STEM Education

Overview

STEM Education

Calls to improve education in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math have taken on fresh urgency in recent years. With U.S. prospects for prosperity increasingly seen as tied to performance in the STEM fields, the education community has stepped up efforts to rethink and revamp how U.S. students are educated in those subjects and groomed for technical careers.

Calls to improve education in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math have taken on fresh urgency in recent years. With U.S. prospects for prosperity increasingly seen as tied to performance in the STEM fields, the education community has stepped up efforts to rethink and revamp how U.S. students are educated in those subjects and groomed for technical careers.

Think tanks, federally backed foundations and large nonprofits have proposed new state science standards, for example. Policymakers have looked to engage more students in STEM, especially the female and minority students who are underrepresented in science and engineering. Adult learning programs and projects to produce better-trained STEM teachers have been coupled with funding from federal incentive grants and big-ticket public-private partnerships.  A key goal is to produce more Americans capable of creating the technological innovations that undergird economic success—and stable careers for adults. This Topics section examines what the emphasis on STEM education means for reporters who cover schools.

According to one study from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, the STEM world is subject to high degrees of attrition at all levels. Only 25 percent of STEM-capable K-12 students actually pursue a major in science, engineering or math when they enter college. Only 38 percent of students who start with a STEM major graduate with a STEM degree. Slightly more than half of those take on a STEM-related job, but – by the 10-year mark in their careers – nearly half of those workers are out of the STEM workforce. 

The center attributes that churn to various complex causes. They conclude, though, that a constant demand exists for new talent within the technology industries, fields in which employment opportunities generally have fared well despite tough economic times. And those job prospects appear likely to grow. By 2018, it is projected some 2.4 million STEM job openings will be available, according to the CEW research (The National Governors Association puts the number at 8 million), and 92 percent of those positions will require some postsecondary education and training.

STEM Growth Initiatives

Policymakers see statistics such as these as a battle cry to boost the nation’s performance – and productivity – in teaching and learning science and math. Indeed, in his 2011 State of the Union speech, President Obama declared the need for better STEM education a “Sputnik moment,” a direct reference to the impetus that the launch of that Soviet satellite during the Cold War gave to America’s scientists and technology-based industries in 1957. With STEM education, the challenge is not how to send a man to the moon and back, but how to improve the ways STEM fields are taught so that students maintain interest in them throughout the course of an education and career.

For his part, Obama has called on the private sector and large foundations to support STEM projects, such as the 100Kin10 initiative. The project, founded in 2011, aims to train and recruit 100,000 new STEM teachers over 10 years. For example, one partner in the initiative, the California State University system, intends to graduate 1,500 STEM educators a year through 2015, half of whom would teach at high-needs schools for a three-year period.

The 100Kin10 project has gathered more than 100 partners from the private and public sectors, and the partners will contribute to the initiative in differing ways. Google, for instance, will design a program to recognize the top 5 percent of STEM teachers nationwide, while the University of Chicago will study the efforts of 100Kin10 to propose best practices for future top-tier teacher recruitment and training.

Initiatives such as this recently have bloomed around the topic of science and math education. Like the state-led efforts to create Common Core national learning standards in English language arts and math, the Next Generation Science Standards initiative aims to produce science and technology standards. The standards are  designed and supported by organizations including the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Change the Equation, and Achieve. The groups have cited a need to revamp the ways science is taught in light of dynamic Internet tools that could aid instruction, as well as new research on how students learn.

Learning Science

How students learn matters, of course. The Center on Time and Learning determined fourth-grade students who approach science lessons almost every day through “inquiry-based” learning– or projects-based instruction – scored 16 points higher on the 2009 NAEP science assessment than those who were not taught through the use of hands-on projects. But access to costly science equipment and lab time is not always a given. And in the No Child Left Behind era, elementary schools have cut instructional time for science: According to a 2009 Center on Education Policy report, half of all districts cut elementary science instruction by 75 minutes a week or more.

Getting younger students more interested in science and math is a central challenge. How students view their science courses can have a substantial effect on whether they’ll pursue a STEM college and career trajectory. Studies indicate that merely generating more buzz about science classes can be effective. A 2011 University of Virginia study found that, “student interest and self-confidence in science and math in high school are strongly associated with students continuing STEM studies through college,” more so than achievement factors. Interest in math and science appears to be growing according to at least one indicator: The number of students taking an Advanced Placement science test grew from 134,669 in 2001 to 313,452 in 2011. In math, test-takers jumped in number from 166,624 to 330,296 over that same period. 

