Best Online Associate Degree Programs in STEM

Oct 20, 2021

What is an Online Associate Degree in STEM?

An associate degree program is a 2-year degree that can prepare students for entry-level positions within a given field or help prepare students to transfer to a 4-year school and earn their bachelor's degree. Some of these programs are designed specifically as transfer degrees, which means they have a direct pathway for admissions and transfer credit to some 4-year institutions that have a transfer agreement with the home school. Associate degree programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) refer to different majors that fall within these 4 main fields. These degree programs are usually more technical in nature and may include hands-on learning opportunities through labs, simulations, and more. The curriculum generally consists of general education courses and core courses in a student's chosen STEM area of interest. Many of these degree programs are available in online formats to help students learn from any location and work around personal and work-related schedules. Explore details of these STEM associate programs below.

What's the Difference Between STEM, STEAM, and STREAM?

According to sources, the term STEM began gaining popularity and circulation within education around 2001. The idea behind the term was to encourage students to adapt to new technologies being utilized in these technical fields and was pushed by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Around 2017 there was a push to include the arts, or the 'A' to make the acronym STEAM. Supporters of the arts argued that the arts allow for design and creative thinking that leads to the innovation in these technical fields and should be included. A final realm of thought pushed to include an emphasis on literacy in 2018 to make the acronym STREAM, with the 'R' standing for reading and writing. The goal of all of these acronyms was to help equip students with the necessary skills needed for advanced technical and ever-changing careers.

Online Associate Degrees in STEM

Online associate degrees in STEM focus on the 4 main fields and include a wide range of possible majors or areas of emphasis. These programs usually include a lot of math- and science-related courses and typically incorporate the use of various technologies, such as software programs and equipment. It is fairly common for these degree programs to include laboratory courses, which can look a little different for online students who may have to complete a lab online or on their own at a clinical support site. The hands-on nature of these degree programs may limit which ones can be completed fully online.

Online Associate Degrees in STEAM

Associate degree programs in the art portion of STEAM may be easier to find in online formats due to the less technical nature of the field. However, many of these degree programs are still hands-on but may allow students to work more easily on their own. For example, an online associate degree in graphic design typically includes hands-on, creative projects that students can complete on their own time at home. Many STEAM associate degree programs incorporate creativity and design into the curriculum to give students a chance to think outside of the box.

Online Associate Degrees in STREAM

Associate degree programs in STREAM focus on the basics of reading and writing to help students further develop their communication and critical-thinking skills. Reading and writing are incorporated in all STEM or STEAM degree programs, but STREAM places an extra emphasis on these skills. Students in STREAM may take more writing-focused courses or those involving various reading samples. They learn how to critically think about different sources, and clearly communicate their thoughts in written form, which is important for any STEM or STEAM field.

What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of an Online Associate Degree Program in STEM?

There are several advantages and disadvantages to completing an online associate degree program in STEM. In general, the advantages of earning an associate degree are the preparation for an entry-level career and/or the ease of transferring credit to a 4-year institution to finish one's bachelor's degree. This usually cuts the time to earning a bachelor's degree to 2 years. Earning a degree in STEM can provide students with the critical-thinking and technical skills needed to move into a variety of careers across a range of industries. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job outlook of all STEM occupations from 2019 to 2029 is 8%, which is significantly higher than non-STEM occupations that have an outlook of 3.4% over the same time period. This means that STEM graduates are more likely to find a job after graduation. Earning a degree online can also provide students with greater flexibility to live at home or complete their degree from any location, work full- or part-time while earning their degree, and finish coursework on their own time.

Despite all of these advantages, there are some disadvantages to earning a degree online. Online students do not get to interact as much with their peers or professors in a face-to-face setting. This can make it more difficult to collaborate and work in teams on different projects or assignments. Another disadvantage, specifically in STEM, is limited access to laboratory and hands-on experiences. The lack of lab accessibility may limit which degree programs schools offer in an online format or may cause students to have to find access to a lab, either at work or in their local community. Some associate degree programs in STEM may be taken in a hybrid format that allows students to take most courses online but complete laboratory and other hands-on requirements on-campus.

How to Choose a STEM Associate Program

Choosing a STEM associate degree program may first be narrowed down by students' personal interests. This will determine what section of STEM students enter, as well as what specific major. Students interested in taking their program online may then need to check for the availability of their desired degree in an online format. Once a degree program has been chosen, students can compare the different learning opportunities that different programs offer, such as coursework, projects, or hands-on learning experiences. Many students need to calculate and compare the cost of these programs to determine which school they can afford to attend. Students planning on earning a bachelor's degree after graduation may also want to consider any transfer agreements or degree pathways that a school offers.

