Calls to improve education in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math have taken on fresh urgency in recent years. With U.S. prospects for prosperity increasingly seen as tied to performance in the STEM fields, the education community has stepped up efforts to rethink and revamp how U.S. students are educated in those subjects and groomed for technical careers.
Think tanks, federally backed foundations and large nonprofits have proposed new state science standards, for example. Policymakers have looked to engage more students in STEM, especially the female and minority students who are underrepresented in science and engineering. Adult learning programs and projects to produce better-trained STEM teachers have been coupled with funding from federal incentive grants and big-ticket public-private partnerships. A key goal is to produce more Americans capable of creating the technological innovations that undergird economic success—and stable careers for adults. This section of Story Starters examines what the emphasis on STEM education means for reporters who cover schools.
According to one study from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, the STEM world is subject to high degrees of attrition at all levels. Only 25 percent of STEM-capable K-12 students actually pursue a major in science, engineering or math when they enter college. Only 38 percent of students who start with a STEM major graduate with a STEM degree. Slightly more than half of those take on a STEM-related job, but – by the 10-year mark in their careers – nearly half of those workers are out of the STEM workforce.
The center attributes that churn to various complex causes. They conclude, though, that a constant demand exists for new talent within the technology industries, fields in which employment opportunities generally have fared well despite tough economic times. And those job prospects appear likely to grow. By 2018, it is projected some 2.4 million STEM job openings will be available, according to the CEW research (The National Governors Association puts the number at 8 million), and 92 percent of those positions will require some postsecondary education and training.
STEM Growth Initiatives
Policymakers see statistics such as these as a battle cry to boost the nation’s performance – and productivity – in teaching and learning science and math. Indeed, in his 2011 State of the Union speech, President Obama declared the need for better STEM education a “Sputnik moment,” a direct reference to the impetus that the launch of that Soviet satellite during the Cold War gave to America’s scientists and technology-based industries in 1957. With STEM education, the challenge is not how to send a man to the moon and back, but how to improve the ways STEM fields are taught so that students maintain interest in them throughout the course of an education and career.
For his part, Obama has called on the private sector and large foundations to support STEM projects, such as the 100Kin10 initiative. The project, founded in 2011, aims to train and recruit 100,000 new STEM teachers over 10 years. For example, one partner in the initiative, the California State University system, intends to graduate 1,500 STEM educators a year through 2015, half of whom would teach at high-needs schools for a three-year period.
The 100Kin10 project has gathered more than 100 partners from the private and public sectors, and the partners will contribute to the initiative in differing ways. Google, for instance, will design a program to recognize the top 5 percent of STEM teachers nationwide, while the University of Chicago will study the efforts of 100Kin10 to propose best practices for future top-tier teacher recruitment and training.
Initiatives such as this recently have bloomed around the topic of science and math education. Like the state-led efforts to create Common Core national learning standards in English language arts and math, the Next Generation Science Standards initiative aims to produce science and technology standards. The standards are designed and supported by organizations including the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Change the Equation, and Achieve. The groups have cited a need to revamp the ways science is taught in light of dynamic Internet tools that could aid instruction, as well as new research on how students learn.
How students learn matters, of course. The Center on Time and Learning determined fourth-grade students who approach science lessons almost every day through “inquiry-based” learning– or projects-based instruction – scored 16 points higher on the 2009 NAEP science assessment than those who were not taught through the use of hands-on projects. But access to costly science equipment and lab time is not always a given. And in the No Child Left Behind era, elementary schools have cut instructional time for science: According to a 2009 Center on Education Policy report, half of all districts cut elementary science instruction by 75 minutes a week or more.
Getting younger students more interested in science and math is a central challenge. How students view their science courses can have a substantial effect on whether they’ll pursue a STEM college and career trajectory. Studies indicate that merely generating more buzz about science classes can be effective. A 2011 University of Virginia study found that, “student interest and self-confidence in science and math in high school are strongly associated with students continuing STEM studies through college,” more so than achievement factors. Interest in math and science appears to be growing according to at least one indicator: The number of students taking an Advanced Placement science test grew from 134,669 in 2001 to 313,452 in 2011. In math, test-takers jumped in number from 166,624 to 330,296 over that same period.