STEM advocates are particularly interested in getting more women, African-Americans and Latinos to pursue science and math education, fields in which they have been historically underrepresented in both higher education and the workforce. Only 23 percent of STEM jobs are filled by women, according the Georgetown analysis. African-Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics represented only 9.1 percent of college-educated Americans in the science and engineering workforce even though they accounted for a rapidly rising 28.5 percent of the U.S. population in2006, according to a 2010 report from the National Academies.

One explanation for the shortage of female STEM graduates in higher education is that the perception that the sciences are biased toward men. A study by the American Association of University Women found that females are less confident than males in math and science courses; are likely to feel they must outperform males to gain equal footing; and are more likely to view their talents in a negative light even if their scores are on par with that of males.

The reasons for the underrepresentation of some minorities in the STEM world are just as complex. Policymakers are proposing some initiatives to boost the participation of these groups. For example, U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) introduced a law in spring 2012 that would enable the National Science Foundation to give grants to colleges to “increase the number of students from underrepresented minority groups receiving degrees in [STEM] fields, and to recruit, retain, and advance STEM faculty members from underrepresented minority groups.” As of June 2012, the legislation had not moved forward.

Some critics of the push to ratchet up STEM education argue that the STEM-skilled worker shortage is a myth; they note that only 40 percent (2.7 million) of men and 26 percent (0.6 million) of women with STEM degrees work in STEM-related jobs, according to 2009 federal figures. The problem is not educating students, they say, but rather keeping STEM-skilled employees in their respective fields. Many STEM-educated workers pursue higher-paying careers in finance and management – even though STEM jobs pay well above the average for college-educated workers. The migration of math and engineering students to high-paying jobs that demand sophisticated number-crunching skills is well documented.

Critics also question whether the United States’ opportunity to develop homegrown STEM talent is being affected by the presence of foreign nationals in postsecondary education and the workforce. About 59 percent of Ph.D. recipients in engineering programs in 2009 were foreign-born, and 17 percent of STEM workers were born abroad, compared with the overall workforce average of 12 percent, according to the research from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. Whether foreign nationals are pushing out U.S. candidates, or filling in holes left by low domestic interest in STEM, remains an unresolved debate.

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Source: Flickr via ||read|| (CC BY 2.0)

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(Flickr/Mathematical Association of America)

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Source: Flickr/ via HackNY.org (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Jo Boaler speakers to reporters during EWA's seminar on motivation held at Stanford University in November (Credit: Stanford University/Marc Franklin)

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69th EWA National Seminar

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Co-hosted by Boston University’s College of Communication and School of Education, EWA’s 69th National Seminar will examine a wide array of timely topics in education — from early childhood through career — while expanding and sharpening participants’ skills in reporting and storytelling.

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Andresse St. Rose of the American Association of University Women speaks at "STEM and Beyond" on Feb. 21.

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Linda Rosen speaks at EWA's seminar for reporters, "STEM and Beyond: Strengthening the Skills of Students and Journalists."

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Photo credit: Mikhail Zinshteyn

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Story Lab

Story Lab: The Common Core

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Keeping Up With Common Core: Will Learning Soar or Stall?

News coverage of the process and politics surrounding the Common Core State Standards has become relatively plentiful. But less attention has been paid to the longer-lasting instructional changes that are already affecting students and teachers. To address that gap, EWA hosted this event with top experts on the shifts in math and literacy instruction that the standards are designed to bring about. Consider this your intro class to the new Common Core content.

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STEM Stepping-Stones: Covering College Prep in the Summer
1 hour

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EWA Radio

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EWA Radio

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NAEP Science Results: Grade 8

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Organization

STEM Learning Studios

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Organization

The STEM Education Coalition

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Organization

The National Science Teachers Association

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Organization

The National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation “is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 ‘to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…’” The NSF has been particularly focused on increasing the numbers of black and Latino students who pursue STEM degrees.

Organization

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics “is a public voice of mathematics education, supporting teachers to ensure equitable mathematics learning of the highest quality for all students through vision, leadership, professional development, and research.”

Organization

Change the Equation

Change the Equation “is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, CEO-led initiative that is mobilizing the business community to improve the quality of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning in the United States.” The organization was founded in 2010 and quickly has become one of the more vocal advocates of STEM education.