Application and Admission Requirements for STEM Associate Degree Programs

Admissions requirements for STEM associate degree programs vary by school and program. Many schools have general admissions standards that may only require a high school diploma and standardized test scores, such as the ACT or SAT. Students typically fill out a general admissions application, send in the appropriate documents, and pay any admissions fees. However, some programs may have additional requirements and/or admissions processes. For instance, students could be required to complete different prerequisite courses and/or hold a specific GPA for program admission. It is also common for students entering an associate degree program to need to take some placement testing, specifically in math and English.

Accreditation for STEM Associate Degree Programs

Many schools that offer STEM associate degree programs are regionally accredited by organizations such as the Higher Learning Commission. Regional accreditation means that schools have met general academic standards set for quality for all of the various degree programs that are offered. Students who attend an accredited institution are also eligible for financial aid and can usually transfer their credits more easily to another accredited school. Some STEM associate degree programs may have an additional level of accreditation from an organization that is specific to the subject area. For instance, there is an online associate degree in engineering fundamentals that is accredited by the Applied and Natural Science Accreditation Commission of ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology). This type of specific accreditation often stands out to employers and means students are better prepared to enter the field as they have met more industry-specific academic standards.

Online Associate in STEM Program Options

There are many different kinds of online associate degree programs in the different areas of STEM. Many STEM-related programs are interdisciplinary in the fact that they all commonly utilize various areas of science, technology, engineering, and math. Online associate degree programs in these areas can still typically be completed in 2 years and include both general education courses and core courses in a student's chosen subject area. Most commonly, institutions offer both on-campus and online degree programs, such as an associate degree in information technology and online associate degrees in information technology. As mentioned, some programs may be offered in a hybrid format that includes some online coursework and some in-person requirements. Online associate degree programs still help prepare students for further study in their field and/or entry-level careers in a given area. These programs can also qualify for transfer agreements to 4-year schools.

Science Online Associate Programs

Online associate degree programs in science include a wide range of natural and physical sciences. These degree programs may be more difficult than other areas to find completely online due to the hands-on nature of the field and the common requirement of laboratory courses. Some science-related degree programs could require students to complete hands-on training on-campus, at work (if students have access to a lab), or through other lab support options. Some health-related associate degree programs can also fall under the category of science, such as associate degrees in health science. Many of these science associate degree programs help prepare students for specific entry-level careers. For example, an associate degree in veterinary technology helps prepare students for a career as a veterinary technician or technologist.

Technology Online Associate Programs

Online associate degree programs in technology are fairly common and diverse. Students can pursue a variety of technology related degree programs that fall primarily under the categories of computer science or information technology. These programs can easily provide students with hands-on training through software programs and exercises provided in online coursework. Depending on the program, students may be required to compile a digital portfolio of their work and experience to show future employers. Students in online technology degree programs generally learn how to work with multiple computer languages, software programs, and other technologies. Generally, students who wish to pursue further education can enroll in more specific bachelor's degree programs that expand upon foundational concepts found in associate degree programs. For instance, students with an online associate degree in computer science could pursue a bachelor's degree in cybersecurity, computer information systems, and more.

Engineering Online Associate Programs

Online engineering associate degree programs can also be a little more difficult to find online due to the hands-on nature of engineering. However, there are some more general online engineering degree programs available, such as an associate degree in engineering fundamentals or engineering technology. There are also online programs available in specific fields of engineering, such as online associate degree programs in mechanical engineering. Students can also pursue engineering-related programs, such as associate degrees in industrial maintenance. Online programs in engineering still usually include some hands-on training using engineering-related software programs, such as AutoCAD. Depending on the program, students may be able to complete their online program at their own pace and/or in less than 2 years. Generally, engineering associate degree programs help prepare graduates to work as engineering technicians in their given field.

Mathematics Online Associate Programs

Associate degree programs in mathematics are commonly available in online formats. The most common is online associate degree programs in mathematics, but students can also find programs in math-based disciplines, such as associate degree programs in accounting. Students in mathematics-related associate degree programs can commonly complete degree requirements completely online as they study various types of mathematics and math theories. They may also receive hands-on training and experience with mathematical software programs. Depending on the school and program, students could participate in math-related events and competitions. Several of these online degree programs can be applied to other industries or fields, such as business. For example, online associate degree programs in data analytics can help prepare students for entry-level careers as data technicians and business analysts.

Online Associate Degree in STEM Coursework

Coursework for online STEM associate degree programs vary by school and specific program area. In general, associate degree programs require between 60 and 90 credits of coursework. Many of the general education credits required for these degree programs can transfer to a 4-year school, as well as some or all of the core major courses. As mentioned, labs and other hands-on experiences may look a little different for online programs, and online coursework could be offered in synchronous or asynchronous formats. Below, we discuss some of the different kinds of coursework found in each type of STEM degree program, outside of general education requirements.

