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.


Russell said...


you realize that the STEM group that you cite, looking for communication, is by invitation only. Ironic.

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James said...

Hi Mark,

Thanks for the posts. I particularly agree with the idea of us entering into an Age of Conceptualization. My head spins from time to time with the amount of knowledge that I should know entering the biological sciences and how fast it changes.

One thing that irks me is how you everyone frames our deficits in STEM education by comparing the system with those of countries like India and China, as if we were playing geopolitical king of the hill. I strongly believe if we all have the motivation of staying or becoming number one, then a sliver of the world population will benefit and the vast majority - the poor - will suffer.

Why can't our motivation instead be simply to improve our societies or solve these massive problems we face? The wonderful thing about STEM fields is that they can transcend these ephemeral national borders.


Will said...

Doc V,

Great to read your blog. I agree with your assessment that the focus of education and measurement of its efficacy will remain on standardized tests. However, I think that there are avenues by which statistics can be utilized to support the advanced thinking that takes place in cooperative learning and student projects. Teaching math in a high stakes high school setting, there is a constant frustration between preparing them for the test, and wanting to take the time to engage them in a longer term project. One project I've taken from our Evanston days is the bridge building competition - by far the most excited my students get throughout the year.

One thing that I've been trying to research, and need more experience in project making to see, is how to quantify the higher levels of thinking that are accessed through projects. One worry I have is that we confuse engagement with higher level thinking. As a young teacher, I feel I need more training and experience in how to structure/scaffold a project to lead students down a path towards higher level thinking without me having to pull them there everytime.

Finally, I think to have all of this occur you need a lot of buy in - not only from your school and your admin team, but from all the levels that will affect that child's mathematical and science education.

Great to see your blog - look forward to reading more about your great work.

Will S.

vonny said...

Thanks for the comments on this important topic.

James -
Most scientists I know have the pursuit of science at heart and do cross international, geopolitical boundaries to collaborate, solve problems, and share results in the journals to promote further studies. This is part of the process of science, and the pure scientists are all for this. Heck, CDF had 32 institutions from something like 15 or so countries. And the LHC is the largest international collaboration in history as far as I know.

However, then comes the politics. Yes, national governments want to be the king of the hill in all respects. But that is part of the role of political leaders, to look out for their constituents/citizens first. And, with globalization comes a very tough situation for those countries that have been the STEM leaders since WWII. As other countries rise, then competition for jobs gets tighter, as we have seen over the past decade. And that forces wages to change.

There is a reason many sectors of the US economy have seen wages decrease, and I suspect will continue as an international equilibrium is sought. This is tough on American workers. So, yes, there are selfish reasons for wanting to be the STEM leader. It means that country has the best chance of providing good jobs for the most people. There is part of me as a parent of young kids who wants the US to compete and win that top STEM position in order for my kids to have a chance at good jobs and careers. I am not sure that sort of thinking is going to disappear any time soon. This produces a dueling reality between wanting to share and have STEM save the world, but not at the expense of one's economy and future standard of living for the next generation. There are no easy answers, and change of this magnitude takes decades to flush out. I do believe we are seeing part of this transition in the world economy, as stabilization is sought from the new wave of STEM growth in places like China and India and others. Idealism and reality are mixing it up.

Will -
I know you must be struggling with all this as a young teacher. Let me ask, was there any significant training and exposure to developing projects/inquiry in the context of including several content areas? My guess is probably not. And that is the main point I am trying to make. Before any large scale reform can be made, it must begin with teacher training, which means getting the state boards and education colleges on board. But this is also something that needs to be done with the Dept. of Education and the White House, which sets education policy. Until the test obsession ends, the system is under pressure to remain with the status quo.

Also, don't get me wrong, as I state over and over there is content we all must teach and students must learn in order to move up levels in STEM or any other discipline. But with a blinders-emphasis on JUST content is naive and poorly suited for developing the next generation of the STEM workforce. And, there is always a risk that someone will come along and do a 180 and place ALL the focus on skills, and wrongly lose the need for content. That would be just as bad as what we presently have. It is a MIX of the two that we need.

vonny said...

...a continuation of my previous comment, which became too long to post. :-)

I am glad you have seen that the most excited your students have been is with a project like the bridge building. It is active, relevant, encompasses both content and skills, and requires innovation, discovery, and synthesis of several disciplines. This is a snapshot of what we need systemically.

One promising change that will be coming soon with Race to the Top is that we should be breaking away from the (insane) premise that all kids need to be at the same place academically at the same time, like NCLB requires. Instead, academic growth will be the focus. It is not clear how this will be done in practice, but I am encouraged by the change in philosophy...I and most teachers have argued for this since day one of NCLB.

But it seems as if the focus on just content will remain. I hope this is incorrect, but early language is leaning that way. We will keep working on the administration, boards of ed, and schools of education. It is a long, hard road and needs to be pursued.


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