Part 2 – How do we fix STEM education?

Abigail Ahlert, Graduate student in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, CU Boulder

As detailed in Part 1, STEM education in the U.S. is facing significant problems. With mediocre national test scores, low retention rates and a growing, unmet demand for STEM skills in the workforce, it’s easy to assume that the issues in STEM education have evolved beyond the point of repair. However, there are multiple areas of opportunity at the local and national levels. While some of the solutions are more contentious than others, people across the country are working to jumpstart STEM education.

With a shortage of STEM instructors, many current high school science and math teachers did not receive a college degree in the field that they are teaching.  This doesn’t automatically mean that they’re bad teachers—as Linda Rosen, CEO of the STEM education advocacy group Change the Equation, says, “There are a lot of dedicated people who are trying their best.” However, this statistic has many asking how we can employ more teachers with STEM degrees.

One strategy is to provide those with backgrounds in science, math or technology with a relatively straightforward path to teaching certifications. The UTeach Institute, a university-based teacher preparation program, was designed in 1997 to increase the number of STEM teachers in U.S. secondary schools.  UTeach has partnerships in 21 states, where it has implemented its eight course degree-supplement program in 44 universities. This allows students to gain a teaching certificate without additional years of education after their bachelor’s degrees. For those who have already completed their undergraduate degree, the NASA Endeavor STEM Teaching Certificate Project offers online courses towards a Master’s Degree in Education or a Certificate in STEM Leadership. It includes course options such as “Action Research in the STEM Classroom” and “The E in STEM: Meaningful Content for Engineering”.

A different tactic to address the STEM teaching shortage is to raise the salaries of middle and high school teachers. Aside from my personal opinions on what kind of pay teachers deserve, this solution seems logical. The average salary of a high school teacher in the U.S. is around $57,200 per year, while that of a mechanical engineer is $83,590 per year. This difference likely influences the career choices of those exiting college with engineering or other STEM degrees. However, evidence suggests that quality of work environment and lack of support from school districts may be bigger deterrents than low pay. Some districts in North Carolina and Oklahoma have implemented teacher salary raises and seen improvements in hiring, but it’s difficult to know the long-term impacts of these incentives.

Furthermore, in the wake of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, gaps in school curricula have become topics of public discussion. In addition to the politics of who should make decisions about educational standards, Common Core raises the question of how many courses in math and science students should take through secondary school.  Do more STEM class requirements yield greater understanding of the subjects?

stemkidsThe Colorado Education Initiative.

A panel called Successful Stem Education assembled by the National Science Foundation argues that other factors are more important than the sheer number of courses. In their brief “STEM Smart: Lessons Learned from Successful Schools,” the panel identifies three problems in U.S. STEM courses: “they are less focused, with too many topics covered in each grade; less rigorous, with students studying more basic topics; and less coherent, with an often illogical progression from topic to topic.” The panel offers recommendations to increase student productivity, including relating science to the daily of lives of students, employing hands-on and decision-making activities in the classroom and focusing lessons on the most important subjects of each discipline (a complex choice in itself).

Beyond the typical public school setting is the idea of public STEM-focused high schools. These high schools are meant to provide the kind of in-depth and interactive science and math education that the Successful Stem Education panel recommends. STEM-focused high schools often require or offer a wider variety of Advanced Placement (AP) coursework, which are valuable indicators of student preparation for college-level work.  A study published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching shows that attending a STEM-focused high school increases the likelihood that a student will complete calculus or chemistry in high school, enhances interest in science careers and has a positive impact on student grade point average. Often, STEM-focused schools emphasize diversity and make efforts to provide opportunities for underrepresented groups. Success in this area is a mixed bag: racial minorities make up over 50% of the student body in the top three STEM-focused high schools in the country, but 10% or less of these student bodies are economically disadvantaged.

Attracting and retaining minorities in STEM is a crucial step in fixing the “leaky pipeline” of underrepresented students considering careers in science or engineering. When searching for ways to create more inclusive environments for minorities, there appears to be a resounding answer: mentorship. Mentorship can take many forms, but a mentor is defined as “someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person”. A study conducted over multiple years at Central State University, a Historically Black University, found that students rated mentorship as having “the largest impact on their academic performance”. This strategy, often adopted in business, is also useful for retaining women in STEM. For example, the Women in Science and Engineering Campaign (WISE) provides easy access to guest speakers, mentors and events that “help us build and sustain the pipeline of female talent”. This group has grown to a staggering size since its founding in 1984, with chapters in both the U.S. and United Kingdom and hundreds of corporate and educational members.

All in all, the issues within STEM education are complex and unwieldy. They are broad-reaching and affect groups of people differently, making them difficult to address with one cure-all solution. But there are ways forward and people working hard to empower students in STEM. STEM education is a problem the U.S. will continue to grapple with, but as long as it continues to grapple, there will be progress.

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