce a high-quality integrated workforce (Zendler, 2018). Additionally, Korea has introduced the concept of Integrated Human Resource Education to strengthen national competitiveness in science and technology (Hong, 2021). Why, in this regard, does China not consider developing a consensus terminology based on national conditions as well as international communication? Just as an old Chinese saying goes, a soundly speech only goes after a right name. That is, only by establishing a consensus terminology can the related work and international exchange be facilitated. In order to differentiate from the conventional spelling of STEM, the term “STEM-related” will be used later to refer to Chinese STEM education and action.

Considering China’s national conditions and theoretical origin, IFEF may have the potential to promote STEM-related education, which has undergone a historical evolution from “Three Educational Fields” to “Four Educational Fields” and then to “Five Educational Fields” (Zhong and Liu, 2022). On the one hand, IFEF echoes the macro-level educational policy of “Five Educational Fields” (The CPC Central Committee and State Council, 2019), which is essentially a repositioning of the educational goal—cultivating a whole person. On the other hand, IFEF belongs to an interdisciplinary education paradigm, which organically integrates moral, intellectual, physical, artistic, and labor education.

Move forward along with four levels of STEM education

STEM education prioritizes higher-order thinking development, but the abstract nature of thinking makes it too complicated to be precisely assessed. Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome (SOLO) is an assessment method based on the presumed complexity of the underlying cognitive skills developed by Biggs and Collins (1982). It classifies students’ observed learning outcomes into five degrees: pre-structural, unistructural, multi-structural, relational structural, and extended abstract (Biggs and Collis, 1982).

From a spatial model perspective, the integration of STEM education may occur at different levels including Disciplinary, Multi-disciplinary, Interdisciplinary, Trans-disciplinary (Vasquez et al., 2013). Similarly, we could consider incorporating SOLO into STEM education to identify students’ thinking levels in addressing real-world problems. Since students have a certain accumulation of disciplinary knowledge (i.e., unistructure), they naturally go beyond the pre-structural thinking. Thus, the distinct levels of STEM education are positioned depending on the latter four thinking degrees (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Four levels of STEM education and their corresponding thinking degrees.
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STEM education 1.0 to 4.0 correspond to four levels of integration: Disciplinary, Multi-disciplinary, Interdisciplinary, Discipline-Integrated. The thinking degrees corresponding to each type of integration are unistructural, multi-structural, relational and extended abstract thinking.

Specifically, STEM Education 1.0 can be defined as the discipline-centered learning of S, T, E, and M knowledge to develop students’ unistructural thinking. Comparatively, STEM Education 2.0 is the multi-disciplinary learning in thematic projects, which aims to cultivate students’ multi-structural thinking. STEM Education 3.0 is the interdisciplinary learning that focuses on the concepts and methods beyond the knowledge to foster students’ relational thinking. STEM Education 4.0 is the discipline-integrated learning that emphasizes systematic thinking beyond concepts and methods to promote students’ extended abstract thinking. Owing to the culture of discipline-centrism aforementioned, most primary and secondary schools in China have difficulty to implement STEM-related education above the 3.0 levels. However, staying at the first two levels is not enough. Students’ thinking training should start from unistructure, then progress to multiple and relational structure in the process of scientific inquiry, laying a solid basis for the development of extended abstract thinking.

Notably, the spatial model described above, while commonly adopted in STEM education integration, has limitations in capturing the challenges in practice, particularly the imprecision of disciplinary overlap and the blurring of disciplinary interactions. In this regard, Tytler et al. (2021) proposed a temporal model as a valuable addition to spatial models, which informs teachers supporting students’ learning and application of disciplinary knowledge in and across different time scales. This does provide an ideal option for reducing challenges of STEM education advancement.

In general, the above STEM education framework is universal, so it is equally applicable to STEM-related education such as aforementioned IFEF. Given that IFEF is a new framework that requires the integration of theoretical constructions and practical innovations, the following elements are indispensable for its practice: (1) Integrating Goal: developing well-rounded talents; (2) Integrating content: developing featured curriculum of IFEF; (3) Integrating resources: creating a synergistic ecology of resources for IFEF; (4) Integrating teaching: constructing an innovative teaching model of IFEF; (5) Integrating evaluation: evaluating comprehensively students based on whole person. Consequently, when applying the aforementioned framework to IEFE, the relationship between the integration levels of the five elements and the corresponding thinking degrees should be carefully considered.

