Starting earlier to build student interest in STEM

12/18/2013  |  Karen Flammer, Ph.D.

Economists tell us that eight out of 10 jobs in the coming decades will require a background in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM), as those occupations grow at almost twice the rate of jobs in non-STEM fields. Not every STEM job requires an advanced degree, or even a four-year degree, but they are likely to require some level of post-secondary technical training — programs for which too many graduating seniors are unequipped.

Most programs to improve STEM education and participation in STEM careers focus on preparing high school students to pursue STEM majors in college. Unfortunately, as we can see in the accompanying chart, too many students lack the science and math skills needed to succeed in college STEM courses. (See chart from ACT.) Moreover, a Georgetown University study last year showed that among those who do take the right courses and select a STEM major in college, 38 percent do not complete their STEM degree. In many cases, motivation plays a role. Students are unclear about the careers that will ultimately be open to them, or they are unable to see themselves as successful professionals using their STEM degree.

Clearly, focusing on STEM just at the high school level is not enough. We need to begin earlier to “fill the STEM pipeline,” so that more students have the academic preparation, but also the motivation to succeed in STEM. Our students need to be motivated by positive learning experiences in science and math much earlier in their academic years.

Looking at younger students, there are reasons to be optimistic. Students in early elementary grades start out with positive attitudes toward science and math. In surveys by the National Center for Education Statistics, two-thirds of fourth graders had positive views of science and technology, with many seeing themselves playing a role in those fields. This is not surprising. Most children are natural “scientists” — eager to explore the world and keen observers of what they encounter. They like to fix things, solve puzzles, ask lots of questions, and generally tackle the problems they see in the world.

But here is our predicament: by eighth grade, these same children have less-positive views of science and math, as well as diminished expectations of what roles they could play in those fields. A recent survey from “Project Tomorrow” indicated that only 17 percent of middle school students see themselves as having a career in a STEM field. So we need to ask: what happens between third and eighth grade to change attitudes so much? We believe that the solution is to be found in how science and math are presented to students — not just by the teachers in those subjects, but also by all the educators whom our students encounter.

All of us are more motivated when we can see clear connections between what we are learning and what we can do with that learning. Too often, in science and math instruction, we fail to show students how the learning in those classes can enable them to solve problems and make the world a better place. We don’t give them enough appealing examples of scientists and engineers engaged in interesting, valuable work. And most important, we haven’t always made sure that young women and minority students see diverse role models — people like themselves — being successful in STEM careers, doing important work, and just plain having fun! If you thought that people in science only work on their own, in a white smock, in a lab, looking at equipment and test samples all day, would YOU want to become a scientist?

Approximately 22 percent of our K12 students are Hispanic. Over 16 percent are African American. And of course, half of our students are girls. Few people who work in science and engineering are from those groups. (See chart from NSF.) Clearly, if we want today’s students to see themselves as tomorrow’s STEM professionals, we have to show them what that world could be like.

Concerns about our nation’s economic competitiveness are real. Who will invent new products, solve tomorrow’s energy needs, or cure our most serious diseases? The fact is that our students are in a race with young people in other nations to see who will play the largest role in creating our future. Unfortunately, in that race less than half of our students are finding their way to the starting line.

At Sally Ride Science, we work on the part of the “STEM pipeline” that is in greatest need of repair. We focus on grades four through eight, because that is where the most students are at risk of missing out on STEM learning. And second, we focus on teachers in all disciplines, who can have such a profound impact on students in those grades. Because we know that given the right training and tools, even teachers without science backgrounds can develop greater confidence with STEM topics and create more excitement around STEM careers.

Since 2009, the Sally Ride Science Academy has offered upper elementary and middle school educators systematic approaches to connect key concepts in science and math to real people who are using those concepts in fascinating, fulfilling careers. By connecting the curriculum to diverse role models in STEM professions — to people who are doing fun, amazing things — teachers are learning how to cultivate that enthusiasm for science and technology that so many students are at risk of losing.

We show teachers and school counselors, step by step, how to integrate compelling information about STEM careers into their daily instruction. The Common Core standards, with their emphasis on college and career readiness, are arriving just in time; because they support helping teachers connect classroom learning to the lives that are possible outside the school. We know that not every student will obtain an advanced degree, or even a four-year degree, and that’s fine. Many STEM careers offer tremendous fulfillment and excellent economic opportunities, without those kinds of degrees. But students will need post-secondary training and motivation to make the most of the opportunities that are out there.

After reaching close to 10 thousand teachers and almost a million students through the Sally Ride Science Academy, we are now offering these proven approaches through our Online Academy. This professional development helps teachers understand the importance of student motivation and appreciate the aptitudes that all students can have for STEM subjects. Even though many of the teachers in our academy courses do not have STEM backgrounds themselves, we can give them more confidence to address science, technology, engineering and math in their classrooms. And we help them with concrete strategies for creating excitement around STEM careers and making those “real-world” connections for students.

The Common Core standards — and, indeed, all standards related to college and career readiness — will require new cross-curricular approaches from teachers. By developing nonfiction reading and writing skills across the curriculum and by bringing engaging examples of applied knowledge and career role models into every classroom, we can help students orient their learning to problem-solving in real-world settings. We can help them to demonstrate genuine understanding of the subjects we teach. I am certain that if we do this well, we can ignite that curiosity and engagement with science and technology that so many young students already enjoy, and transform it into greater success after high school.

Dr. Karen Flammer is a co-founder of Sally Ride Science and a space scientist at the University of California, San Diego; with over 25 years’ experience teaching science.
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