Sunday, January 31, 2010

Summary of STEM Posts

We have issues with STEM education in America. My last three posts go into great detail about different aspects of the problem, and suggestions of how to fix the STEM education system. Unfortunately some may not want to read through the long posts, so here is a much shorter summary.

The main problems, as agreed upon at a recent conference of experts from all education levels, industry and STEM professionals include:
• We do not have appropriate teacher training and certification systems in place to ensure STEM teachers in Preschool – High School can in fact provide what is needed for students. Reform and progress in STEM areas cannot ever happen if we do not have teachers in place who can properly work with students;
• Federal education policy places a focus on content only, and not skills needed to reach levels of ‘critical thinking’ and complex problem solving. This runs contrary to what is needed in STEM education and for college to be successful in STEM;
• We continue to treat education in America as five disjointed, and at times disconnected, levels. We must move into a mindset of one continuum of education, Preschool – college, and then use this to our advantage and vertically align the system to reach the end goals we want.

We have limited success stories out there of schools that are producing high-powered STEM students, to be sure. But these stories are, unfortunately, few and far between. Assuming that federal mandates and education policy continue to emphasize content only for the foreseeable future, educators and STEM experts need to be clever about how to try and get more success stories to blossom, despite the systemic obstacles that are placed in our way.

A start is to make use of technology and network with each other. From our conference, there is a new Ning setup for such communication. This is at For those of us who have had some successes, we need to share our methods and experience and encourage our colleagues in other districts to try it. Blog about your ideas, tell us what works and what does not. For example, I have put a large amount of information and documents on my school research web site. There are links to past student papers (which shows the high level high school students can work at when unleashed!), links to university departments with suggestions of how to make contacts and how to develop research ideas, and a research booklet with all sorts of suggestions that have worked for me as I tried to establish a research program. I will put some references to published articles I have written at the end of this post, so you can get more details about some things that have worked for me over the years.

If you are unable to get research started, then perhaps getting students involved in STEM competitions is a possibility. We get at least our top kids involved in JETS TEAMS contests, WYSE Academic Challenge, the STEM Olympiads, Physics Bowl, science essay contests, bridge building competitions, independent studies into any area of science or math that they are interested in (such as quantum mechanics, relativity, cosmology, particle physics, robotics, Lagrangian mechanics, and so on), writing computer simulations with C++, Java, Matlab or other software, peer tutoring and mentoring (to get them thinking more deeply about STEM subjects), and whatever else you can think of. Students being able to actively do things they want to do is invaluable for building a love of STEM subjects and get them deeper into the process and skill-building that is necessary at the college and professional levels. By getting them into projects of any kind outside of classwork, a new level of independence is reached, and often more involved problem solving and synthesis of new, challenging material are required. This is the value of academic extracurriculars. Just provide outside opportunities for kids, and let them lose. Often you will be amazed at what they end up doing! These are the things we no longer have time to do in classes, because we need to focus on content for ‘the test.’ I don’t see this changing any time soon, even with the Obama administration. However, if we are willing to work on projects and contests outside of class time, we can begin to hook more students into STEM areas, and properly prepare them for advanced work in college and beyond. We have no choice if the system does not change. It is more work. It is more difficult than it needs to be. But our children’s future and the country’s future depend on such efforts.

While we are at it, please share any thoughts or activities that have been successful for you. Join the Ning and join the discussion with a larger network. We should organize and contact political leaders who are in charge of education policy, as well as State Boards of Education and University deans for schools of education to adopt new training and certification programs to develop well-trained STEM teachers of the future. There is much to get done, as quickly as possible.

Let’s get to work!

Some references related to how to build and maintain high school STEM/research programs:

1. M. Ngoi, M. Vondracek, “Working with Gifted Science Students in a Public High
School Environment.” Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, vol. XV, no. 4,
141-147 (Summer 2004).

2. R. Horton & M. Vondracek, “Creating and Maintaining a High School Physics
Research Program.” The Physics Teacher, vol. 42, 334-338 (September 2004).

3. M. Vondracek. “Diminishing the Gap Between High School and University
Research Programs – Computational Research.” The Physics Teacher, 44 (Oct.

How to Fix STEM Education

In my previous post, I asked the question, “Where are we with STEM education?”