A single tree does not make a forest

A set of systematic proposals and promotion plans are expected to be launched by Chinese governments. The development of STEM education is a society-wide matter, which involves multiple sectors (e.g., public and private sectors, enterprises and institutions), funding, and policies (Sunami, 2015). In this manner, only social cohesion will allow for the construction of the cooperative pipeline. Just like another old Chinese saying, “A single tree does not make a forest”. Consequently, the implementation of STEM-related education necessitates the in-depth integration of diverse resources, as well as the establishment of a multi-party collaborative service mechanism. Specifically, endeavors can be performed in the following two aspects. First, removing barriers between schools and communities, and continuously strengthening the cooperation among schools, families, government, universities, enterprises, etc., as well as forming a home-school-society collaborative education mechanism. Second, removing administrative barriers, and constantly seeking common interests among various departments, as well as establishing a collaborative management mechanism. In this respect, the USERS (University-School-Enterprise-Regional teacher development center-Society) framework for STEM educational collaboration proposed by authors could be utilized as a reference (Fig. 3) (Zhan et al., 2022).

Fig. 3: The USERS framework for collaborative STEM education development.
figure 3

Starting from the Clastotype including US, UE, and SE, the USERS framework ultimately points to a relatively complete collaborative ecology for STEM-related education. In this way, all parties support and influence each other, make up for deficiencies, and drive STEM-related education forward in a dynamic and balanced manner.

As shown in Fig. 3, US, UE, and SE are the common status of STEM-related collaboration in China, generally headed by universities or enterprises. The three models are generally applicable to the initial stage of STEM educational collaboration. However, it may only be instilled in a one-way manner to practitioners, which cannot assure regular implementation throughout primary and secondary schools. Only when universities and Enterprises are involved (i.e., USE model, a metaphor referring to making use of STEM education), can the regular development of STEM-related education in K-12 schools be more secure. Despite this, USE model cannot greatly contribute to the long-term development of STEM-related education due to its limited resources. Therefore, specialized agencies under government instruction such as the regional teacher development centers should play an important role based on USE. Thus, the USER model, a metaphor for user-center, refers to regional teacher development centers coordinating university experts, enterprise forces, and K-12 teachers to take actions to meet the schools (user)’s needs for STEM-related education. Whereas, judging from the current status of regional teacher development centers, there are still limitations in foresight and coordination. To encourage the holistic development of STEM-related education, it is vital to enlist the support of the entire society and association. Therefore, the USERS model referring to the metaphor for multi-user connection should be developed.

Overall, starting from the separate models including US, UE, and SE, the USERS framework ultimately points to a comprehensive collaborative ecology for STEM-related education. Anchored by the USERS framework, the importance of co-development cannot be overemphasized, it will represent the views of different stakeholders, and avoid single voice dominates the actions. In this way, all parties support and influence each other, make up for deficiencies, and drive STEM-related education forward in a dynamic and balanced manner, towards a higher level as shown in Fig. 2. The “Theory and Practice Research on Collaborative Innovation of STEM Education in Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area” is a typical case applying the USERS model, which was approved as a major project in the “14th Five-Year Plan” of the China Association for Educational Technology. This project will link university research teams, primary and secondary school teachers, as well as relevant administrative personnel in the Greater Bay Area to further conduct theoretical and practical explorations.