STEM advocates are particularly interested in getting more women, African-Americans and Latinos to pursue science and math education, fields in which they have been historically underrepresented in both higher education and the workforce. Only 23 percent of STEM jobs are filled by women, according the Georgetown analysis. African-Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics represented only 9.1 percent of college-educated Americans in the science and engineering workforce even though they accounted for a rapidly rising 28.5 percent of the U.S. population in2006, according to a 2010 report from the National Academies.
One explanation for the shortage of female STEM graduates in higher education is that the perception that the sciences are biased toward men. A study by the American Association of University Women found that females are less confident than males in math and science courses; are likely to feel they must outperform males to gain equal footing; and are more likely to view their talents in a negative light even if their scores are on par with that of males.
The reasons for the underrepresentation of some minorities in the STEM world are just as complex. Policymakers are proposing some initiatives to boost the participation of these groups. For example, U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) introduced a law in spring 2012 that would enable the National Science Foundation to give grants to colleges to “increase the number of students from underrepresented minority groups receiving degrees in [STEM] fields, and to recruit, retain, and advance STEM faculty members from underrepresented minority groups.” As of June 2012, the legislation had not moved forward.
Some critics of the push to ratchet up STEM education argue that the STEM-skilled worker shortage is a myth; they note that only 40 percent (2.7 million) of men and 26 percent (0.6 million) of women with STEM degrees work in STEM-related jobs, according to 2009 federal figures. The problem is not educating students, they say, but rather keeping STEM-skilled employees in their respective fields. Many STEM-educated workers pursue higher-paying careers in finance and management – even though STEM jobs pay well above the average for college-educated workers. The migration of math and engineering students to high-paying jobs that demand sophisticated number-crunching skills is well documented.
Critics also question whether the United States’ opportunity to develop homegrown STEM talent is being affected by the presence of foreign nationals in postsecondary education and the workforce. About 59 percent of Ph.D. recipients in engineering programs in 2009 were foreign-born, and 17 percent of STEM workers were born abroad, compared with the overall workforce average of 12 percent, according to the research from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. Whether foreign nationals are pushing out U.S. candidates, or filling in holes left by low domestic interest in STEM, remains an unresolved debate. — Mikhail Zinshteyn, June 2012
Highlighted journalism and reports for this topic
What we found is that in communities that had a higher percentage of women in the labor force who are working in science, technology, engineering and math, that in those schools, girls were as likely as boys to take physics, or even more likely. (NPR)Read More »
The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2014 budget lays out a sweeping restructuring intended to consolidate STEM education in the U.S. into three agencies—the Department of Education, the National Science Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution—and to cut down on the inefficiency of overlapping initiatives. Funding overall for STEM programs is actually slated to increase by 6 percent, to $3 billion, under the proposal. But support for popular educational initiatives from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), along with those from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, appears to have been lost in the consolidation shuffle. (Scientific American)Read More »
Pupils at El Verano Elementary School aren't just learning the science behind shadows, they're also improving their English-language skills. (Education Week)Read More »
Experts say high schools, community colleges, and businesses need to work together to fill a gap of an estimated 600,000 jobs, largely in manufacturing, and cities such as Chicago are spearheading initiatives to do just that. (US News & World Report)Read More »
By 2017, the first wave of students of P-Tech — Pathways in Technology Early College High School — is expected to emerge with associate’s degrees in applied science in computer information systems or electromechanical engineering technology, following a course of studies developed in consultation with I.B.M.