The brief answer is we are systemically set up in precisely the wrong way to bring about any large-scale reform to STEM education. The main reasons, in my opinion, include: we are presently a test-crazed society, which has prevented schools from having the time to create programs that work on the skills needed to get children to the often mentioned realm of ‘higher-level” or “critical” thinking skills, terms that you hear a lot in education and from politicians; our teacher training and certification programs do not produce STEM educators that have true research experience, and though everyone wants more hands-on and inquiry learning as well as more student research, we do not have the personnel in the classrooms who know what this involves; and we have a mindset issue by thinking of our education system as a series of separate, distinct levels – pre-school, elementary school, middle school, high school, and college – rather than simply thinking of it as a continuum that needs to have flowing communications and be vertically aligned from one year to the next.

What needs to be done to change this mixed up system? I could just say “A LOT” and run for the hills, but let me offer some suggestions.

I could take the easy way out and simply say we need more money to fix all the problems. While STEM education does cost large sums of money for equipment, supplies, facilities, and properly trained teachers, there is much more to it, unfortunately. I mentioned above that it is a systemic problem, and mean this in every sense of the word ‘systemic,’ from top to bottom.

A major issue is that we are not doing a very good job of getting quality science and technology education to our youngest students in pre-school. This is where we want to hook them into the process of STEM disciplines. While content expertise cannot be expected with 3-4 year olds, that is not the point of good STEM exposure at this age. THEY ARE NATURAL SCIENTISTS AT THIS AGE and we should be encouraging them to observe, question, think, analyze, and present their thinking in as many ways as possible, so that they learn this is the expectation for learning and that it is fun to do. Every single presenter, for example, at a STEM conference I recently attended emphasized the need to excite students about STEM subjects throughout their schooling, and that having skills was as important as any content knowledge they possess by the time they get to college. Any teacher knows bad habits are harder to break as a student ages, so let’s give them good habits and great encouragement and energy when they first start formal ‘schooling.’ Check out an earlier post about pre-school STEM education, and an attempt to get a real curriculum for that age level.

Building process and skills in pre-school leads children into elementary school (K-5). But here we begin running into systemic problems. It is well-known that K-5 teachers generally have the strongest background in language arts and mathematics, and that a good majority acknowledge their weakest subject area is science. Let’s fix this, once and for all by modifying the certification training for elementary teachers. We know that the good jobs of the future are going to be largely STEM jobs, so why do we continue with the same old teacher training programs? It does not make sense. Require more science, and more importantly require some minimal time in science labs working on slightly longer-term projects so elementary teachers learn what the actual scientific process is and what skills are needed to do science. Again, at the youngest ages developing skills and understanding how to do science is as important, if not more important, than content, and this will not happen if teachers do not know what the process is or what is needed to do science.

A second problem has arisen in the past decade. No Child Left Behind (NCLB). While the idea of being accountable for every child learning is undeniably the right idea, how NCLB has been administered has done great damage to STEM education. Because school standing, known as Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), relies on a standardized test and performance in math and English/reading, that is where schools are literally forced to focus. Content is everything, and skills have fallen effectively out of sight. Students need to be able to regurgitate facts and follow a prescribed writing format in order to do well on the test. Schools have no choice but to spend numerous hours, days, and weeks on test prep rather than on hands-on and portfolio assessments, where students can have a chance to be creative and perhaps select from a variety of activities. Creativity from students and teachers has suffered, as has innovation in the classroom, because that will not help with scoring well on the test. In addition, AYP status and yearly increases suggest the belief that all kids should be at the same place, across the board, at the same time. Any reasonably intelligent adult knows for a fact that this is a ludicrous belief, and therefore reject the premise behind the assessment of NCLB. Politicians who are in control of education policy, however, find this to be politically reasonable. In the end, most elementary schools have cut back on science and social studies time in order to focus on the tests for math and language arts.

Similar problems exist at the next educational level, middle school. Teachers in STEM subject areas generally have coursework in that subject area in college, however the same problem of not having any real time and experience in the lab holds true. This problem continues for the vast majority of high school teachers, too. Because the training of teachers places emphasis on content almost exclusively, that is what is presented in class in middle school and high school. While content is important, as there are numerous facts, theories, principles, calculations, and simple experiments to understand if one wants to advance to higher levels of learning in the field, we need to keep in mind what every college professor and instructor at the conference said: more important than content coming into a college STEM program is enthusiasm and skills!

