Arizona Council of Engineering and Scientific Associations
STEM or CTE? What's the difference?

What is STEM? What is CTE? What do these acronym’s stand for? What method(s) are involved in the utilization of and/or application of these concepts?

In today's educational environment, STEM and CTE are sometimes treated as separate disciplines, but underneath there are many similarities. How do we apply these “tools” to educational needs and our everyday environment?

STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathemtics

CTE: Career and Technical Education

STEM and CTE Education

Innovation and technology changes have led to a demand for STEM competencies beyond traditional STEM occupations. Today, competencies necessary for innovation are scattered across a wider area of the economy.

Today’s economy demands a better-educated workforce than ever before and jobs in this new economy are requiring more complex knowledge and skills. It is more important than ever that educators grow their STEM/CTE teaching skills thru competency-based programs. Students learn through rigorous, integrated, professional and/or technical programs of study, and gain new knowledge and skills for the kind of “work” they select as a career. The STEM discipline is often listed as one of the CTE clusters.

In a study by NASDCTEc dated December 2013, a new concept entitled “CTE is your STEM Strategy” discusses the relationships between the two. The key point is “high quality CTE programs provide a strong foundation for and serve as a delivery system of STEM competencies and skills for a broader range of students”.  

Technical education in the United States is categorized as two unique areas of study, STEM and CTE. This article contains basic information about each and educational levels required to perform them. 

  • STEM education is based on the idea of educating students in four specific disciplines – science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and usually culminates with a college education.  STEM integrates these 4 categories into a cohesive learning environment based on real-world applications. 
  • CTE education provides multi-discipline classes that are designed to prepare students for the technical labor workforce where a high school education and maybe some post-secondary training or certification is required.

The workers of STEM are classed as degreed professionals whereas CTE workers are classed as technical or sub-baccalaureate workers, which may require certification. In United States high schools, a student studying STEM related subjects is working towards a college degree leading to a professional career whereas a student studying CTE related subjects would be working towards a technical career.


Science is a systematic study of the nature and manners of an object or the natural universe, a study that is established around measurement, experiment, observation and formulation of laws. The “science” in STEM typically refers to the three major branches of science: “natural science”, “formal science”, and “social science”. Natural and social sciences are empirical sciences, meaning that the knowledge must be capable of being tested for its validity by other researchers working under the same conditions. 

Natural science is concerned with the description, prediction, and understanding of natural phenomena based on empirical evidence from observation and experimentation.  It can be divided into two main branches: life science, which has to do with organisms, and physical science, which studies inanimate natural objects.  Physical science is subdivided into branches including physics, chemistry, astronomy, and earth science, while life sciences includes biology, botany, ecology, etc.

Formal science is involved in the study of formal systems.  It shares similarities with the other two branches by relying on objective, careful, and systematic scientific research of an area of knowledge, but differs from empirical sciences as they rely exclusively on deductive reasoning, such as mathematics, statistics, computer science, systems science, etc.   

Social science is concerned with society and the relationships among individuals within a society.  It has many branches including, but not limited to, psychology, economics, political science, sociology, public health, etc. 

Technology is the application of scientific knowledge supporting the practical purposes and aims of human life by the changing and manipulation of the human environment, using tools and machines to create value thru innovation.  Innovative ideas, using creative thoughts and new imaginations, create new techniques, skills and methods used in the production of goods or services or in the accomplishment of objectives such as scientific investigations.  These techniques fall into two unique areas, high technology versus low technology.  Some typical technology categories are: construction, mechanical, electronic, industrial and manufacturing, energy, transportation, medical, agriculture and bio, information, etc. 

Engineering is the use of scientific principles to design and build machines, structures, and other items including bridges, tunnels, roads, vehicles and buildings. The American Engineers Council for Professional Development (now the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, ABET) defined engineering as: “The creative application of scientific principles to design or develop structures, machines, apparatus, or manufacturing processes, or works utilizing them singly or in combination; or to construct or operate the same with full cognizance of their design; or to forecast their behavior under specific operating conditions; all as respects an intended function, economics or operation and safety to life and property.” The discipline of engineering encompasses a broad range of many specialized fields of engineering, each with a more specific emphasis on particular areas of applied mathematics, applied science, and types of applications. 