“I mean, in 10th grade, doing college work?” said Monesia McKnight, 15, as she sat in an introduction to computer systems course taught by a college professor. “How great is that?” (The New York Times)Read More »
Now, several forces have aligned to revive the hope that the Internet (or rather, humans using the Internet from Lahore to Palo Alto, Calif.) may finally disrupt higher education — not by simply replacing the distribution method but by reinventing the actual product. New technology, from cloud computing to social media, has dramatically lowered the costs and increased the odds of creating a decent online education platform. In the past year alone, start-ups like Udacity, Coursera and edX — each with an elite-university imprimatur — have put 219 college-level courses online, free of charge. Many traditional colleges are offering classes and even entire degree programs online. Demand for new skills has reached an all-time high. People on every continent have realized that to thrive in the modern economy, they need to be able to think, reason, code and calculate at higher levels than before. (Time)
The studies, which were discussed at a recent meeting here at Carnegie Mellon University, highlight one way to boost learning in algebraic expression, a concept considered critical in the Common Core State Standards but which educators say is perennially challenging to students. The study found that personalized math problems not only made it easier for students to understand what was being asked, but also helped boost the confidence of students who may have been intimidated by the subject. (Ed Week)Read More »
Education Nation: Program Aims to Lure Next-Generation Engineers and Math Whizzes into the ClassroomSeptember 24, 2012
Her pitch was the first step in a special program at the University of Texas known as UTeach, an effort to entice talented math and science majors who might otherwise become doctors or engineers to choose teaching instead. It was developed in answer to a growing crisis in American education. (The Hechinger Report)Read More »
This article covers many topics in the STEM space, including the large pay bump STEM graduates can expect, the smaller gap in wages between men and women in STEM compared to the labor sector at large, and outreach to minority populations to become more involved in the STEM pipeline. Certain insights by interview subjects were provocative. For example, they assert that it’s better to earn a C in chemistry than an A in Literature based on salaries; and the reason there appears to be a STEM shortage is on the demand and pay side, because more than enough students study STEM to meet the field’s job demands. (Diverse Education)Read More »
This article discusses efforts by universities to ramp up their recruitment efforts to attract women and minorities into STEM fields. The recommendations come from a report drafted by EducationCounsel and the American Association for the Advancement of Science with the backing of top higher education groups including the American Council on Education, the Association of American Universities, and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. (Chronicle of Higher Education)Read More »
Underscoring how much community colleges prepare people for mid-level STEM job openings, this article examines the nexus of mid- and large-level that who recruit heavily from nearby community colleges. Through interviews with human resource personnel and company owners, a sentiment emerges that four-year institutions are too slow to respond to immediate business demands. The article crystallizes the difference between students with a mastery of calculus and those with a facility for engineering and manufacturing symbols, jargon, software, and equipment. Also noted in the article: Community colleges are becoming much more entrepreneurial. (Associated Press)Read More »
This article notes the average time a tenured professor spends teaching in a STEM field varies by subject, with math professors sticking around an average of seven years, while female biology professors remain in their positions for 16 years. There were notable gaps in the length of time women and men stay in their roles, and the article points out that just over a quarter of the professors that appeared in the findings were female. (Inside Higher Ed)Read More »
This article challenges the common wisdom about problems within the STEM pipeline, arguing instead that there is no STEM talent shortage but rather an overabundance of STEM students. The writer pillories public officials and the news media for going along with and offers suggestions on how to better report on the STEM pipeline. (Columbia Journalism Review)Read More »
This article brings attention to city teachers’ concerns they lack the resources and time to teach science. Due to a redoubling of focus on ELA and math during the NCLB era, many elementary school teachers have left science instruction on the backburner, use their own funds to acquire supplies, and lack outright science training themselves. From the article: “Only 10% of elementary students regularly receive hands-on science lessons, the report found. Just one-third of elementary teachers said they feel prepared to teach science, and 85% said they have not received any training during the last three years” according to a survey of 1,100 elementary teachers and administrators. (Los Angeles Times)Read More »