If a student can think, analyze data, understand and interpret graphs, know how to do basic measurements, how to report findings, how to find information about specific questions that arise in research, how to take large volumes of information and data and figure out what is important and what is not, and find patterns in data and observations that can lead to logical, evidence-backed conclusions, they will teach you the content. But not knowing how to test content and what to do with content, that is much more difficult to teach to older students. Bad habits have been formed, misconceptions have been developed, and there is not the time in a semester class to make up for 13 years of either mis-training or no training at all in how to do STEM. It is ironic that many of the professors who were making these statements are at universities that trained the K-12 teachers in the first place…and they did not train them with the skills necessary to get students to where they need to be in order to be successful in STEM college programs. STEM departments do not communicate very well with schools of education within the same university structure.

We are shooting ourselves in the foot, and it is a systemic problem!!

However, here is another level of complexity to the system. State Boards of Education.

A State Board of Education is generally a politically appointed body. It may vary tremendously from state to state what the expertise of Board members include, but I would guess not many on state boards have extensive STEM expertise, and I would also guess not many members have a great deal of experience in K-12 classroom education. Many are administrators, some are from business areas, and some are politically well connected with the governor’s office. Whatever the case, the important piece is that the state Boards set certification criteria for teachers in the state. For real reform to occur in STEM areas, state boards of education need to change the current standards. Teachers in training MUST be required to have some amount of STEM research in the lab. Science teachers must know what scientists actually do, and how the process works. Teachers must know what goes into setting research questions, how to develop and plan experiments, how to properly analyze data and present it, and how to interpret data and observations to draw reasonable conclusions. Learning about the scientific method is very different from a textbook than from actual experience in a laboratory.

I guarantee that present calls for more research and higher-level research for high school students will NEVER happen within the current system simply because more high school science teachers do not know how to do research themselves. It is that simple.

Communication between levels in the education system
Let’s assume we get more research trained STEM teachers into classrooms. There is then the issue of lacking facilities and equipment to do any sort of high-level, original research with students. This is a real problem at the vast majority of middle school and high schools around the country. There is a growing list of options becoming available to pre-college teachers and students, due in large part to the Internet.

Many people may be surprised at how easy it can be, especially in the physical sciences (life science research tends to require more expensive and sophisticated equipment than chemistry or physics), to use more basic equipment to do clever science research in a high school, or even in a student’s home. But to learn how to do this for the first time, and to even get an understanding that this is possible, requires help. It is my own experience that the vast majority of professors are very willing and able to give suggestions for research topics and ways of studying the topic. Sometimes they will make their own equipment available for certain measurements, or even take in a student into their lab. Other times they will email a relevant article, or put us in touch with a colleague who can be of more assistance.

Many professors are willing to be e-mentors for high school and even some middle school students. This, I suspect, is in its infancy, and more and more college level research groups will make members available to give ideas and some amount of guidance to young students while they do their work in some other part of town or even in other parts of the country. This can be done effectively and efficiently with email, video conference calls, distance learning platforms, webcasts and podcasts, online videos for demos or illustrations or even online lectures about the topic, remote access to lab equipment (such as with the iLab Network), computer simulations, some Google applications, wikis and Nings, and other clever uses of Web 2.0 applications and technologies.

The point is it is very possible for one-on-one contact with university experts and advisers, but this is presently being done on a small scale, with individual high school teachers. A system could be developed to make it easier for more Preschool-12 teachers to contact experts for advice and help.

Systemically, we need to take an approach for STEM education to identify, at the professional and college levels, what skills are absolutely essential by the time a student enters college and the workplace in a technical industry. These need to be fed to a State Board of Education, so they then can put in place policy and certification criteria for teachers in that state. The State Board needs to work with the teaching training colleges and get them to develop the necessary courses to meet those certification criteria. Then those newly and properly trained teachers will filter into the preschool-12 education system. This is not an easy process, but a necessary one. This will be difficult to do if we do not change the mindset that we have a single education system, rather than five different levels and parts of the education system. Better vertical alignment is needed if we are to do this right.

