Features of STEM education envisioned for needed reforms

–Occasional commentary by Robert E. Yager (NSTA President, 1982-1983)

Glow sticks in beakersIn December 2011 the National Governors Association (NGA) released a forty-four page report for use in shaping science education reforms across the U.S. It was designed to advance the current reform efforts in four areas now commonly called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). This report offered six specific steps to accomplish STEM reform in all 50 states:

1) Adopting rigorous math and science standards and improved assessments;
2) Placing and retaining more qualified teachers in classrooms;
3) Providing more rigorous preparation for STEM students;
4) Using informal learning to expand math and science beyond the classroom;
5) Enhancing the quality and supply of STEM teachers; and
6) Establishing goals for postsecondary institutions to meet STEM job needs.

The six steps helped to provide “structure” needed for funding! But, they did not indicate how the act of “teaching” might better help in realizing the reforms. This was left up to the States. The key issues regarding defining the STEM focus by Rodger Bybee offered cautions. He stated: “STEM education must advance beyond a slogan; educators in the STEM community must clarify what the acronym actually means for defining educational policies, programs, and practices”.

A look at each of the six steps with the Framework illustrates the problems! Concerns regarding the issues raised for each of the features included:
1) Adopt rigorous math and science standards and improved assessments: Who can be against “rigorous”? But, it is scary when synonyms for it are suggested in dictionary definitions! What is meant with this initial statement in terms of practices? What about the seven million dollars and four years of effort that went into the 1996 science standards? And, what about assessments as defined by Wiggins and McTighe “Backward Design”? Do these efforts focus on agreements on the nature of evidence used to indicate meeting the Standards?

2) Place and retain more qualified teachers in the classroom: Placing and retaining qualified teachers “is fine” – but by whose definition of “qualifications”? How could their placement be evaluated? In what ways are “qualified” teachers and their practices to be defined?

3) Provide more rigorous preparation for STEM students: Again, the report moves to the same topic and meaning of the term “rigorous”! What about its real meaning and for what preparation! Whose definition?

4) Use informal learning to expand math and science beyond the classroom: This fourth feature for the new reforms calls for use of informal education (free-choice learning including efforts outside a single classroom). The evidence is clear that this is an exciting idea. But, how to do it? How to accomplish it? How is it related to “rigorous”? How is it related to specific curricula?

5) Enhancing the quality and supply of STEM teachers: This fifth feature cites “enhancing the quality and supply of STEM teachers – who would oppose this? But how could/should it be done?

6) Establish goals for postsecondary institutions to meet STEM job needs: This sixth feature deals with establishing goals? Recent efforts by NSTA with its Exemplary Science Programs (ESP) indicated the non-existence of many program/project features for accomplishing the goal(s)! How to get more specific goals?

The report also claims to include “current examples” of needed programs. Attempts to contact these “groups” to report more specifically on the efforts were not successful! There were few examples and interpretations for the definitions for success. The evidence included in each of the sixteen chapters of NSTA’s Exemplary Science Programs contain ideas that have been found to be useful for encouraging more students to pursue STEM careers. The current monographs include: 1) Exemplary Science in Grades PreK-4; 2) Exemplary Science in Grades 5-8; 3) Exemplary Science in Grades 9-12; 4) Exemplary Science: Best Practices in Professional Development; 5) Inquiry: The Key to Exemplary Science; 6) Exemplary Science in Informal Education Settings; 7) Exemplary Science for Resolving Personal and Societal Challenges; 8) Exemplary Programs for building Interest in STEM Careers; 9) Exemplary College Science Teaching; and 10) Exemplary Programs Arising from New STEM Efforts.

–Robert E. Yager
Professor of Science education
University of Iowa

Image of glow sticks in beakers courtesy of Declan Fleming.

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