This blog post summarizes research findings on the extent to which science instruction has been cut in the era of NCLB. The answer? 75 minutes a week, according to a 2008 study. (The Quick & the Ed/Education Sector)Read More »
This article highlights a school operating out of the University of North Carolina State that is one of several K-12 institutions focusing specifically on project-based STEM learning. While some of the top—and most selective—high schools have been science-based, the UNC State school and others are reaching out to low-income and minority students. The North Carolina school’s curriculum is shaped by The National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century, which stress instruction that combines science exploration with other core subjects. For example, students read Lord of the Flies and were then tasked with coming up with science-based survival guides. (Education Week)Read More »
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Reports & Data
Notable research on this topic
Change the Equation is "pleased to unveil its 2012 Vital Signs, which measure the health of the K-12 STEM learning enterprise, state by state. Created in collaboration with the American Institutes for research, Vital Signs offer the most comprehensive available picture of STEM in your state—the demand for and supply of STEM skills, what states expect of students, students’ access to learning opportunities, and the resources schools and teachers have to do their work."Read More »
New research has revealed the key to middle grades achievement. Recent evidence makes clear that each middle-grader’s personal, individual engagement in school is essential to his or her success. Studies repeatedly show that students who lose interest in school in the middle grades are likely to flounder in ninth grade — and later drop out. Yet developmental and brain research confirms that by the middle grades, students are capable of making connections between their academic work, their personal interests and career aptitudes.Read More »
This source is a database of all federally backed science projects associated with NSF. For example, type in keywords like gender and K-12 and learn of any related projects.Read More »
Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education: Strategic Planning Needed to Better Manage Overlapping Programs Across Multiple Agencies analyzes the number of federally funded STEM programs, the degree of similarity among them, and the efforts made to measure their effectiveness. The GAO found overlaps among 83% of the 209 STEM education programs examined. The criteria for overlap are that programs have at least one similar target population, provide at least one similar service with at least one similar STEM field of focus, and have at least one similar program objective.Read More »
Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and MathematicsFebruary 2012
The president’s council on STEM argues the STEM pipeline needs an additional one million STEM workers in the coming years. The report notes less than 40 percent of students who choose STEM as an academic interest stay in the field. Upping that to 50 percent would achieve roughly 750,000 new STEM workers. Other solutions for engaging more would-be STEM workers include using evidence-based teaching methods at the college level and assisting students who have the aptitude for the sciences but lack a requisite knowledge of mathematics. Data show that evidencebased teaching methods are more effective in reaching the “underrepresented majority”—the women and minority students who now make up approximately 70% of college students yet earn less than half of all STEM degrees. (WhiteHouse.gov)Read More »
This review of state science standards argues that clarity and breadth in standards can help with instruction and promote sound analytical skills. The report concludes that many states are vague in the content educators are expected to teach. Only 25 percent of the states reviewed received a “B” or higher from Fordham, while roughly half of the jurisdictions had a score of “D” or below. The standards also shirk guidelines on how to link inquiry-based learning with content, according to the researchers. Coupled with cuts in the time students spend in science classrooms, these shortcomings can have negative effects on not only proficiency but interest in the subjects, as well, the report concludes. (The Fordham Institute)Read More »
This is a round-up of dozens of surveys monitoring public attitudes toward federal science spending, the popularity of scientists, and more polarizing issues in science such as evolution and climate change research. The data collected also include science acumen based on type of college degree earned and attitudes toward various professions. No surprise: The public has the least amount of confidence in the press [Figure 7-15]. (National Science Foundation)Read More »
This study, collaboration between Change the Equation—an organization for corporate executives concerned about STEM education—and the American Institutes for Research, demonstrates that of 37 state science standards reviewed, only four are on par with the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ standards. Though roughly two-thirds of states claim their eighth grade students are proficient, an ACT 2011 study noted only 16 percent of eighth graders are college ready in the sciences. (Change the Equation and AIR)Read More »
