The U.S. Department of Defense has even identified the growing shortage of American engineers as a national crisis that threatens our national security—without homegrown STEM competency, we may be giving considerable strategic and military advantage to nations that nurture STEM expertise.
The Cost of America’s STEM Deficiency
In the U.S., educational reform efforts of the past 30 years, focused largely on reading and basic math, have mostly ignored science and advanced math topics such as algebra, geometry and calculus. Furthermore, the middle and high school “chutes and ladders” approach to science and math, where schools determine the level and type of classes youngsters pursue, overlooks many students’ latent talent in these areas, and there’s often no way out once the course is set. While a seventh grade algebra wiz, for example, would likely be steered into advanced high school math, physics and chemistry, struggling classmates would be ushered into a less challenging sequence. Once in the wrong chute, affected kids don’t see the ladders and learning loses excitement, meaning and relevancy.
Moreover, outdated, lecture-style STEM instruction that teaches to the test and relies on textbooks, abstracts and theoretical scenarios constricts curiosity and aptitude, stunts STEM engagement and achievement, and further goads at-risk kids’ desire to drop out of school. One million plus American teens, a staggering 25 percent, drop out of high school each year. This crisis costs the nation hundreds of billions in lost revenue, social services and dampened economic potential, and robs these young adults of a shot at their dreams and the personal satisfaction of worthy achievement. As for those who stay in school, most flock to non-STEM tracks because they were turned off by these subjects at an early age.
Innovative Approaches to STEM Education
To prepare American students for the workforce or higher education, schools must better advance STEM interest and mastery. To start, education reform specialists should overhaul the restrictive chutes and ladders approach to science and math that begins in sixth or seventh grade, amend outmoded STEM teaching methods, and instead champion an interactive, real-world, mentor-based approach — beginning in elementary school — that models 21st century critical and creative thinking skills, energizes appreciation for STEM, and enriches students’ knowledge about STEM careers.
Innovative examples of this proven strategy abound. Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School (BVT) in Massachusetts, for instance, which boasts a 93 percent graduation rate, reinvented itself in the past 10 years to help its students pursue rewarding STEM careers. In addition to plumbing, automotive and other traditional trades (which increasingly rely on technological advances), BVT offers rigorous training in emerging technologies, advanced STEM curriculum and even an engineering capstone class for seniors. Education reformers would do well to study BVT’s model of success and emphasize vocational education as a means to hands-on STEM mastery.
In addition many organizations, science and natural history museums, zoos and aquariums nationwide offer first class STEM immersion programs which can be integrated into school curriculum. For instance, the Museum of Science, Boston has created a research-based, standards-driven, and classroom-tested The Engineering is Elementary® (EiE®) project, promoting STEM among first to fifth grade children, reaching over 3.8 million students and nearly 44,000 teachers throughout the U.S. The EiE curriculum integrates engineering and technology concepts and skills with elementary science, literacy and social studies topics.
According to the Museum, “Storybooks featuring children from a variety of cultures and backgrounds introduce students to an engineering problem. Students are then challenged to solve a problem similar to that faced by the storybook character. Through a hands-on engineering design challenge, students work in teams to apply their knowledge of science and mathematics; use their inquiry and problem-solving skills; and tap their creativity as they design, create, and improve possible solutions. In the end, students realize that everyone can engineer!”
The JASON Project, another example, connects kids with top scientists eager to inspire excitement for STEM via live interactive events, virtual field trips and over-the-shoulder views of real-time discoveries, and even competitive opportunities to join a JASON expedition team as a Student Argonaut, traveling with scientists and a production team to remote locations from which JASON broadcasts interactive educational programming.
JASON’s curricula programs — ecology, energy, forces and motion, geology and weather — are aligned to state, national and international standards, and its website gives students and teachers online access to hands-on lesson plans, research data, sophisticated learning games, videos, teacher and professional development tools, online communities and, through its Immersion Learning, a comprehensive after-school program for schools and organizations such as Boys and Girls Clubs and 4H Clubs. Founded in 1989 by Dr. Robert Ballard, discoverer of the Titanic, JASON now reaches more than 2 million K-12 grade students in all 50 states and 170 countries worldwide.
According to third-party research, 73 percent of responding teachers believe their students demonstrate higher achievement in JASON units versus non-JASON units, and almost 90 percent report higher student enthusiasm for science with JASON and that JASON curricula enable them to provide remediation for struggling pupils and enrichment for higher ability students within the same classroom — affirmation indeed for rethinking STEM teaching principals.
Students Enliven Interactive STEM Education
In the past 20 years, a tremendous number of students who’ve participated in JASON pursue Ph.D. programs and careers in marine science, and kids otherwise turned off by school, science or math get excited because JASON takes them to places no one has ever seen before and helps them envision the relevance of studying to their own future and the future of our world. Here are two model examples of young people who’ve put STEM front and center in their lives:
During a fourth grade field trip to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Michael Brennan saw Dr. Ballard’s documentary film Search for the Battleship Bismarck and later caught The JASON Project’s 1991 live broadcast from the Galapagos Islands. Fast forward to April 1997 — Mike is a high school freshman and JASON Student Argonaut on an 11-day expedition to Yellowstone National Park where he discovers his love for geology.
Mike channeled these experiences and interest into his education, earning an undergraduate degree from Bowdoin College in geology and anthropology in 2004, and a Master’s degree in History from the University of Rhode Island. Since 2006, he has participated in numerous deep-sea expeditions with Dr. Robert Ballard’s team, and in 2010 began serving as expedition leader and chief scientist aboard the E/V Nautilus. Last spring Mike received his Ph.D. in Oceanography from URI.
Tashawn Reese first dove into Immersion Learning’s hands-on experiments as a 10-year old kid at the Boys and Girls Club of St. Joseph County, Ind. In 2009 his Club’s Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) team won the Shedd Aquarium Midwest MATE ROV Regional Competition in Chicago, advancing to the internationals in Buzzards Bay, Mass. There he befriended teams from Scotland and China, and saw real ROVs and jellyfish — the “Northern Lights of the sea” — for the first time.
In 2011, after a rigorous application process, he and fellow Club member Devyn Jackson and Tashawn’s mother Lucinda Reese, a Club educator, were selected to serve as JASON Argonauts. Tashawn was ecstatic, and the feeling lasted through summer boot camp prep in Mystic, Conn., stepping up E/V Nautilus’ gangway in Greece and joining Dr. Ballard for four days at sea. Now seventeen, Tashawn continues to mentor younger kids in ROV building and operating skills, and his experiences with JASON and Immersion Learning continue to help prepare him for college and a future career in ocean sciences.
All Children Deserve Stimulating STEM Education
The new academic year is well underway and kids across the nation — our future leaders, teachers, parents, entrepreneurs, inventors and health care providers — are working through their schools’ chosen curriculum. Many students will thrive upon the invigorating challenges they find there, fueled by innovative programs that inspire STEM passion and achievement. However, all our nation’s children deserve this opportunity, not just those who demonstrate an early aptitude or who are fortunate to attend such forward-looking schools. Solutions are at hand, now we must act. For our nation to flourish in this modern world economy we must foster STEM interest and mastery in every school, every year, beginning today.