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 http://stemdist219.ning.com/. 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.