This report looks at science instruction innovations brought forth at four K-12 schools. Through a combination of grants and support from non-profit groups, these schools were able to expand science learning in the classroom using inquiry-based methods. The motivation behind increased science learning is two-fold: on average, science class instruction was cut by 75 minutes (33 percent) from pre-NCLB levels, and students that engage with inquiry-based learning score 16 points higher on NAEP Science than those who don’t. (National Center on Time and Learning)Read More »
This study carefully lays out the reasons STEM is not a supply issue, but a demand issue. Many STEM educated workers pursue higher-paying careers in finance and management—even though STEM jobs pay high above the average for college-educated workers. (The migration of math and engineering students toward very high paying financial services jobs demanding number crunching skills has been well-told.) The influx of foreign students pursuing STEM education has been blamed by some for a crowding out effect, displacing would-be American STEM workers and graduates—17 percent of STEM workers are foreign-born, compared to the overall workforce average of 12 percent, while 59 percent of PhD recipients in engineering programs in 2009 were foreign-born. Whether foreign nationals are pushing U.S. STEM candidates out or filling in holes due to low domestic interest in the fields is an unresolved debate. (Georgetown University)Read More »
Engaging Students' Interest, Not Just Offering Advanced Classes, Best Promotes Interest in STEM CareersJune 2011
This study found that “student interest and self-confidence in science and math in high school are strongly associated with students continuing STEM studies through college,” more so than achievement factors. Consistent with the fifteen-year trend in favor of inquiry-based learning, “teacher emphasis on further study in STEM has a positive association with persisting in STEM fields,” while lectures and emphasis on facts and rules were negatively associated. (University of Virginia)Read More »
“Does increased teacher knowledge and improved instruction result in better student learning in STEM?” The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future “found the answer from published research especially promising in mathematics, and our expert panel confirmed this by drawing upon many unpublished local results.”Read More »
A View from the Gatekeepers: STEM Department Chairs at America’s Top 200 Research Universities on Female and Underrepresented Minority Undergraduate STEM Students2011
This survey demonstrates that while 82 percent of science department heads at U.S. universities believe females are the most academically prepared for STEM courses (compared to 74 percent who felt the same way about majority students), few are earning degrees in the field. The survey asked 200 science department heads a range of questions related to minority outreach, expectations of increased participation among women, and scores of other demographic-tinged inquiries. (Bayer Corporation)Read More »
Advanced Placement test results over time show more and more students are taking advanced STEM courses in high school, with the percentage of students passing going down in the process. Since 2001, the number of students taking an AP science test grew from 134,669 to 2011’s 313,452, while the pass rate going down from 57 percent to 49 percent. In math, test takers jumped in number from 166,624 to 330,296, with the pass rate dropping 63 to 58 percent.Read More »
This ACT overview tracks student readiness for core subjects at the college level, even evaluating eighth grade preparedness. It offers breakdowns by demographics, gender, and socio-economics, and demonstrates subject readiness based on whether students took four, three, or fewer years of classes for a particular core subject.Read More »
One explanation for the dearth of female STEM graduates is the perception that men are better suited for the sciences. This study finds females are less confident than males in math and science courses; are likely to feel they must outperform males to gain equal footing; and are more likely to view their talents in a negative light even if their scores are on par with that of males. (Association of American University Women)Read More »
This team of Rutgers researchers determined that from high school to college, and then college to career advancement in STEM, production in the STEM pipeline has either remained steady or improved since the 1970s. This report counters a Georgetown University study chronicling the attrition rate of STEM-capable students at the K-12 level all the way through mid-career placement. (Rutgers University)Read More »
The 2009 NAEP Science results can be isolated according to race, free and reduced lunch status, gender, type of school, and whether the test-takers had individualized education programs or were English language learners. (Nation's Report Card)Read More »
This overview of women in STEM lays out the major trends in employment, pay, job retention, types of degrees earned, and so on. A look at the STEM workforce shows the percentage of females employed in science and technology positions is half of the overall share of women in the workplace. 24 percent of the STEM jobs are filled by women. Lending credence to the notion there’s no lack of STEM talent, but a lack of demand for that talent, about 40 percent (2.7 million) of men and 26 percent (0.6 million) of women with STEM degrees work in STEM-related jobs, according to these 2009 federal figures. (U.S. Department of Commerce)Read More »