All of what I just suggested becomes a moot point if the federal education policy does not change. With a continued emphasis on content being proposed in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top law, the status quo will remain. If STEM training is to be the dominant area in the 21st century schools, time must be provided for students to have research experiences in STEM classrooms. They will not be able to develop skills needed in college otherwise. We need to lobby political leaders in control of education to get off the testing bandwagon and onto the STEM bandwagon, where students will truly learn more advanced analysis skills and how to think, ask questions, and find good information among the endless online resources.

I fear the politicians will not change education policy or assessments any time soon, and we will continue to have isolated bright spots in the education landscape, but nothing on a scale that the country needs to maintain its dwindling lead in STEM. China produces millions of engineers a year, and send large numbers of their top college students to American schools for the skills training that has kept American scientists ahead of the rest of the world for the past 60 years. Our dominance is not quite where it used to be, and with us producing scientists and engineers in far fewer numbers (some 2-3 orders of magnitude less than the Chinese, not to mention India, too) we can expect further declines in our STEM lead. Those of us in education, and specifically in STEM education who know what is needed and what needs to change, need to mobilize and address our concerns to the powerbrokers at the state and federal level. This is a call to action!

Where are we with STEM Education?

The 21st century is being labeled with a number of names, ranging from the Age of the Internet; The Information Age; The Age of Globalization; and a new one I just heard, the Age of Conceptualization. And still others call it the Age of STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. I’ll stay away from the Age of Terror that I’ve heard some mention in a more political/warfare sense. In many ways, it does not matter if one chooses any of these because at a basic level they are referring to the same thing.

I was recently at an all-day conference on STEM in the Chicagoland area, where leaders in education (middle school through college was strongly represented), industry, science and engineering (speakers included an astrophysicist, a particle physicist, a robotics specialist, a nanotechnologist, and lead engineer who designed and built the Dubai Tower), and politics (the keynote speaker was Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, Illinois 9th) met at Niles North High School to begin a networking group focused on how we should be approaching STEM in schools, with an additional focus on how to improve student research and active involvement in STEM areas while in K-12 schools. It was a wonderful turnout (some 140 leaders from dozens of high schools), and I had the pleasure of being asked to be the table leader for student independent research. Many thanks to the gang from Niles North for putting this together and hosting. I also must compliment Niles North for being a leader in developing a broader STEM program that includes a wonderful facility for research and for getting large numbers of students doing true research.

Where are we with regards to STEM in K-12 education? Like so much in public education, the answer to this question depends almost entirely on where you happen to live. The leaders in STEM tend to be from wealthier suburban districts or magnet-type schools such as the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA), whose charter mandates students to do research and pursue scientific/technical activity. The major reason such schools lead the way is that it requires money for students to do research on a larger scale, as well as to recruit and hire instructors with strong research backgrounds to begin setting up programs for students. In Illinois it is especially difficult to break this cycle because of the way schools are funded, which depends severely on local property tax revenue.

News headlines have for some time had a focus on how poorly the U.S. compares on international tests of science and math to the rest of the world. The average American student does not hold up well on such tests. Our top students continue to do extremely well, but there is a growing gap for the overall average. A couple reasons were identified at the conference and there has been a growing consensus over the last couple years as to why this is the case. These include:
• A lack of training and research experience of teachers at all levels of K-12 education. Even in high schools, a shockingly large percentage of science teachers have never actually done research, meaning they have never actually done science. There is a Grand Canyon sized gap between coursework from textbooks and actually doing long-term research in the lab;
• A lack of expertise and time devoted to science and technology in early grades (typically K-5). This has continued to worsen in the age of No Child Left Behind, as time is taken away from science and social studies to focus on reading and math, the two subjects that are tested and go into a school’s AYP status;
• A lack of funding in K-12 education, in terms of having facilities and equipment/supplies to do higher level research. In Illinois and other states that have enormous deficits, this will continue to be the case;
• A disconnect between K-12 and college levels of STEM, largely because of a lack of communication. And I’ll include industry as well. High schools can be at a loss in terms of understanding what, exactly, are the required skills colleges and the workplace are looking for. This has been exasperated by the fact the high schools have been under intense focus for specific science content in order to pass state tests for No Child Left Behind mandates. Colleges and employers are not necessarily only interested in what specific content students have had, but rather they have become more interested in what skills students have developed in order to be successful in college STEM programs and in the workplace.

