March 13, 2012

STEM Initiatives Focus On Improving Interest, Education

One of the hottest buzz terms when it comes to education reform is STEM. The acronym, which stands for science, technology, math, and engineering education, was created as an easy-to-remember method for referencing these areas of school curriculum. Many business and political leaders express growing concern that not enough Americans, especially women and minorities, are headed into these fields.

The Obama administration and technology company leaders have spoken out during the last recently about the need for programs and policies that will reverse this trend.

Much of the discussion over STEM focuses on K-12 education. The current narrative regarding the STEM crisis is that not enough students are encouraged to pursue higher education in these fields. Also, unless more mid-career workers transition to STEM vocations, American companies must continue to rely on outsourcing jobs to foreign workers.

According to the Gender Initiative from Cisco, 75 percent of future jobs will require some level of technology mastery. So whether or not students want to, there will be some elements of STEM curricular areas integrated into their future job choices.

According to Seattle-based Inspiring Girls Now in Technology Education (IGNITE), women only represent 15 percent of the technology workforce — a figure that is down from 35 percent in 1980.

That is a figure that is particularly alarming to Alice Keeler, a technology integration specialist who recently left the classroom to work independently as an advocate for infusing technology into the classroom.

She said that STEM curricular areas continue to take on an even greater importance. A former math high school teacher, she argues that success in math and the sciences is critical for students to innovate and find jobs that will further American innovation.
One major concern for her is the continued emphasis on high-stakes testing, such as California´s STAR program or the federal requirements of No Child Left Behind.

“The future of this country is at stake,” she said. “The manufacturing jobs are going overseas so we need to be able to export our creative brainpower. The U.S. has been unique in its ability to innovate and be creative. Unfortunately, schools are not graded on a student´s creativity or ability to innovate, so activities that allow students to think outside of the box are not cultivated.”

Along with the emphasis on STEM curriculum, much of the debate will also focus on how much testing and accountability should be applied to these areas. As many states apply for relief from No Child Left Behind provisions, many policy watchers are looking to see how this will impact the integration of STEM curriculum across various school districts.

As Keeler argued, state accountability models drive districts. If these do not shift to encourage STEM, schools will have little choice but to instead continue to push English Language Arts and mathematics heavily.

However, there are more practical approaches taking place every day that encourage STEM education. Many teachers may be doing just this without being aware their practices are part of a major policy debate.

Robb Christopherson, an adjunct professor of education at California State University, Fresno, said the continued integration of technology in the classroom could benefit STEM. Technology is increasingly easier to use, given such user-friendly devices like the iPad and interactive whiteboards.

“Students today show a greater willingness to experiment with and use technology,” he said. “As teachers continue to find innovative ways to use it for teaching across the curriculum, this will only further encourage students to pursue advanced study in these subject matter areas.”

In the corporate world, many companies are joining Cisco in the push for encouraging both females and others in general to take an interest in the STEM areas.

Girls Scouts of America´s partnership with FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is another example of an organization seeking to use its influence to move this issue forward.

Yet for many, it will ultimately take federal policy changes in order to get the change that is necessary.

Such is the case for the STEM Education Coalition. The advocacy group wants stronger STEM-based education programs in schools along with increased federal investment in these areas.

The STEM Education Coalition wants science elevated to the same significance as math and reading when it comes to how school districts monitor accountability.

The organization has a number of policy proposals it is pushing, including the following:

•    Federal support for ongoing collaborative state efforts to adopt “common core” or other high-quality standards in math and science

•    Robust dedicated support for effective Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) professional development and preparation and educational innovation activities under Title II.

•    Integration of STEM-focused curriculum, projects, and programs as priority investments for ESEA programs that support classroom teaching and learning as well as out of school experiences such as afterschool and summer programs.

•    Targeted efforts to promote STEM subject master teachers and teacher specialists.

•    Competitive grant programs to promote more aggressive state adoption and expansion of high-quality, rigorous STEM programs, so long as such efforts do not compromise existing formula-funding streams that also support high-quality STEM activities.

Congress continues to grapple with this issue as well. Many members of Congress opposed HR3990, the “Encouraging Innovation and Effective Teachers Act” because of how it funds STEM education.

Rep. Larry Buschon (R-IN), one of the bill´s backers, said on the House floor that taking action to increase the amount of STEM workers was critical.

“The STEM workforce is exploding and is expected to continue to grow well into the future,” he said. “From 2000 to 2012, STEM jobs grew nearly 8%, from 2010 to 2018 that increase is expected to jump to nearly 17%. That is why STEM education is vital to the careers of the future and what better way to encourage student participation than by putting before them teachers who have a passion and experience within STEM fields.”

Whatever policy decisions come from Washington, indications are that this debate will continue. Given the large demand for teachers and professionals in these fields, it will take a massive policy shift in order for corporations and education institutions to have the numbers they will need.


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