The workshop’s fifth and final panel explored the question of how to lay the groundwork early for success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers. The three panelists were June Atkinson, North Carolina’s superintendent of public instruction; Gary Hoachlander, president of ConnectEd: The California Center for College and Career; and Jeff Livingston, former senior vice president for education policy and strategic alliances at McGraw-Hill Education Group. The panelists then responded to questions from session moderator Russell Rumberger, professor of education in the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and following that, from the workshop participants.
Rumberger began the session by recapping the key ideas he had heard during the day that could affect K-12 education, starting with the importance of mentoring and advising in influencing students’ decisions to go into STEM fields and the role the arts might play in STEM education. The critical role of work-based learning was also a clear point of emphasis, as was the importance of math in getting students into STEM fields. Rumberger also referred to a landmark demographic study by the late John Clausen, who followed a cohort of children born in the Depression through life until age 70 and looked at the many factors that helped define their success over that period (Clausen, 1985). The features predicting successful, fulfilling lives turned out to be tied to what a person was like in high school. “This underscores in my mind the importance that K-12, and perhaps especially high schools, has in preparing students not just for STEM careers but careers in general,” said Rumberger.
Atkinson then briefly described her most important roles as state superintendent, a position she has held for 10 years. One role is to guide the state board of education to develop the best policies for education. Another major role is to let the people of North Carolina know how the state is doing in public education and what needs to be done to improve and make changes that are beneficial to the state’s children and its economic development. The third major role is to determine what the state needs to do to prepare policies and standards and licensing of teachers to ensure it can meet future challenges.
Hoachlander then recounted an experience he had the summer before entering 10th grade when his parents sent him to a science camp at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, one of the most elite preparatory schools in the United States. His teacher at the camp was a research biologist who had him spend the entire summer studying the cricket as a thermometer. He had to read the original scientific work from the 1800s, design an experiment to validate earlier research that there was a mathematical relationship between the rate at which crickets chirp and ambient temperature, build the necessary equipment, go into the field and catch crickets, produce a research paper summarizing his results, and present and defend his findings to his teacher and fellow classmates. He even discovered something never reported before, that some crickets lack the ability to chirp and that these crickets do not have ears. “Developing the ability to understand the scientific method and enjoy the excitement of original discovery had enormous value,” said Hoachlander.
He told this story, he said, for two reasons. The first was to point out the importance of changing the way teaching and learning are organized in the United States so that they focus on experiential learning, not only in K-12 but in postsecondary education. The second, and more important reason, was to raise the issue of equity. “We are talking about an approach to learning and teaching used 50 years ago in the most elite educational institution in this country, and it is still not present in the high schools of Detroit and Oakland and Los Angeles, or if it is, it is the exception, not the rule,” said Hoachlander. “What is routine at places like Phillips Academy, and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton, and Yale, is missing from the K-12 systems serving the overwhelming majority of young people in the United States. Clearly, we need a new approach to STEM education.” In California, that approach is called Linked Learning, and it integrates rigorous academics with career-based learning and real-world workplace experiences. There is no one right way to implement this type of program and introduce new pathways to college and careers, but there are wrong ways, said Hoachlander, so the Linked Learning program has worked hard to spell out what constitutes high-quality pathway design and implementation. The challenge, he said, is to build systems at the district,
community, and regional levels to support and sustain high-quality pathways. Linked Learning, which started in California, is now being implemented in Detroit, Rochester, and Houston.
Livingston, who was in charge of college and career readiness at McGraw-Hill for more than a decade, also told a story to make a point. His story was about a conversation he had with a Texas fourth grader named Maria. During this conversation, he asked Maria what she wanted for her future, and she said she wanted to be the first person in her family not to be poor. This was a startling statement, said Livingston, and it colored how he thinks about the advice to give a student like Maria. For starters, he would tell Maria to work hard to convince her mother to advocate forcefully for her to get into a school where other students go on to college, which in Texas is probably a charter school. He would advise her to go either to a college or university that has ever been ranked in the top 10 or go to the local community college and focus on a STEM career, and probably in technology and engineering because that is where the money is and she does not want to be poor. “I think the future of our economy, the quality of our society, rests precisely on how successful we are at helping Maria achieve what she wants for her life, which is to not be poor,” said Livingston.
Atkinson said she is optimistic about being able to make the shifts needed in public education, and an important step to take is to do a better job of training teachers about how to show students the many ways in which STEM knowledge is useful in real life, starting in kindergarten, and to provide career advice and mentoring. “Any policy that does not pay attention to the teacher is a policy destined to fail,” said Atkinson. She noted that on her travels across North Carolina she is seeing a major shift in elementary education using many of the strategies being discussed at this workshop. “Teachers are integrating STEM concepts into the general lesson flow and not separating them out,” she said. Based on what she has seen, she believes elementary school teachers are best prepared to do this kind of integration and to do the important priming that will get students interested in STEM. More work is needed, though, at the middle and high school levels when it comes to project-based learning, she added, and this will require different approaches than those that succeed in elementary school.
