The phrase “STEM education” is shorthand for an enterprise that is as complicated as it is important. What students learn about the science disciplines, technology, engineering, and mathematics during their K-12 schooling shapes their intellectual development, opportunities for future study and work, and choices of career, as well as their capacity to make informed decisions about political and civic issues and about their own lives. A wide array of public and personal issues—from global warming to medical treatment to social networking to home mortgages—involves science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Indeed, the solutions to some of the most daunting problems facing the nation will require not only the expertise of top STEM professionals but also the wisdom and understanding of its citizens.
Education in the STEM areas takes many forms in the United States. Though there are compelling reasons for concern about the quality and effectiveness of the education many students receive in these disciplines, there are also many clear success stories. Policy makers and others have looked for ways to identify the schools and approaches that are most successful—and the characteristics that account for their success—so that their models for best practice can be replicated.
At the request of the office of U.S. Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), the National Science Foundation asked the National Research Council to explore these issues, and, under the auspices of the Board on Science Education and the Board on Testing and Assessment, the Committee on Highly Successful Schools or Programs for K-12 STEM Education was
Charge to the Committee
An ad hoc steering committee will plan and conduct a public workshop to explore criteria for identifying highly successful K-12 schools and programs in the area of STEM education through examination of a select set of examples. The committee will determine some initial criteria for nominating successful schools to be considered at the workshop. The examples included in the workshop must have been studied in enough detail to provide evidence to support claims of success. Discussions at the workshop will focus on refining criteria for success, exploring models of “best practice,” and an analysis of factors that evidence indicates lead to success. The discussion from the workshop will be synthesized in an individually authored workshop summary.
formed to carry out this work. The committee was charged with “outlining criteria for identifying effective STEM schools and programs and identifying which of those criteria could be addressed with available data and research, and those where further work is needed to develop appropriate data sources.” The detailed charge is shown in Box 1-1.
To carry out part of its charge, the committee organized a workshop, held in May 2011, that had three goals:
1. describing the primary types of K-12 schools and programs that can support successful education in the STEM disciplines;
2. examining data and research that demonstrate the effectiveness of these school types; and
3. summarizing research that helps to identify both the elements that make such programs effective and what is needed to implement these elements.
This report is a summary of that workshop.1 The remainder of this chapter elaborates on why STEM education is so important and on the complexity of the task of identifying the features that are essential to successful outcomes for students. Chapter 2 explores four different basic
1The workshop sessions included formal presentations and structured panel discussions. Because the primary purpose was for the committee to support its development of consensus findings for a separate report, there were opportunities for the committee to question presenters. There were also some opportunities for general discussion. This summary synthesizes the material presented and highlights from the questions and discussion. The committee also wrote a report summarizing its findings, conclusions, and recommendations on STEM education (National Research Council, 2011).
types of schools that deliver STEM education in the United States, looking both at research on each type and a few example schools. Chapter 3 addresses the research on practices and approaches to science and mathematics education, and Chapter 4 explores research on school conditions that support effective STEM education. The closing chapter summarizes the major points that emerged from the workshop discussion, with a focus on goals for translating the next generation of standards (both for the Common Core and the Next Generation Science Standards) into curricula, professional development programs, and assessments. Future research needs also were discussed. Following the list of references are four appendices. Appendix A provides the agendas for the workshop held May 10-12, 2011. Appendix B presents a list of registered workshop participants. Papers commissioned for the workshop are listed in Appendix C, and biographical sketches of committee members can be found in Appendix D.
STEM education has many potential benefits for individuals and for the nation as a whole, Norman Augustine explained in an opening presentation. One factor that sets it apart from other branches of academic study for many policy makers is that literacy in STEM subjects is important both for the personal well-being of each citizen and for the nation’s competitiveness in the global economy. Various studies, Augustine explained, show that between 50 and 85 percent of growth in the U.S. gross domestic product over the past 50 years was accounted for by advancements in science and engineering. He also noted that the U.S. Commission on National Security, which issued its report early in 2001, highlighted the two greatest threats facing the country as terrorism on U.S. soil and “the failure to properly manage our educational system and our investments in research.”
Rising Above the Gathering Storm (National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, 2007), which reviewed the factors that influence U.S. competitiveness, highlighted the critical importance of STEM education in its recommendations. Drawing on a recent update of that report (National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, 2010), Augustine described a few of the reasons why the United States needs to improve STEM education. “We like to think of America as being first in everything,” he noted. But, for example, the United States ranks 6th among developed nations in innovation-based competitiveness, 11th in percentage of young adults who have graduated from high school, 15th in science literacy among top students, and 28th in mathematics literacy among top students.