Online Science Associate Degree Coursework

Fully online science associate degree programs can be challenging to find for lab-related sciences. However, there are general online associate degree programs in science and different areas of science that can be completed fully online. Students in general science programs likely take courses that provide an overview of different science disciplines, such as courses in biology, physical science, and meteorology. Online programs are also more commonly available in physical sciences, such as geography, that offer multiple courses within the given area, such as human geography and physical geography. Lab sciences, such as an associate degree in physics, commonly offer some courses online but require students to come on-campus for courses such as chemistry lab and physics lab.

Online Technology Associate Degree Coursework

Most technology associate degree programs allow students to complete coursework fully online. Students receive experience with various tools and technologies used in computer science and information technology. Training usually includes designing systems and modeling and simulating various scenarios. Depending on the degree, students could take courses in areas such as cybersecurity, programming languages, software development, system analysis and design, operating systems, and cross-platform technologies. Many of these courses are introductory or fundamental courses to prepare students for more advanced courses found in a 4-year degree. Students in technology may also be required to take more advanced math courses, such as precalculus.

Online Engineering Associate Degree Coursework

Online engineering associate degree programs are another area that often includes multiple courses across STEM. For instance, it is common for students in these associate degree programs to take multiple courses in advanced math, such as calculus, and different areas of science, such as physics. Students also take introductory courses to main engineering concepts, such as materials science, quality control systems, engineering mechanics, dynamics, and engineering economics. Most of these courses can be completed fully online, and some programs may conclude with a final exam. Students also receive hands-on training with 3-D modeling and software programs, such as AutoCAD, to prepare for careers in the field.

Online Mathematics Associate Degree Coursework

Associate degrees in mathematics can commonly be completed fully online with lecture-based courses that discuss and expose students to different areas of math. These degree programs cover a range of mathematical theories and methods, such as functions, probability, algebra, geometry, differentiation, and more. Students may also get introductory courses to statistics and computing sciences, which is a cross-over into the technology portion of STEM. Programs that focus on data analysis, like online associate degree programs in data analytics, may also include technology-related courses in scripting. In general, mathematics students learn how to work with data sets and derive meaningful information from numbers.

What Are Other Online STEM Degree Paths?

Online STEM degree programs are available at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Students who earn an online STEM associate degree could go on to pursue a bachelor's degree in STEM before earning a graduate degree in the field. Online bachelor's and master's degree programs in STEM may be some of the more common programs available. Certificate programs in STEM are also available at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Explore some of the different degree options available for online STEM programs at the different degree levels.

Online Bachelor's Degrees in STEM

Online bachelor's degree programs in STEM are most commonly offered as Bachelor of Science (BS) or Bachelor of Arts (BA) degrees. These programs typically take 4-years to complete but could take only 2 years to finish for those with a STEM associate degree. Online programs are available across all areas of STEM and are usually more specific and detailed than associate degree programs. For instance, students interested in information systems can pursue a bachelor's in business information systems or a bachelor's in management information systems. Other STEM bachelor's degree programs include:

Online Master's Degrees in STEM

Online master's degree programs in STEM are also available across all areas of STEM and can often overlap different disciplines, such as master's degrees in business analytics or master's degrees in software engineering. While it can still be harder to find online master's degree programs in biology and other lab-based sciences, students can find STEM-related master's programs in areas such as:

  • Exercise science
  • Cybersecurity
  • Web design
  • Healthcare informatics
  • Applied statistics
  • Engineering management

Online Doctoral Degrees in STEM

Online doctoral degree programs in STEM are slightly harder to find due to the focus on research of these degrees. However, students can commonly find doctoral degree programs online in education that train students in STEM education, such as a Doctor of Education in STEM Education. Students still usually have to complete a dissertation or final doctoral project even if the program is completed online. Some examples of available online doctoral programs in STEM include:

Online Certificate Programs in STEM

STEM-related certificate programs can often help students further develop specific skill sets, such as CAD certificate programs or knowledge of a certain subject area. These programs are often available at the undergraduate and graduate levels, such as an undergraduate certificate in mathematics and a graduate certificate program in public health. Certificate programs are usually shorter in nature than degree programs and can be completed in 1 year or less. Other possible online STEM certificate programs include topics in:

  • Cybersecurity
  • Data analytics
  • Statistical foundations
  • Accounting
  • Engineering leadership

Transfer Options After Completing an Online STEM Degree

Many students who earn an online STEM associate degree decide to further their education and advance their careers by earning a bachelor's degree. Students can commonly pursue a bachelor's degree in the same or closely related major as their associate degree. However, students may also be able to switch into a related area within the same STEM discipline without losing too many of their credits. For example, students who earned an online associate degree in computer science can pursue a bachelor's degree in computer science or another subfield, such as information technology, computer information systems, or cybersecurity. Many schools that offer STEM associate degree programs have transfer agreements with other 4-year institutions within the local area or state. This helps ensure that students can easily transfer credits from their associate degree and have them count towards their bachelor's degree.