Hoachlander agreed that teacher training is a critical area needing attention because, as he put it, “the typical math teacher knows very little about how math is used in engineering or even in basic construction.” One way to improve teacher training is to build the capacity of core academic teachers to apply their discipline outside of the classroom through engage-
ment with local industries. In the same way, it is important to give young people of all ages the opportunity to apply in authentic ways what they are learning, which also requires the opportunity to interact with professionals in STEM careers outside of the school environment.
Another point Hoachlander raised was that STEM is important in many fields that had yet to be mentioned during the workshops, such as agriculture, energy, environmental science, law and justice, intellectual property, and security, all areas of potential interest to students. He also noted how important it is to give Maria the STEM foundation that will enable her to succeed in any kind of economy, including an economy that few people today can even envision. “What is the strategy for ensuring that every Maria in every single school in the United States has the opportunity to get the kind of preparation she needs to be successful in lifelong education and career?” asked Hoachlander. Atkinson then reiterated the importance of thinking about the entire spectrum of occupations requiring STEM as a foundational skill. “As you get further up the ladder of education, the goal is to make sure all students have those foundational skills, and then with the career pathways framework, you give students the opportunity to delve further into what they are learning,” she said.
Livingston said the concept of mindset should be part of all teacher preparation if the goal is to nurture Maria’s interest in STEM. Nobody, he said, is born to be a mathematician, for example. Rather, there are things that families and teachers expect students to be good at and persist at until they master those subjects, and there are things that they give students permission to give up on. “The first thing we need to do is protect Maria from the assumption that she cannot become a scientist because her elementary school teacher does not think of her as a math person. We need to protect her from that mindset,” said Livingston.
He then mentioned his current favorite school that follows a similar model to Linked Learning, P-Tech in Brooklyn. P-Tech was the first school in the nation—there are now 28 others in New York, Illinois, and Connecticut—to connect high school, college, and the world of work through college and industry partnerships. Students at P-Tech in Brooklyn graduate with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in one of three technology fields from New York City College of Technology, and Livingston noted in the first cohort of these students, six of them finished their high school and associate’s degrees in 4, not 6, years. Four of these students, he added, are working at IBM today and have become the highest paid members of their families.
Hoachlander said he is a fan of the P-Tech schools, but cautioned he wants to make sure they are not just creating a new form of tracking that has dominated the American high school experience for more than a century. The P-Tech model avoids creating tracks better than most of the new
pathway models in that it prepares students for the full range of postsecondary school options. “What we do not want is a pathway for grades 9 to 14, another pathway for grades 9 to 16, and so on,” said Hoachlander. Another good model, he said, is San Diego’s ACE (architecture, construction, and engineering) program, where the large majority of the high school students participating in the program are Hispanic and eligible for free or reduced-fee lunch programs. This program, he explained, prepares students for many graduation options, including apprenticeships, 2-year college, and 4-year college, and it is up to the students to make the choice of the pathways to take after graduation. “It is not a choice being made by others based on presumptions of what students are or are not able to do,” said Hoachlander.
Atkinson agreed the best approaches give students the opportunity to make choices. “Because a child took a sequence of courses in a career pathway should not determine whether or not they get into college,” said Atkinson. “We should teach students in ways that engage them so they can have options after graduation.” Her favorite schools in North Carolina, for example, expect all of their students from a variety of backgrounds to meet high standards in mathematics, science, and social studies, and all students take the same classes regardless of what career pathways interest them. These schools even have pathway departments in which teachers from the disciplines work together. The challenge, she said, is to replicate these schools so that every child in the state who wants to be in this type of program can be. As a final comment before the open discussion began, Atkinson added that schools need to do a better job in particular in helping students achieve in mathematics in the K-5 years. “The research I have seen says that if children get a deep understanding of mathematics by then, that will propel them to higher mathematics as they go on in school,” she said.
Brian Mitchell, from the National Science Foundation, noted that teaching is a passion for many doctoral students and said while having a Ph.D. does not guarantee someone will be a good teacher, he wondered if there is a pathway to facilitate teaching careers in K-12 for doctoral students. He also posed the harder question of how to value that as a career choice for those who attain that highest level of education. Atkinson said those were two challenging questions, particularly regarding how to reward Ph.D.’s who want to teach in K-12. While rewarding them with higher salaries is not an option today in her state, what should happen regardless is for citizens and the business community to start acknowledging how important teachers are to the nation’s economic development and letting teachers know they have the support of the community. She called on the
business community in particular to put pressure on legislatures to provide the funds to provide higher salaries for teachers.