This publication tries to explain how students learn about science. The authors draw on work from neuroscience and classroom observation, providing a detailed account of what K-8 students are capable of learning. Some of the questions it answers include: “How can teachers be taught to teach science?” “When do children begin to learn about science? Are there critical stages in a child's development of such scientific concepts as mass or animate objects?” “What role does nonschool learning play in children's knowledge of science?” (National Science Foundation)Read More »
This is a history of the National Science Foundation, providing interesting and little-mentioned nuggets on the federal government’s involvement in establishing rigorous lab research facilities after World War II and early efforts to train science teachers at the high school level. One eye-catcher in particular: Federal officials were worried that the uptick in college science students and graduates through the G.I. Bill would overwhelm laboratory supplies, creating an impetus to provide new lab equipment for a generation of science students. And, even before Sputnik, Congress encouraged NSF to offer science workshops to high school teachers.Read More »
Five Questions to Ask
- Look at the engineering school at the universities that you cover. Have their enrollment numbers been rising or declining? What their graduation rates and job placement rates? Try to examine how these schools have fared recently with regard to issues of STEM supply or demand, that is, have they been able to enough students interested in majoring in engineering and have those graduates been able to get jobs?
- How are science courses taught at the schools in your district? Do they focus primarily on textbook-based reading and homework assignments or do they emphasize laboratory experiments and project-based learning? Some research has shown that students who learn science through hands-on projects score better on science tests.
- How has your district’s science program been affected by budget cuts? Has the district reduced class time for science in order to emphasize English and math, which are crucial to meeting No child Left Behind’s adequate yearly progress requirements?
- How many students in your district’s high schools take Advanced Placement tests in sciences or math? How have they fared on these tests, and how have these scores changed over the years? Why?
- Look at the science offerings for the community colleges you cover. How have their offerings changed over the years, and have such changes been influenced by the workforce needs of employers in your region?
The American Association of University Women has been a leading advocate on behalf of increasing the number of women who pursue STEM degrees in college and graduate school. Their 2010 study “Why So Few?” is one of the key pieces of research on the topic.
Change the Equation “is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, CEO-led initiative that is mobilizing the business community to improve the quality of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning in the United States.” The organization was founded in 2010 and quickly has become one of the more vocal advocates of STEM education.
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is nonprofit organization headquartered in Ohio that “advocate[s for] particular policies and positions that they believe will advance educational excellence for young Americans.” The institute’s STEM Connector site offers can be an excellent source for contacts regarding STEM education initiatives.
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics “is a public voice of mathematics education, supporting teachers to ensure equitable mathematics learning of the highest quality for all students through vision, leadership, professional development, and research.”
The National Science Foundation “is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 ‘to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…’” The NSF has been particularly focused on increasing the numbers of black and Latino students who pursue STEM degrees.
The National Science Teachers Association is the professional organizations for the nations more than 60,000 science teachers. The NSTA publishes teaching guidebooks, influences education policy, and holds regular conferences for its members.
The STEM Education Coalition gathers more than 500 members from business, education and professional organizations and “works aggressively to raise awareness in Congress, the Administration, and other organizations about the critical role that STEM education plays in enabling the U.S. to remain the economic and technological leader of the global marketplace of the 21st century.”
Launched in 2009, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future’s STEM Learning Studios offer “project-based learning environments in which 4-6 teachers within the same school work in interdisciplinary, cross-curricular teams. … Working with local scientists and engineers, teachers from different content areas work together to develop and implement year-long project investigations.”
Suggest a Change
If you'd like to suggest an addition or change to this section, send an email to EWA Project Director Kenneth Terrell.