How Much Can I Earn with an Online Associate Degree in STEM?

According to the BLS, the median annual salary for all STEM occupations was $89,780 as of May 2020. However, this includes all types of jobs, levels of education and experience, and other factors. Graduates with their associate degree in STEM will likely qualify for entry-level positions that typically make less money than positions that require a bachelor's degree or higher. Especially in the field of science, an advanced degree is usually needed for high-paying research jobs, such as careers in neuroscience research or a job as a hydrogeologist. Other STEM areas, such as technology, may pay higher salaries for entry-level positions. Explore some entry-level STEM careers below.

How to Become a Chemical Technician

Chemical technicians usually need at least an associate degree and some on-the-job training. These professionals help chemists and other chemistry-related professionals, such as chemical engineers, research and test chemical products. They help set up and maintain lab equipment, prepare solutions and tests, organize results of tests, and help prepare reports. These technicians may advance their careers with a bachelor's degree to become chemists or chemical engineers. Per the BLS, chemical technicians made a median annual salary of $49,820 as of 2020.

How to Become a Web Developer or Digital Designer

Web developers and digital designers typically need at least an associate degree, but some employers only require a high school diploma, while others require a bachelor's degree. These professionals work to develop and maintain websites, which usually requires them to write code, add visuals and audio, and work as a team to develop website content. These developers and designers also need to evaluate website traffic and ensure that their website can handle current levels and work at an appropriate speed. Advancement in the field to management or other related design positions, such as a database designer, usually requires a bachelor's degree. According to the BLS, web developers and digital designers made a median annual salary of $77,200 as of 2020.

How to Become a Civil Engineering Technologist or Technician

Civil engineering technologists and technicians usually have to hold at least an associate degree in the field. It is also important for these technicians to have experience with CAD and/or other work experience. Civil engineering technologists and technicians assist civil engineers as they design and build different aspects of infrastructure, like buildings, roads, bridges, and more. This requires them to prepare plans, predict costs, check specifications at the site, and manage project files. An advanced degree can help students become civil or building engineers. The BLS reported that as of 2020, the median annual salary for civil engineering technologists and technicians was $54,080.

How to Become a Bookkeeping, Accounting, or Auditing Clerk

A general degree in mathematics or associate degree in accounting is likely more than enough education for bookkeeping, accounting, and auditing clerks, as most of these clerks only need some college education. Some of these clerks are hired with only a high school diploma, but coursework in accounting is helpful. There are professional certifications available in the field to demonstrate students' expertise. These clerks are responsible for creating and organizing financial records and performing various financial transactions, based on their position. Experience and education can help advance these clerks to positions as accountants or auditors. The median annual salary for bookkeeping, accounting, and auditing clerks was $42,410 as of 2020, per the BLS.

Scholarships and Financial Aid for Associate Degrees in STEM

To help pay for the cost of tuition, fees, books, materials, and more while earning an online STEM associate degree, students can apply for various forms of financial aid. All students, no matter undergraduate or graduate, online or on-campus, should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) each year to determine their eligibility for federal or state loans and grants. Unlike loans, grants and scholarships do not have to be paid back and are, therefore, a common and favorable form of aid. Grants and scholarships are provided by a wide range of sources for different reasons. Some awards focus on specific populations, such as women in STEM scholarships or a specific subject area. Explore some scholarship options here.

American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Undergraduate Scholarships

The AIAA offers several undergraduate scholarships for science and engineering students interested in air and space sciences. Applicants to the various scholarships need to meet general requirements of AIAA membership, earning a 3.3 or higher GPA, completing at least 1 semester of college courses, and being enrolled at an accredited school. The different awards sometimes have additional requirements, and award amounts vary from $500 to $10,000.

The Simplr Artificial Intelligence and Technology Scholarship

Simplr is an AI company that offers this $7,500 scholarship to winners of their essay contest. Students must be enrolled full-time as an undergraduate or graduate student in computer science, information technology, or mathematics. The essay must address topics in AI, blockchain technology, internet of things, and intellectual property law.

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers Scholarships

The ASME provides scholarships to high school, undergraduate, or graduate students studying mechanical engineering technology or mechanical engineering. Applicants must be enrolled full-time at a community college, college, or university, and have student membership to the ASME. Students also need to meet a GPA requirement and have to attend an ABET-accredited program.

National Science Foundation STEM Scholarship

Mathematics scholarships are most commonly available at the bachelor's, master's, and doctoral levels, but are fairly rare for associate degree programs. Students planning on majoring in math may be best off to pursue STEM scholarships that are open to undergraduates. One of these awards from the NSF is open to students pursuing an associate, bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degree in a STEM field.

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