On the basis of these data and other evidence of ways the United States is falling short in international comparisons, the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine (2007) recommended a focus on improving STEM education; it highlighted parental interest and support and qualified, engaged teachers as the essential ingredients. In the 5 years between the report and the updated volume (National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, 2010), Augustine added, 6 million more U.S. young people dropped out of school while many other nations continued to improve their STEM education. At the same time, the U.S. higher education system—widely regarded as first in the world—is under threat, he added. Severe budget cuts at state universities and losses in endowment funds at private ones have meant loss of faculty and other resources. Universities in other countries, he noted, “have lists of faculty members” they want to recruit, and some are recruiting promising high school students as well.
As the U.S. population changes in composition, “we are going to fall further and further behind,” Augustine argued, if schools are not able to engage students from groups that have traditionally been underserved in STEM education. “We need more pathways for top students to really excel … and we need more alternate pathways for the kids who don’t want to become scientists, but still need to be science-literate” he concluded.
The committee was asked to identify schools that have been highly successful at K-12 STEM education and to draw lessons for schools across the country, committee chair Adam Gamoran explained, but he stressed that this is a more complex challenge than it might seem. STEM encompasses many disciplines and kinds of education, and there are many ways to define it. Because of limits to the time and resources available for this project, the committee focused on mathematics and science. The bulk of the research and data concerning STEM education at the K-12 level relates to mathematics and science education. Research in technology and engineering education is less mature because those subjects are not as commonly taught in a K-12 context, but the committee fully recognizes the importance of engineering and technology education, of conceptual connections among STEM subjects,2 and of other stages and types of schooling (including informal STEM learning).
2The nature and potential value of integrated K-12 STEM education is the focus of another, ongoing study of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council by the Committee on Integrated STEM Education. It is expected to be completed in 2013.
Gamoran and committee member Barbara Means outlined three key questions and issues the committee considered in designing the workshop: What is “success”? How is it judged? What are the elements of success?
Successful at What? In general, the STEM schools that graduate the largest numbers of successful STEM students are the ones in which the largest numbers of well-prepared and highly motivated 9th graders enroll, Means observed. Thus, it is necessary to disentangle the effects of the schools from the effects of student selection; a more precise question is which schools and programs add the most value for the students they serve.
How Should Success Be Judged? There are several valued outcomes of STEM education. Goals include preparing top students for advanced degrees and technical careers in STEM fields, developing science literacy for all students, helping all students prepare for college, and equipping the future workforce to prosper individually and support the nation’s prosperity. In identifying successful schools and programs it is necessary to understand their goals and the students they serve. For example, Means noted, the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce has estimated that in 2018, just 24 percent of the STEM-related jobs are going to require a graduate degree, 44 percent will require a bachelor’s degree, and 20 percent will require either an associate’s degree or a certificate for some other postsecondary program. All of the workforce options will be important to the country’s economic competitiveness.
Any broad look at the effectiveness of STEM education in the United States, Means added, must also take into account the changing demographics of the population at large. The fastest growing group is low-income Hispanics, and this group also has among the lowest rates of participation in STEM occupations. Thus, success could be judged not only on how many successful graduates are produced, or average achievement, but also on how effectively the achievement gaps between different groups are narrowed.
What Elements Make Schools or Programs Successful? Programs vary not only in their goals and in the students they serve, but also in the geographic, educational, and demographic contexts in which they are located, among other factors. They operate within an education system that has many interacting layers—a “complex ecology,” as Means phrased it—so a program or practice that works well with a particular group of students in one context may not work well with another. Programs and schools themselves are complex, and specific features or ways of implementing a given program in a given school may be very important to their success but difficult to isolate.
To help answer these questions, the committee developed a frame-
FIGURE 1-1 A framework for understanding what constitutes success in K-12 STEM education.
work for understanding what constitutes success in K-12 STEM education, which guided the planning for the workshop. This framework, shown in Figure 1-1, depicts the factors that influence the effectiveness of STEM education. For example, the context in which education takes place—the upper-most box—determines the curriculum, the resources, the priorities, and students’ expectations and motivation. The program’s specific goals, such as preparing top students for advanced study and challenging careers, reducing achievement gaps, and/or improving math and science literacy for all students, for example, would then dictate the standards by which the program is judged. Schools and programs have very different structures and these also must be taken into account, as must specific conditions and practices within programs. Measuring success also entails identifying specific indicators of desired outcomes. Test scores are frequently used, but course taking, college readiness and performance, choice of major, and choices and performance in the workforce are some of the other outcomes that must be considered. The workshop sessions explored these points and the available research.
Means noted that with only about 40 percent of students leaving high school prepared for college-level mathematics, “we need to do a much, much better job with many more students.” What is needed is a system that is highly effective for each of the purposes and goals of STEM education, and effective for different students in different contexts. There are no easy answers, she added, and in many cases there is no solid evidence at all about best practices. The workshop presenters were asked to highlight both what is and is not known, to frame the problem, and to help identify the next steps for the research that is needed to answer the questions.