A roadmap to STEM education

While schools are vigorously developing STEM education, the fundamental role of school education should be addressed. It is critical to establish a school culture and environment that supports the integration of STEM-related education. Since rich and diverse educational resources are essential for effective STEM education, dedicated STEM-related curriculum and tool development are required in the school setting (Zaman, 2021). Particularly, according to the strengths and characteristics of its own region, school, and discipline, each school should develop and employ diverse curriculum resources, including infrastructures, environment, software resources, etc. Besides, faculty training is also crucial. Educators must be well versed in STEM-related pedagogy and their subject matter expertize. For this, it is vital to construct research and learning communities beyond individual-level training programs (Jho et al., 2016). Only in this way, experienced teachers and experts in relevant fields could work together in communities to discuss, reflect, and explore teaching practices, setting up role models for sustaining STEM-related professional development (Zellmer and Sherman, 2017; Singer, 2009).

Last but not least, the Chinese education sector has to launch relevant curriculum guidelines, resource building programs, teacher training plans, evaluation programs, etc. Previously, engineering and technology have long been given lower priority in China’s curriculum, while other countries have delved further. For instance, the “Next Generation Science Standards” promulgated by the US in 2013 proposed to incorporate interdisciplinary concepts into K-12 science education (NGSS Lead States, 2013). In addition, the “STEM Roadmap—A Framework for Integrated STEM Education” (Johnson et al., 2015) established by the US formulated an overall framework and curriculum roadmap for STEM-related education covering all learning stages. However, there is a dearth of explicit involvement from other curricula. Notably, China recently released the “National Curriculum Standards for Compulsory Education (MOE, 2022)”, which specified that interdisciplinary learning should account for at least 10% of the total class hours in each curriculum (MOE, 2022). The content analysis revealed that each curriculum employed varied degrees of interdisciplinary themed activities at each stage (Table 1). The Mathematics curriculum, for instance, requires students in grades 1–2 learn mathematical knowledge and accumulate mathematical experience; students in grades 3–4 address mathematical problems; students in grades 5–6 enhance mathematics application skills; and students in grades 7–9 complete project-based mathematical learning based on their interdisciplinary knowledge. Similarly, the physics curriculum for specific learning stages (grades 7–9) comprises three interdisciplinary topics: “Physics and Everyday Life”, “Physics and Engineering Practices”, and “Physics and Social Development”. Accordingly, interdisciplinary learning has been greatly valued in China’s new Curriculum Standards for Compulsory Education, which indicates the potential for further establishment of STEM-themed educational programs.

Table 1 Interdisciplinary learning requirements for different learning stages in National Curriculum Standards for Compulsory Education (MOE, 2022).

Additionally, there is an urgent need to create an inclusive culture in STEM education to diversify science (Daehn and Croxson, 2021; Zaman, 2021; Zellmer and Sherman, 2017). Going forward, China government should advocate a focus on vulnerable groups, by extending STEM-related programs through targeted instruction and training, to promote their interest and engagement in STEM-related learning, and help them actively work in an environment free from bias and discrimination.


STEM education has enormous potential in developing science and technology, which has been extensively recognized by the Chinese government and the public. However, Chinese STEM education is challenged by multiple factors, mainly reflected in the following three aspects: (1) There is no consistent terminology for naming STEM education in China, which leads to the misuse of STEM label in practice. (2) STEM-related evaluation has not received sufficient consideration by the Chinese government except for the Ministry of Education. (3) The macro-regulation and policy support for STEM education at the national level are limited, especially for vulnerable groups, contrasting with the United States. In this regard, the crucial causes are speculated as follows: (1) The dilemma of cultural conflict and international exchange. (2) Discipline-centrism entrenched in K-12 education, along with underdevelopment of technology and engineering education. (3) The loss of attracting talent and girls in STEM education.

Coupled with the above obstacles and root causes, the following endeavors are suggested: (1) China should develop a consensus terminology based on national conditions as well as international communication. (2) China’s K-12 education should move forward along with four levels of STEM education and gradually reach the corresponding thinking degrees. (3) A multi-party collaborative service mechanism should be established. (4) It is critical to establish a school culture and environment that supports the integrated implementation of STEM-related education, including targeted instruction and training for vulnerable populations. In brief, a top-level design is the first step and the most critical part to advance STEM education in China, at present. Nevertheless, the perspectives presented in this paper are a conceptual vision, which is not a definitive solution, but rather a starting point for a productive conversation about what STEM education in China should or could look like.