STEM education is branching out

Focus shifts to making science, math accessible to more than just brightest

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It's long been tough to make it in the world without being able to read.

Nowadays, it's also difficult to make it without some knowledge of the fields known as STEM -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

"At this point, it's pretty hard to find a career that isn't requiring STEM in some way or another, at least mathematics, if not science," said Nancy Bunt, program director of the region's Math & Science Collaborative, housed at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.

Judith Ramaley, president of Winona State University in Minnesota, said, in an e-mail, "It is impossible to make wise personal decisions or to exercise good citizenship or compete in an increasingly global economy or to begin to address the enormous challenges we face in exercising our stewardship of our environment without knowledge of science and the ability to apply that knowledge thoughtfully and appropriately."

Dr. Ramaley coined the term "STEM" when she was assistant director of the education and human resources directorate at the National Science Foundation from 2001 to 2004. Previously, the acronym was "SMET." The term "STEM" has spread far beyond NSF.

"I did so because science and math support the other two disciplines and because STEM sounds nicer than SMET," Dr. Ramaley wrote. "The older term subtly implies that science and math came first or were better. The newer term suggests a meaningful connection among them."

Among the disciplines NSF counts as STEM are engineering, math, agricultural sciences, biology, physical sciences, psychology, economics and other natural and social/behavioral sciences.

Today's Education Planning Guide focuses on STEM. In the guide, you'll read about what even non-majors need to know, new degrees, diversity, retaining students, federal and state investments, role of business and the effect of the global economy.

Some view STEM fields as suitable for only the smartest students. Some who will readily say, "I can't do math," would never say, "I can't read."

Dr. Bunt said STEM is accessible to all.

"The biggest barrier I think we face in STEM as a nation is a cultural belief that only some kids can really learn math and science to high levels," said Dr. Bunt.

"That's a belief that is rooted in a lot of old information. It's tied up in some ways to the misunderstanding that the population still has that intelligence is fixed. We know that intelligence is learned. You can increase your intelligence through effort and through learning ...

"There is this very strong belief out there on the part of parents and the part of some educators and society as a whole: If I wasn't good at math, my kids don't have a chance of being good at math. It's a gene thing. They'd never say that about reading. There is an assumption that everyone needs to learn to read."

Success in STEM classes in college begins with a strong STEM background in K-12 education.

However, many students are steered away or discouraged from STEM classes or choose other less-challenging options in high school.

In a survey of 77 school districts in the region in 2006-07, the Math & Science Collaborative found dramatic differences in what courses students were taking.

Each discipline had at least one school where all graduates have passed certain math and science courses, but there were also schools in which many students hadn't.

The lowest figure was physics, where only 4 percent of the graduates of at least one school had successfully completed the course.

At least one school graduated 61 percent of its students without requiring them to pass Algebra 1, and at least one let 76 percent of its students graduate without biology.

The schools were not named.

There were low-course completion numbers in other disciplines as well: 45 percent passing geometry; 36 percent passing Algebra 2; 30 percent passing chemistry.

"How can we expect kids to learn if they're not even having the opportunity to study the courses?" Dr. Bunt said.

Taking higher-level math in high school can increase the chances of college success, no matter what the major.

A 2006 federal transcript study found that taking one course above Algebra 2 in high school can double the odds a student will earn a bachelor's degree.

In many high schools, students can graduate with three years of math and three years of science classes.

Catherine Lyons, associate dean for educational equity in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Penn State University, recommends four years each of math and science in high school.

At the college level, 32 percent of bachelor's degrees are awarded in STEM fields, including agricultural sciences, biological sciences, computer science, mathematics, physical sciences, psychology, social sciences, engineering, and earth, atmospheric and ocean sciences, according to the National Science Foundation. About 21 percent of master's degrees are in STEM fields and 54 percent of doctorates.

Sue Mukherjee, state lead for the Pennsylvania STEM Initiative, said, "STEM investment is a smart investment. It's not just for the best and brightest. We have a wide area of fields kids can attach into."

She said an analysis of 200 STEM occupations showed they had a median hourly pay -- counting benefits -- of about $8 an hour above that of other fields, $24.76 compared with the state median of $16.70 for all occupations. STEM fields also are growing faster in Pennsylvania, 12 percent a year, compared to 7 percent for non-STEM jobs.

Alaine Allen, director of the career access program in the Swanson School of Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, said some students don't understand what jobs are available in the STEM fields.

She recalled one freshman engineering student who, on touring a plant, said, "This is great. I had no idea what an engineer did."

She said students who get the appropriate foundation can go in a number of directions, even into careers they've never heard of before.

"I think the careers they heard of today may be different tomorrow, but if they have that basic foundation, it prepares them to go in many directions," she said.


Education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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