What can we do about all this? What should we be doing about all this? The answers are NOT being addressed by the federal mandates, and that includes the soon to be new education policy called “The Race to the Top,” which will be the Obama administration’s education policy that replaces the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind. By being on a school board, I have had early exposure to Race to the Top because we had to decide whether or not to send in a Memo of Understanding that was required to be registered with the state board of education in order to be eligible for money coming out of competitive grants. There is a competitive grant program set up between states to meet a large number of criteria in the Race to the Top legislation that will be given to Congress in the not so distant future.

There is a similar flaw in the national and state education policies that have then been dumped on local school districts. It has to do with the mindset of those writing the laws, almost all of whom have never taught in classrooms before. This is what we get by having non-experts writing education policy. What I mean by mindset is that too many still think of education as five separate entities. There is preschool; there is elementary school; there is middle school; there is high school; and there is college. Finally, there is the workplace. There are separate districts in many locales, where preschool is its own entity, then there may be a K-8 elementary district that then feeds into a separate high school district. The districts are often within different boundaries, meaning a K-8 district could feed into multiple high schools, as is the case where I live. There are state tests that are given to K-8, which are written separately from the state tests that are given to high schools. This has been a disaster in Illinois, for example. The elementary test, called ISAT, tests a set of standards that are not aligned with high school standards. In other words, for the past ~8 years of testing for No Child Left Behind, kids passing the ISAT have been promoted to high school thinking they are well prepared, but then they find out they are behind because the standards for the high school test, called the Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE), are set at a higher level. So a good number of freshman in high school find out their levels of reading and math and already behind where they need to be to meet the standards set up for their junior year of high school, which is when the PSAE is given according to federal law. How messed up is this??? And the tests both come from the same state board of education.

The MINDSET of thinking about 5 levels of education is entirely flawed! We need to think about this as a continuum, not as a disjointed system of education and learning. I am convinced, as are all the other participants at the conference after I brought up the concept of mindset to the group, of an overarching Preschool – College education system. The entire system must have some level of communication and organization that allows for some level of vertical alignment of curriculum and skills-building. This mindset would put us in a model of a pipeline with a continuous laminar flow for students, rather than the turbulence that results from transitions between districts and standards that vary from one level to the next due to nothing more than the rear not knowing what the front is doing. Without this model and way of thinking about education, I fear no reform is possible. Period.

If we buy into this mindset of a continuous, flowing education, then what? How do we begin to fix specific problems with STEM education? For starters, we need to think about where students need to end up by the time they get to the workplace in their early twenties. What skills are going to be needed twenty years from now, for a young child today to be able to compete in tomorrow’s world, where we do not presently even know what jobs are going to exist? This gets tricky because it requires long-term projections and planning, but it is a very good guess that the bulk of good future jobs will require STEM backgrounds. But here’s the thing so many cannot get their heads around – we have to be thinking in terms of SKILLS as much, if not more so, than CONTENT.

Content is important, don’t get me wrong. Going through school, one needs to learn how to write and spell correctly and understand the basic rules of math, and know about the Constitution and how the country works, and know some fundamental principles that science is built upon. Such facts and content is vital in order to continuously build knew knowledge. But whether it is No Child Left Behind or the new proposals in Race to the Top, the end results are focused entirely on content. Schools have been rated in NCLB solely on those tests at the end of the year. Race to the Top will in principle do a little better because the claim is it will focus on academic growth of students, rather than the ridiculous notion that all students should be at the same place at the same time as NCLB assumes. However, the end game is going to be on end of year testing. Race to the Top will take it even one step further, with teacher and principal evaluations being based on test results (that is good for me since I teach AP, and my kids will pass state exams 100% of the time; what about the special ed teacher, though, whose juniors come in reading at a 3rd grade level, and not a single one will pass the test? Am I a better teacher than she is? Probably not, but federal law treats me as far superior since my kids passed the test…a crazy way of doing education!).

End result of both federal education laws: Content is going to continue to rule the day.