Organization

The American Association of University Women

The American Association of University Women “advances equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, philanthropy, and research.” Since its founding in 1881, the association has addressed the concerns of women in education, most recently focusing its efforts on attracting more female students to science and mathematics majors in college.

Key Coverage

At Technology High School, Goal Isn’t to Finish in 4 Years

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Key Coverage

College Is Dead. Long Live College!

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Report

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Key Coverage

Public University Association, NASA Host Minority Male STEM Symposium

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Key Coverage

Colleges Are Urged to Cooperate to Bring More Women and Minorities Into Science

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Key Coverage

Community Colleges Front and Center of Manufacturing Recovery

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Also noted in the article: Community colleges are becoming much more entrepreneurial.

Key Coverage

Survival Factor

This article notes the average time a tenured professor spends teaching in a STEM field varies by subject, with math professors sticking around an average of seven years, while female biology professors remain in their positions for 16 years. There were notable gaps in the length of time women and men stay in their roles, and the article points out that just over a quarter of the professors that appeared in the findings were female.

Report

Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics

The president’s council on STEM argues the STEM pipeline needs an additional one million STEM workers in the coming years. The report notes less than 40 percent of students who choose STEM as an academic interest stay in the field. Upping that to 50 percent would achieve roughly 750,000 new STEM workers. Other solutions for engaging more would-be STEM workers include using evidence-based teaching methods at the college level and assisting students who have the aptitude for the sciences but lack a requisite knowledge of mathematics.

Report

Many federally funded STEM programs overlap

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education: Strategic Planning Needed to Better Manage Overlapping Programs Across Multiple Agencies analyzes the number of federally funded STEM programs, the degree of similarity among them, and the efforts made to measure their effectiveness. The GAO found overlaps among 83% of the 209 STEM education programs examined. The criteria for overlap are that programs have at least one similar target population, provide at least one similar service with at least one similar STEM field of focus, and have at least one similar program objective.

Report

Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding

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Report

State of State Science Standards

This review of state science standards argues that clarity and breadth in standards can help with instruction and promote sound analytical skills. The report concludes that many states are vague in the content educators are expected to teach. Only 25 percent of the states reviewed received a “B” or higher from Fordham, while roughly half of the jurisdictions had a score of “D” or below. The standards also shirk guidelines on how to link inquiry-based learning with content, according to the researchers.

Coupled with cuts in the time students spend in science classrooms, these shortcomings can have negative effects on not only proficiency but interest in the subjects, as well, the report concludes.

Report

Vital Signs: Reports on the Condition of STEM Learning in the U.S.

This study, collaboration between Change the Equation—an organization for corporate executives concerned about STEM education—and the American Institutes for Research, demonstrates that of 37 state science standards reviewed, only four are on par with the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ standards. Though roughly two-thirds of states claim their eighth grade students are proficient, an ACT 2011 study noted only 16 percent of eighth graders are college ready in the sciences.

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Strengthening Science Education: The Power of More Time to Deepen Inquiry and Engagement

This report looks at science instruction innovations brought forth at four K-12 schools. Through a combination of grants and support from non-profit groups, these schools were able to expand science learning in the classroom using inquiry-based methods. The motivation behind increased science learning is two-fold: on average, science class instruction was cut by 75 minutes (33 percent) from pre-NCLB levels, and students that engage with inquiry-based learning score 16 points higher on NAEP Science than those who don’t.

Key Coverage

California Teachers Lack the Resources and Time to Teach Science

This article brings attention to city teachers’ concerns they lack the resources and time to teach science. Due to a redoubling of focus on ELA and math during the NCLB era, many elementary school teachers have left science instruction on the backburner, use their own funds to acquire supplies, and lack outright science training themselves. From the article: “Only 10% of elementary students regularly receive hands-on science lessons, the report found.

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STEM: Science Technology Engineering Math

This study carefully lays out the reasons STEM is not a supply issue, but a demand issue. Many STEM educated workers pursue higher-paying careers in finance and management—even though STEM jobs pay high above the average for college-educated workers.

(The migration of math and engineering students toward very high paying financial services jobs demanding number crunching skills has been well-told.) The influx of foreign students pursuing STEM education has been blamed by some for a crowding out effect, displacing would-be American STEM workers and graduates—17 percent of STEM workers are foreign-born, compared to the overall workforce average of 12 percent, while 59 percent of PhD recipients in engineering programs in 2009 were foreign-born. Whether foreign nationals are pushing U.S. STEM candidates out or filling in holes due to low domestic interest in the fields is an unresolved debate.

