STEM Education in K-12 Schools: Where are we?

There were a series of articles in Education Week on the status of science education in America. While most of them focused on science education specifically, a number of them more broadly addressed issues in STEM education. Below is the list of Ed Week articles I am referencing, as well as their links (without a subscription to Ed Week you might only be able to read a summary).  

  1. STEM Education: A Permanent Crisis?, by Michael Marder
  2. Advice from the Science Classroom, by Justin Louie
  3. Ideas for Growing a Bigger, Better STEM Field, by Jen Gutierrez
  4. Good Science Teaching Requires Continuous Learning, by Kirsten Daehler
  5. Rural Science Teachers Need Specialized Training, by Jessica Waller and Lynn Bryan
  6. Focusing in on Science Learning, editorial

Each article focuses on a different aspect of the science and STEM education environment in America, but there are some common themes running through them.  In America, we have a crisis on our hands with regard to recruiting, educating, and retaining a viable, robust and dynamic STEM workforce, especially in K-12 education.  In addition, most STEM education is delivered through the perspective of the teacher sharing his or her knowledge rather than through the perspective of the student discovering and making meaning out of what they are asked to master.  It tends to be a delivery rather than an inquiry approach to teaching and learning.  While not exhaustive, here is a list of my takeaways from the articles.

  • We have a significant STEM teacher shortage in America (EnCorps, STEM Teacher Program).
  • Overall, the long-term progress report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress is not overly positive when it comes to students’ math and science achievement over time.  For 17 year old students, the average NAEP Math score in 1973 was 304, while in 2008 the average Math score was 306.  Over that time we have invested hundreds of billions of dollars in education.  (Click here)
  • A large percentage of STEM teachers in America do not hold a major or minor, or certification, in the field in which they teach.  In 2007, about 33 percent of public middle school science teachers either did not major in the subject in college and/or are not certified to teach it and 36 percent of public middle school math teachers in 2007 either did not major in the subject in college and/or are not certified to teach it.  (Click here)
  • A larger percentage of STEM majors in college do not want to teach for a variety of reasons.
  • Many businesses in need of the STEM workforce hire people from overseas because American schools and universities are not effectively educating our own students or enticing them into STEM professions.  In 1994, there were 6.2 U.S.-born workers for every foreign-born worker in science and engineering occupations. By 2006, the ratio was 3.1 to 1.  (Click here)
  • Businesses, universities, colleges and K-12 schools are not coordinated in their efforts to create high-quality educational programs that are meaningful and relevant to students.
  • Only 48% of 8th grade science teachers have a undergraduate major in science.
  • The voices of science educators in America are not necessarily at the table when policy decisions are made.
  • The “crisis,” in STEM fields and specially science, is linked to a “dearth of high-quality science education.”  “But it is also true that the public school system of the United States, the richest country in the world, still struggles to educate our citizens about science and to make that education relevant and present in their daily lives.” (Slate article, by Bella Boggs)
  • We lack a system-wide approach for educating, recruiting and supporting a STEM teacher workforce.
  • Next Generation Science Standards offer an innovative way to understand and approach teaching science in America, but most science teachers do not understand the standards nor do they understand how to design curricula aligned to the standards.  
  • Science teacher education programs need to focus on pedagogy and content expertise (most likely true for all STEM fields). While understanding content is not sufficient to being a good STEM educator, it is important that STEM educators have relatively deep content knowledge.
  • Partnerships between businesses, foundations, federal and state agencies, colleges, and K-12 schools need to be nurtured.
  • 40 States and the District of Columbia report shortages in science teachers in this past school year, and 2 out of every 5 high schools don’t offer physics because they cannot find qualified teachers. (Click here for a list of resources from American Institute on Research)
  • K-12 schools need to support all teachers, but how should their support for science (STEM) teachers to grow professionally be different, as a means to solidify retention. 17% of teachers leave the profession within their first five years.
  • The culture of K-12 education in America tends to demonize teachers as part of the problem for why students do not learn. How do we elevate the teaching profession in America and embrace teachers as part of the solution and not as part of the problem?
  • Science (STEM fields) is a dynamic discipline. Science educators need to be continuous learners within their field of interest. How do we design and foster a culture of continuous learning?
  • Educational leaders must understand the ingredients or standards that comprise high-quality professional learning and support the design of programs aligned to these standards.

After reading these articles and looking at the data, it’s seems obvious that if we want to improve student learning in STEM disciplines we must disrupt the traditional approach to teaching and learning, both in K-12 and higher education.  We should consider adopting an approach or goal that ignites the natural curiosity that students bring to school.  In order to accomplish this goal, we should encourage students to explore ideas, engage with relevant and meaningful content, explain their understanding of the content in authentic ways, extend and apply their knowledge in new situations, and evaluate whether they have mastered the goals we set for them.  In this approach, students are more partners in the learning rather than merely passive recipients of the teacher’s defined, and sometimes limited knowledge.  The teacher, as content expert, is there to facilitate the learning, providing challenging questions and a learning framework for students to explore.  In this model, students are also partners in the strategies used to assess whether the learning goals are being mastered.

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), as well as standards in other STEM disciplines, offer us a pathway to rethink our approach to helping students deeply learn the content and skills unique to each discipline. In addition to rethinking our approach to teaching and learning in STEM disciplines, we have another challenge: rethink how we “build bridges” between the content and skills across disciplines so that students learn to think in complex and interconnected ways.  In his book, Innovator’s DNA, Jeff Dwyer and colleagues discuss the five skills they find in disruptive innovators.  The first four are: questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting.  The fifth skill, associating, emerges out of the practice of the other four skills.  In associative thinking, a disruptive innovator is capable of seeing the connections between questions, problems or ideas from related or unrelated disciplines.  In K-12 STEM education, we help students learn to associatively think when we create transdisciplinary curricula (click here for a definition) that helps them to grapple with questions, problems or ideas that cut across the different disciplines.  In the case of science, it happens when we embed in our curricula the cross-cutting concepts outlined in the NGSS.

We need the courage and will to rethink how we teach STEM disciplines, moving from a teacher-centered, siloed approach to a student-centered, transdisciplinary approach. If we, STEM educators, start by adopting an inquiry mindset and tap into students’ natural curiosity we are likely to find our way out of these challenges into a new way of students experiencing STEM learning in schools.  In parallel with changes in K-12 education, we need higher education to accept the same challenges, equipping future STEM educators with an inquiry mindset.  This could happen if we apply the same principles for teaching STEM educators that we expect them to use in their future K-12 STEM classes.  Finally, strong partnerships between K-12 schools, colleges and local organizations provide opportunities for STEM educators to connect the student learning experience to meaningful and relevant problems that require the application of their knowledge and skills.

1 comment on “STEM Education in K-12 Schools: Where are we?

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