The lackluster showing of American students on the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment test has spurred analyses from many quarters. Why do the scores of U.S. students fall below average in math and science? Why do 22 of the 65 participating education systems score higher in science literacy? Why do such a minuscule percentage of U.S. students (8.8 percent) score at the highest level in math when more than half of Shanghai students do? Why does the United States consistently rank below not only the top performers in Asia, but also below Canada, Australia, France, Italy and Slovakia?
A more positive way to look at this is to ask, what can we do to improve the way we educate students in STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math? This is something we at the Carnegie Science Center think about all the time, not just every three years when the PISA scores are released.
Many point the finger at schools, particularly teachers. This is too simplistic. Teachers want their students to excel, but they can’t solve the STEM problem by themselves. The mediocre performance of U.S. students in math and science has many causes, and it will require coordinated analysis, creative thought and diligent effort to move the needle. This means involving not just pre-K to grade-12 educators, but also families, corporations, nonprofits, colleges and government.
The Carnegie Science Center is convening groups representing these stakeholders to address STEM education in many ways. For instance, we have worked for years with two excellent organizations that focus on strengthening classroom math and science instruction and professional development for teachers: the Math & Science Collaborative and ASSET STEM Education.
The science center’s Chevron Center for STEM Education and Career Development has a highly engaged advisory board whose members include representatives of these organizations as well as many regional corporations, foundations and universities. This group is setting priorities to significantly improve STEM education in this region.
A number of initiatives are beginning to take shape.
A distinguished group of STEM education leaders, partners in higher education, workforce development organizations and others are creating a “STEM Education Pathway.” Funded by the Heinz Endowments, this pathway will delineate a stage-by-stage progression to higher and higher levels of excellence in the teaching of STEM subjects.
The criteria for assessment and advancement evolved from the science center’s multifaceted definition of effective STEM education: experience-based, project-based learning; projects that require students to work in teams and develop 21st-century skills; instruction integrated across traditional subjects; exposing students to real-world career options and STEM professionals; and the preparation and ongoing education of STEM teachers in inquiry-based instruction.
As this pathway is completed and implemented, it will provide a significant tool to help schools and school districts achieve their highest priorities in STEM education. This project has the potential to create a model for both well-resourced and underserved schools and districts to achieve systemic change in STEM education.
Of course, it won’t be the total solution. Let us hope the pathway is just one part of a broad community groundswell to improve STEM learning, driven not just by schools or government but by all of us who care about kids.
Equipping our kids with a strong background in STEM is crucial to meeting the needs of our region’s workforce, developing a well-informed citizenry and enhancing the future of all kids, no matter which career paths they follow.
Ron Baillie and Ann Metzger are co-directors of the Carnegie Science Center (carnegiesciencecenter.org).