As far as how to accredit Ph.D.’s to teach in K-12, Atkinson explained that North Carolina has a system where case managers will look at each individual’s qualifications to determine what they need to do to become certified. However, she said, her department has found the best teachers are those who have come through a 4-year teacher preparation program and that it takes about 3 years with mentoring and professional development for Ph.D.’s to reach the same point as teachers who have gone through 4-year programs. Livingston added he would tell Maria that becoming a teacher is a good way not to be poor, but not to get a Ph.D. first.
Sarah Rowlinson, from Clemson University, told a story of when she moved with her family from New York to Florida as a middle school student and her parents were given the option of placing her in the regular, honors, or gifted program. Her parents, neither of whom had gone to college, picked the honors track, which Rowlinson said had a significant impact on her access to the most engaging science programs. Only those students in the gifted program dissected fetal pigs, for example. “The teachers were different and the resources were different for these different tracks,” she recounted. “This is something we need to address because it greatly affects the STEM experience for students and tells those students who are not in the gifted track that they are not worth the money to get them interested in STEM.”
Atkinson’s response was, “You are exactly correct. When kids are exposed to experiential learning, we are halfway home to helping them gain those foundational skills and knowledge and employment success skills they need.” She added she has seen countless examples of “regular students” being engaged through experiential learning and becoming interested in and pursuing STEM careers. Livingston commented that what has happened in public schools is that these three different tracks—the regular, honors, and gifted programs—are likely to be at different schools. “So depending on where you can afford to live, you have one experience or another,” he said. Rumberger agreed with Livingston and said the United States has the most stratified educational systems of any country. “We have some of the best schools, but we probably have the worst schools, too,” said Rumberger. Referring back to Freeman Hrabowski’s earlier comments about grit, Atkinson said the nation needs to develop the grit to fix the problem schools in America’s public school systems.
Christine Burgess, from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, asked the panelists if they could identify some of the features of successful educational pathways to careers in STEM. Hoachlander said college and career should have four critical components: an academic core of math, science, English, social studies, and a world language; a cluster
or sequence of career technical courses aligned and taught in concert with the academic courses in a way that engages students in multidisciplinary projects; a work-based learning component starting in 9th grade through 12th grade; and personalized student supports, which for most children means supplemental instruction in reading, writing, and math, combined with solid postsecondary and career counseling. He stressed that work-based learning does not mean work experience, which itself is also a good thing. As an example of a work-based learning experience, he described how students at the health careers academy at Palmdale High School in Palmdale, California, learn science. Every senior during the second semester spends three mornings a week in a group internship at various medical facilities in the area, with each group consisting of 25 students and their classroom teacher. On the morning he observed one of these groups, the teacher was working side by side with a physician assistant assigned to the class by Kaiser Permanente, and the two adults were showing the students how to perform an electrocardiogram. The students, with adult guidance, worked on real patients, operated the electrocardiogram, and learned to interpret the results. That afternoon, the students were back in their medical science class learning about the human cardiovascular system, the role that electricity plays in regulating the human heart, and how heart disease interferes with that electrical system, which is what the electrocardiogram is used to detect. “There was a direct and immediate connection between what students were doing in a real hospital with a real physician’s assistant that very morning and what they were learning back in their medical science class that afternoon,” said Hoachlander. “That did not happen by accident, and that is what I mean by work-based learning.”
That is all fine when there are STEM professionals that are available to work with teachers and students, said Nicole Parker, from Johns Hopkins University, but where she comes from in Eastern North Carolina, those professionals do not exist. “How can we change training opportunities for those K-12 teachers to have that knowledge so that all schools can be teaching that way?” she asked the panelists. One way to address that problem, said Atkinson, is to use work-based learning for teacher preparation. Along those same lines, it could be a matter of policy that teachers would have to have some hours in work-based learning for their license renewals, and she thought the group-based learning experience Hoachlander described would be pertinent for teacher preparation and continuing teacher education. Livingston suggested the funding model for public institutions could include a requirement for engaging in work-based learning with public schools. “That could make a big difference and could scale if we got serious about it,” he said.
As a final comment, Hoachlander pointed out that education is the third largest U.S. industry, and yet not many schools take advantage of
experience-based learning opportunities within their own walls. For example, he imagined the school systems in North Carolina probably operate the largest transportation system and the biggest computer networks in the state, yet he doubted that North Carolina’s schools had work-based experiences connected with those systems. Not to single out North Carolina, Hoachlander wondered how many high school students had ever had internships at the National Academy of Sciences or the U.S. Department of Education.