Challenges for Science, Math, Technology and Engineering in K-12

Last year I had the opportunity to attend a conference sponsored by Philanthropy Roundtable “Quantum Leaps – Improving Math and Science” which took place at San Francisco, California. (A note to readers, Philanthropy Roundtable puts on superb conferences. It is worth the time and money to attend).

The opening speech was given by Dr. John Hennessy, President of Stanford University

Dr. Hennesey referenced the book Rising Above the Gathering Storm, published by the National Academies of Science. Supporting the findings of the research, Dr. Hennessy stated that the biggest challenge to American Education is improving the quality of teaching science and technology and with well-prepared teachers, we will prepare young people for the mental challenges these disciplines invite in College, Graduate Schools. Well prepared students will inevitable contribute positively to the American business sector..

Engineering, science and mathematics degrees awarded by universities to men and women who are U.S. citizens each year is decreasing at alarming rates. The majority of degrees in these disciplines are now awarded to students from overseas who return to their native countries, such as China, Southeast Asia and India. The number of women and minorities represented in these fields is intolerably small.

Most universities freely admit that over-all American young people are not prepared for college and university work in mathematics and science. Calculus and physics, once optional in the high school curriculum, are now essential for those who are even remotely interested in technology, engineering, physics or business.

For most students entering colleges and universities, basic proficiency in all subjects continues to decrease in general. The most alarming drops are in math and sciences. Research has shown that teacher quality and preparation in the field is the most important predictor of quality teaching and learning. Students with Advanced Placement (AP) courses in high schools generally compete well due to the extra level of rigor that the AP requires. The AP also requires a minimal training for teachers to know their subject.

The majority of teachers in public schools are under-qualified to teach because they do not hold a degree with a major in the subject area.

Another truly alarming fact is the number of students requiring remediation not only in science and math, but in English and reading. This fact is reported in the work of Dr. Spellings, Cabinet Head of the U.S. Department of Education.

Graduation rates remain surprisingly low among students who enter college ill-prepared for higher education. Those who successfully complete degrees in math and science do not opt to pursue careers in public education.

According to Dr. Hennessey, the challenge for K-12 education in the years ahead will be:

  • recruiting math and science teachers
  • providing intensive continuing education for existing teachers
  • opening opportunities to bring teachers into colleges

The government should explore the following policy initiatives:

  • embark on a loan forgiveness program for those who complete college in science and math and enter the teaching profession.
  • integrate new and innovative ways to present math and sciences into pedagogy using creative and enhanced web-based platforms.

Teachers on the K-12 level must be encouraged to underscore the importance of group-learning. They must integrate blogging into classroom teaching and enhance online learning. Science and engineering require group thinking and learning which is discouraged in current K-12 environments.

Finally, there is a need to establish a National framework for Science and Math education. The tradition of local (State) control in the US is entrenched and presents and enormous struggles for those who attempt the undertake it. But this is exactly where philanthropy has a role in the years ahead. We must find new and creative ways to address this critical failure to provide American K-12 students with the most fundamental exposure to Science and Math.

The challenge for philanthropy will be to encourage public school officials to embrace instructional technologies and test its impact on the true learning that takes place in science and math. Thwarting that challenge is standardized “high-stakes” testing which reduces risk taking in learning and by its punitive outcomes, is a major disincentive to new learning skills. It is philanthropy’s challenge to work with governors in each state to reexamine the impact “high-stakes” testing in its current form has on the culture of learning in their schools. Finally, it will be up to congressional representatives to reexamine the impact of the testing components of No Child Left Behind and make needed changes to reinvigorate Science, Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) in our schools.

3 thoughts on “Challenges for Science, Math, Technology and Engineering in K-12

  1. Ryan

    Great post, John!

    You’re absolutely right about schools being handcuffed by standardized testing. Kids have a lot riding on their scores (college admissions, scholarships, or even just moving to the next grade) but so do teachers and administrators, and the fear of losing one’s job leads too many to focus disproportionately on teaching to the test. Unfortunately a whole lot of blame gets dumped onto individuals, when the problems are more systemic. Treat the disease, not the symptoms …

    My question is: how do you think philanthropists can meet the challenges you describe? Do you envision a grassroots effort, where many philanthropists individually talk to their governors? Should this be a more coordinated group effort? Or some of both? Also, what do you think are the circumstances under which public school officials will feel they can embrace new technologies?

  2. Jeff Jaroscak

    Excellent post.

    I have been giving quite a bit of thought to STEM programming lately. I recognize the need for programs and I remain optimistic that we can re-invigorate interest in the disciplines. My problem lies with the fact that I have yet to see a new STEM program. Typically what I see are “re-marketed” existing programs. Schools re-package the very programs that have caused students to lose interest.

    In addition, technology and engineering are typically the last program aspects to be addressed.


  3. John

    Jeff, Thanks for the comment. In my talks with teachers about STEM, there appears to be a wide variation of how STEM is incorporated in to practice. I agree, there is a lot of tinkering about revising standards, revisiting assessment methods, but too little concentration on how those tools may or may not fit learning. It is my sense that the people that make the plans, should spend more time in classrooms and at home to observe and listen carefully how youngsters do their homework and research. With the aid of cell phones, and web based communication tools like chat or facebook, their work is highly collaborative. The older folks who make the rules and give the tests don’t get that. As we prepare kids for the so called 21st Century skills I have a very strong sense that our children will design standards and assessment tools around Science and related STEM programs very differently from the way they are doing it now. What do others think?

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