Blog: The Educated Reporter

A Simple Solution For Growing STEM

Earlier this week President Obama announced plans for a $1 billion “Master Teacher Corps,” that would reward superior K-12 educators in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) with up to $20,000 annually. This plan is just the latest endeavor in a nationwide push to focus on STEM learning, and to improve the United States’ global competitiveness.

But there could be a simpler way to achieve this goal: A new study published in the journal Psychological Science found that parents might be an “untapped resource” for steering students into higher-level STEM classes. (Thanks to Education Week’s Erik Robelen for showcasing the findings.)

According to researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and James Madison University, sending parents two glossy brochures and a link to a website that promoted STEM subjects was enough to boost student enrollment in those courses. As Robelen reported, students took on average nearly one additional semester of science and mathematics coursework in high school than their peers in the control group whose families did not receive the promotional materials.

“Our focus for this project was different from our previous work,” said lead author Judith Harackiewicz, of the University of Wisconsin, in a written statement for the journal. “In classes, we try to promote students’ motivation and performance in that class, but with families, our goal is to promote choices about which courses to take.”
There are massive campaigns underway to boost STEM learning in the United States, from the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s efforts to add 100,000 high-quality teachers in those subjects in the next 10 years, to efforts by CEOs of major corporations to improve the quality and quantity of instruction through the Change the Equation initiative. But could one solution actually be as straightforward as what the new study describes?

Certainly, the influence of families on a student’s educational path can’t be overstated. That’s one reason why schools are continually testing new methods of improving communication, from replacing the “backpack express” with emails to setting up online networks for parents to track their children’s attendance, homework and grades.

“Although some people question whether parents wield any influence, we think of parents as an untapped resource,” Harackiewicz said. “This study shows that it is possible to help parents help their teens make academic choices that will prepare them for the future.”

I’m curious to know more about why these particular brochures, delivered through good old-fashioned snail mail, were so effective. Was it just an example of savvy marketing? Or were parents primed to give the brochures more serious consideration as a result of STEM education moving closer to the front burner of public debate?

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