Sunday, January 31, 2010

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!


marion said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


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