Now here is the kicker. To a person, when asked at the conference what does a college professor want from an incoming freshman, every professor in attendance I spoke with and who participated in table discussions as well as the eight featured speakers to the whole group, not a single one mentioned content! They did not care about how much content, beyond the basics that is, a student had in their STEM area. They can teach the content, they all said. But what IS needed, and what IS presently lacking from a majority of incoming college freshman, are skills. For STEM areas, students need to be able to do 2 things according to every professor: be able to read technical literature for understanding, and have the ability to think about and find information to reach logical conclusions, i.e. problem solving (this includes being able to identify how to know what you don’t know, and then be able to go figure out the answer). Skills matter as much and more than specific content for college. The underlying reason for this, by the way, is that many believe we are in a paradigm shift of ages – we are moving from the “Information Age” into the “Age of Conceptualization.” We have collected more information in the past twenty years than human civilization collected in the past 10,000 years combined, and now we have moved into an age of having to figure out what to do with the information. This is why higher-level thinking and problem solving and creative skills come in, for STEM fields have progressed from single disciplinary to multi-disciplinary. We have moved beyond knowing what is in the textbook, and into an age where textbooks in some fields are changing every few months with new discovery…students must be trained to think on the fly and how to synthesize large volumes of information and find the connections between topics from different fields.

Because we treat our education systems as separate blocks of education, we have systemically developed a lack of communication between the blocks. We are focused on the wrong things in the test the content dominated K-12 blocks compared to what the kids should be doing to properly compare for college and the workplace.

We need to take the end result, higher-level thinking and problem solving and creative skills, and work backwards. What do we need to do year-to-year in pre-college education in order to reach the end goals? What are some best practices that allow us to develop not only good content knowledge in students, but also provide an environment and system where skills are developed, too?

Future posts will focus on these last questions.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Some Posts on STEM: Early Childhood, Part I

I will be putting up some posts up regarding STEM education in our schools, at all levels. STEM is something educators see a lot, but for those who are not familiar, it stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. While many say this is the way to the future, I must say the future is here and has been here for the past decade. The rest of the world realized this and have been investing heavily in STEM areas of education at all levels, and especially at the college level. Why have China and India been rising so quickly economically, and why have countries such as the aforementioned been 'stealing' America's technical jobs? Because of their rapid rise in STEM education and the number of technically trained workers (e.g. China is training millions of engineers and scientists each year, the U.S. is in the tens of thousands per year). This, and because wages are a fraction of what American workers make, are the primary reasons many believe China is the next superpower in this century.

The first item to put out there is a necessary change that is needed as far as what our pre-school children are capable of with regards to science. An article from Education Week deals with this, and a new curriculum designed for those 3-4 year olds. Keep in mind, if you have kids or young siblings, think about how they learn. They are scientists! They actively investigate everything. They experiment. They go through trial and error, learn from mistakes, and actually try to predict what will happen as they 'play' with new toys. They are natural curious about everything, and over time make connections between different items and experiences. They learn language through intense observation and build off of what others do. Through group play, they teach and learn from each other. Is this not what we want from our high school graduates?! Is this not how successful research programs behave and operate?

As is stated by a researcher in this article,

" “Most teachers will have a science area in their classroom, ... and if you look on plans, you would see something listed as science but, in reality, there would be some shells, some magnets, and maybe a pumpkin, or a book about animals in winter,” said Nancy Clark-Chiarelli, a principal research scientist at the Education Development Center, a research group based in Newton, Mass. “But those items are not conceptually related, and they don’t promote children’s independent exploration of them.” "

The curriculum featured in this article is called Young Scientist, and is funded through the National Science Foundation. It is a start that is, I suppose, better late than never. There is more to come about STEM topics and issues.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Quite Amusing...

In case NBC is looking to replace Jay Leno altogether, perhaps they'll consider Gov. Sarah Palin. She made a classic one-liner in a response to reports that she is being hired to a multi-year deal with Fox News, as a commentator I would think. Her press release included the statement:

"I am thrilled to be joining the great talent and management team at Fox News. It's wonderful to be part of a place that so values fair and balanced news."

Waa-ha-ha-ha-ha! Good line, Mrs. Palin.