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Under the Microscope: Examining STEM Education

Back to Skills

Politicians and CEOs alike deplore the lack of graduates with the skills to fill science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs. But what will it take to get students interested in STEM fields, and how do schools teach those subjects effectively? How can higher ed encourage American students to pursue STEM when so many are inclined to switch majors? How do school systems and universities better cultivate STEM talent so that the nation’s teaching corps is up to the challenge?

On Feb. 8, EWA will offer an intensive one-day conference for journalists on how to cover those critical questions and more.

To prepare reporters for the event, EWA has assembled news articles and opinion pieces, as well as academic studies, that can lend context to the STEM seminar tomorrow.

On Mentoring and the Sciences: ”Perhaps no other field of human endeavor serves as directly and forcefully as a “flight school” for the human spirit as teaching and learning.

Along with great teachers and mentors, however, there is more we, as a society, need to be providing to today’s students. Better literacy skills are certainly near the top of the list. According to results from the key 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment, out of 34 countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math. The current lack of high-level math and science skills are a particular concern when it comes to today’s American student. Our nation’s well-traveled path of excellence in science, technology, engineering, and math — which put a man on the moon, led the biotechnology revolution, and transformed the way the world connects and communicates — is no longer leading us where we need to go. Education in these fields, known collectively as the STEM subjects, is not adequately preparing today’s students to solve our most pressing challenges and extend our rich history of global leadership.” (Vartan Gregorian, President of Carnegie Corporation of New York)

New Science-Standards Draft Includes Many Changes:  The Next Generation Science Standards underwent a major facelift in the latest round of tweaks following a long public comment period. Achieve, a major player in getting the Common Core State Standards off the ground, says in an interview with Education Week that 95 percent of the performance expectations have been changed compared to the previous version. The final set of standards is slated to be revealed in March. Twenty-six states are involved in molding the science standards into a body of work teachers and districts can get behind, though no state is required to adopt the standards outright. The details are technical, but Ed Week distills the issues admirably:

“Each standard in the draft is organized into a table for the given topic at each grade level or grade range. The table has three main sections, starting with performance expectations at the top. Below that are “foundation” boxes that expand on and explain those performance expectations in relation to three dimensions: science and engineering practices; disciplinary core ideas; and cross-cutting concept statements. And last are “connection” boxes that relate the core idea to other science standards, as well as to the common-core standards in English/language arts and math.” (Erik W. Robelen, Education Week)

U.S. Schools Fair Better in Analysis: One of the motivating factors in creating a policy initiative around STEM is the threat other countries pose to U.S. economic interests with their perceived strengths in subjects like math and science. But what if the international studies used to make those cross-national comparisons overstate America’s lag? A new study suggests that U.S. scores appear low relative to other leading countries because we test more low-income students.

In fact, after comparing test scores of poor students across the globe, U.S. pupils from the lower economic rungs outperform their international peers. Interestingly, it’s the top U.S. students that are falling behind to their international peers.

In leading countries like Finland, test scores have gone down, especially among its poorer students. (Jill Tucker, San Francisco Chronicle)

The Immigration Debate and STEM Workers: “Vivek Wadhwa, director of research at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University, told the lawmakers that immigrants are highly entrepreneurial and responsible for a disproportionate share of startups in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.

Wadhwa said opening the door to more well-educated foreigners can only benefit the U.S. economy “because the pie gets bigger.”

Michael Teitelbaum, former vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, offered some caution.

The commission, which operated between 1991 and 1997, concluded that promoting immigration by high-skilled foreigners was in Americans’ interest because it made the country more competitive. However, Teitelbaum said, the shortage of STEM workers doesn’t exist everywhere, and the influx of overseas workers should be tailored to the labor situation.” (Kyung M. Song, The Seattle Times)

Common Core Assessments Could Be Big Improvement: A new study argues that if the new standard in U.S. education is to teach to the test, the test should be worth teaching to. If that’s the case, proponents of a stronger curriculum in classrooms have reason to be cautiously optimistic. The report concluded the groups picked to design the assessments tied to the Common Core have the potential to create models that are more intellectually demanding than what states currently use to gauge student knowledge. (Mikhail Zinshteyn, EdMedia Commons)

The Disparity in STEM Access for Young Students: ”‘Students from impoverished areas generally have not met STEM professionals, do not know about STEM careers. It’s generally out of the realm of their experience,’ said Linda Rosen, the CEO of Change the Equation.

The principal of McKinley, David Pinder, says that STEM classes engage students with its non-traditional approach to learning.

‘The kids have a chance to do math and science in a different way,’ said Pinder. ‘There’s plenty of opportunities to build relationships with their friends because it’s project based.’” (Cindy Huang, PBS)

Why America’s Kids Need New Standards for Science Education: An earth scientist and co-writer of the Next Generation Science Standards goes to bat for the project, beginning with an anecdote involving the (now parted) threat of global Armageddon as a result of the Mayans not considering our sensitivities all those years ago. It’s a funny introduction to a problem the writer has with what he calls a low level of earth science instruction in our nation’s schools. (If there were more of these classes, kids and adults would know geology trumps ancient calendars, he argues.) Getting back to the nuts and bolts of NGSS, the author writes:

“The aim of NGSS is to identify what students can do, not what they know. After all, if you want to know how many planets there are, you can always look that up on the web. If you want to understand why they are important and how they function as part of a system, the solar system, then there are a set of practices you should do, which the NGSS identify as (1) Asking Questions and Defining Problems, (2) Developing and Using Models, (3) Planning and Carrying Out Investigations, (4) Analyzing and Interpreting Data, (5) Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking, (6) Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions, (7) Engaging in Argument from Evidence, and (8) Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information.” (Michael Wysession, Scientific American)

The STEM Standards are Lacking, Think Tank Report: ”A Washington think tank is offering a strongly-worded critique of the second and final public draft of the common science standards, arguing that without major changes the document would not represent a step forward for many states.

‘If draft 2.0 were to become the final version of [the Next Generation Science Standards], only states with exceptionally weak science standards of their own would likely benefit from replacing them with these … standards,” write Checker Finn and Kathleen Porter-Magee of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in a foreword to the organization’s comments. “We sincerely hope that this situation can be significantly altered and improved by the NGSS team between now and the issuance of their final version a few months hence.’” (Erik W. Robelen, Education Week)

What Science Shortage? “So what’s going on? Simply put, a desire for cheap, skilled labor, within the business world and academia, has fueled assertions—based on flimsy and distorted evidence—that American students lack the interest and ability to pursue careers in science and engineering, and has spurred policies that have flooded the market with foreign STEM workers. This has created a grim reality for the scientific and technical labor force: glutted job markets; few career jobs; low pay, long hours, and dismal job prospects for postdoctoral researchers in university labs; near indentured servitude for holders of temporary work visas.” (Beryl Lieff Benderly, Columbia Journalism Review)

Do We Produce Enough Mathematics and Science Teachers? “Empirical research on the supply and demand of math and science teachers finds some surprising results. The employment of qualified math and science teachers has more than kept pace with the demand, and most schools find qualified teachers for those positions. However, about a third of public schools — particularly high-poverty, high-minority, and urban public schools — have difficulty finding math and science teachers. This is caused by the high rates of teacher turnover in these schools.” (Professor Richard Ingersoll)

Obama plans $1B effort to build “Master Teacher Corps” of elite math, science teachers ”The Obama administration unveiled plans Wednesday to create an elite corps of master teachers, a $1 billion effort to boost U.S. students’ achievement in science, technology, engineering and math.” (AP)