The original primary branches of engineering are: Chemical (the application of chemical, physical and biological sciences to the process of converting raw materials or chemicals into more useful or valuable forms), Civil (comprises the design, construction and maintenance of the physical and natural built environments), Electrical (comprises the study and application of electricity, electronics and electromagnetism), Mechanical (comprises the design and analysis of heat and mechanical power for the operation of machines and mechanical systems) and Interdisciplinary (combining or involving two or more professions, technologies, departments, or the like). 

Mathematics: Mathematics has no generally accepted definition.  Mathematics includes a variety and depth of subjects, so to understand this will require a system to organize the many subjects into the more general area of mathematics.  A traditional division of mathematics is pure mathematics, mathematics studied for its intrinsic interest, and applied mathematics, mathematics that can be directly applied to real world problems.  The distinction between pure and applied mathematics is more a philosophical point of view or a mathematician’s preference rather than a rigid subdivision within the field.  Mathematical subjects are categorized within the Mathematics Subject Classification system.

Pure mathematics is the study of mathematical concepts independently of any application outside mathematics.  The five main branches are: Algebra, Calculus, Geometry, Trigonometry and Statistics & Probability.

Applied mathematics is the application of mathematical methods using a combination of mathematical science and specialized knowledge by applying these tools within the science and engineering work activity.   There is no consensus as to what the various branches of applied mathematics are.       

A review of different websites finds different readings regarding what are the current primary branches, sub-branches, etc.  In today’s STEM categories, there are many unique and specialty interdisciplinary organizations that have a direct correlation to specific fields, businesses, and industries. 


Career and Technical Education is the practice of teaching specific career skills to students in middle school, high school, and post-secondary institutions, by applying the principles of the ten CTE standards.  This program of study includes a sequence of courses and/or competencies across secondary and postsecondary education that incorporates technical, academic and employability knowledge and skills.  The CTE program will empower students to acquire the necessary academic, technical and employability skills to enter, compete, and advance in their education and career.  High quality CTE instruction integrates technical and academic knowledge and skills required for skill building as well as project and problem-based learning. 

They prepare students for jobs that typically don’t require college degrees.  Rigorous academic standards have been developed for each area and students must understand them and how they are applied.  

CTE is split into 16 career clusters, representing many career pathways that apply to different high-demand careers. Each of these have multiple sub-sets.  

  1. Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources
  2. Architecture & Construction
  3. Arts, A/V Technology & Communications
  4. Business Management & Administration
  5. Education & Training
  6. Finance
  7. Government & Public Administration
  8. Health Science
  9. Hospitality & Tourism
  10. Human Services
  11. Information Technology
  12. Law, Public Safety, Corrections & Security
  13. Manufacturing
  14. Marketing
  15. Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics
  16. Transportation, Distribution & Logistics

As you can see STEM is listed as one of the clusters of study and therefore might be considered as a complimentary program with CTE. 

What is Science Fair?

Science is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world.  It is both a body of knowledge and a process and is based on research to establish specific areas of interest.  Research can be divided into two unique areas, basic research, (also called pure research or fundamental research), which is driven purely by a desire to expand knowledge, and applied research, used to answer a specific question that has direct application to the world.  Applied research is the practical application of science and uses the scientific process and knowledge gained as the means to achieve a practical and useful result, this being using the scientific method.  The scientific method is a process of experimentation used to explore observations and answer questions, and this process is used to carry out, support, refute, or validate a hypothesis. 

A science fair is an event where students present their science project, which is presented on a display board with associated backup information, to a set of judges for review and grading.  A science fair project is one of the best learning experiences a student can undertake.  When doing the experiment, using the scientific method, they select a topic, do the research, and record the results.  Judges make an objective evaluation of the project content and present their results to the event director.  The most important thing for students to remember about completing a research project is that educators/judges are interested in the way they combined outside sources with their own insights about the topic. 

Learning about science is at the heart of a science fair.  Students preparing a science fair project is what educators call active learning and a cornerstone of successful science teaching.  Students successfully completing a science fair project results in a high level of confidence.  This is where educators teaching skills and student learning abilities culminate in success stories. 

Published: about a year ago

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