Key Coverage

New STEM Schools Target Underrepresented Groups

This article highlights a school operating out of the University of North Carolina State that is one of several K-12 institutions focusing specifically on project-based STEM learning. While some of the top—and most selective—high schools have been science-based, the UNC State school and others are reaching out to low-income and minority students. The North Carolina school’s curriculum is shaped by The National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century, which stress instruction that combines science exploration with other core subjects.

For example, students read Lord of the Flies and were then tasked with coming up with science-based survival guides.

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Engaging Students’ Interest, Not Just Offering Advanced Classes, Best Promotes Interest in STEM Careers

This study found that “student interest and self-confidence in science and math in high school are strongly associated with students continuing STEM studies through college,” more so than achievement factors. Consistent with the fifteen-year trend in favor of inquiry-based learning, “teacher emphasis on further study in STEM has a positive association with persisting in STEM fields,” while lectures and emphasis on facts and rules were negatively associated.

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The Condition of College and Career Readiness

This ACT overview tracks student readiness for core subjects at the college level, even evaluating eighth grade preparedness. It offers breakdowns by demographics, gender, and socio-economics, and demonstrates subject readiness based on whether students took four, three, or fewer years of classes for a particular core subject

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AP Report to the Nation

Advanced Placement test results over time show more and more students are taking advanced STEM courses in high school, with the percentage of students passing going down in the process. Since 2001, the number of students taking an AP science test grew from 134,669 to 2011’s 313,452, while the pass rate going down from 57 percent to 49 percent. In math, test takers jumped in number from 166,624 to 330,296, with the pass rate dropping 63 to 58 percent.

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A View from the Gatekeepers: STEM Department Chairs at America’s Top 200 Research Universities on Female and Underrepresented Minority Undergraduate STEM Students

This survey demonstrates that while 82 percent of science department heads at U.S. universities believe females are the most academically prepared for STEM courses (compared to 74 percent who felt the same way about majority students), few are earning degrees in the field. The survey asked 200 science department heads a range of questions related to minority outreach, expectations of increased participation among women, and scores of other demographic-tinged inquiries.

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Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics

One explanation for the dearth of female STEM graduates is the perception that men are better suited for the sciences. This study finds females are less confident than males in math and science courses; are likely to feel they must outperform males to gain equal footing; and are more likely to view their talents in a negative light even if their scores are on par with that of males.

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Steady as She Goes? Three Generations of Students through the Science and Engineering Pipeline

This team of Rutgers researchers determined that from high school to college, and then college to career advancement in STEM, production in the STEM pipeline has either remained steady or improved since the 1970s. This report counters a Georgetown University study chronicling the attrition rate of STEM-capable students at the K-12 level all the way through mid-career placement.

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Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation

This overview of women in STEM lays out the major trends in employment, pay, job retention, types of degrees earned, and so on. A look at the STEM workforce shows the percentage of females employed in science and technology positions is half of the overall share of women in the workplace. 24 percent of the STEM jobs are filled by women.

Lending credence to the notion there’s no lack of STEM talent, but a lack of demand for that talent, about 40 percent (2.7 million) of men and 26 percent (0.6 million) of women with STEM degrees work in STEM-related jobs, according to these 2009 federal figures.

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Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8

This publication tries to explain how students learn about science. The authors draw on work from neuroscience and classroom observation, providing a detailed account of what K-8 students are capable of learning. Some of the questions it answers include: “How can teachers be taught to teach science?” “When do children begin to learn about science? Are there critical stages in a child’s development of such scientific concepts as mass or animate objects?” “What role does nonschool learning play in children’s knowledge of science?”

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The National Science Foundation: A Brief History

This is a history of the National Science Foundation, providing interesting and little-mentioned nuggets on the federal government’s involvement in establishing rigorous lab research facilities after World War II and early efforts to train science teachers at the high school level. One eye-catcher in particular: Federal officials were worried that the uptick in college science students and graduates through the G.I. Bill would overwhelm laboratory supplies, creating an impetus to provide new lab equipment for a generation of science students.

And, even before Sputnik, Congress encouraged NSF to offer science workshops to high school teachers.