STEMbeats Blog

NEW DATA: Will We Make Time for Science and Engineering in our Elementary Schools?

March 28, 2017

For years, STEM education advocates have wanted to introduce fundamental principles of engineering as early as the elementary grades. Many have embraced the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for aiming to do just that. Are the NGSS living up to their billing so far? In elementary schools, the answer is…yes and no.

As we noted last month, states adopting NGSS are already devoting more attention to engineering and technology in eighth-grade classrooms. In fourth grade, by contrast, the picture is mixed, with most NGSS states surging ahead in those areas but others staying stagnant. Why? Odds are, the answer has to do with time. States where elementary schools spend little time on science will probably not fulfill the promise of NGSS.

We analyzed survey data from the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress in science to see how teachers are spending their instructional time, focusing on states that adopted the standards before 2014.[1]

We found mostly good news, but with a glaring exception:

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Most NGSS states ramp up engineering & tech in 4th grade--but not CA

California started low and ended low, falling well short of the national average for growth.

When we explored how often fourth graders discussed engineering challenges in school, we saw similar patterns:

Elementary students tackle engineering in most NGSS states--except CA & WA

California and Washington State both saw little change since 2009, and both remained significantly behind the national average for students who frequently discuss the kinds of problems engineers solve.[2]

What do these two states have in common? Elementary schools in both spend little time teaching science in fourth grade:

Some states spend less time on science

In 2015, fourth-graders in Washington State and California were much less likely to devote time to science than peers in any other state on the list of NGSS early adopters. Science is almost the only vehicle for engineering in most elementary schools, so if schools don’t attend to science, they won’t attend to engineering.

The relationship between time for science and time for engineering seems to hold for all the states we examined:

Scatterplot--relation between time for engineering & time for science

Things may still look up for California and Washington State. All NGSS states were just starting to implement the new standards in 2015, when NAEP collected these data. In fact, California remains in the early stages of implementation.

As states build their new science tests and adopt new accountability plans, they may yet create more incentives for elementary teachers to teach science. After all, most elementary teachers don’t decide on their own to give science short shift. They take their cues from states or districts that do not include science in their accountability plans, offer meager professional development in the subject, or skimp on teaching materials.

NGSS can achieve only so much if science—and thus engineering--remains the forgotten stepchild of elementary education.


[1] Our findings represent correlations (though strong ones) in a relatively small number of states. Three states that adopted NGSS before 2014 were not part of our analysis, because we did not have data on them: Kansas and Vermont (which did not participate in 2009 NAEP science), and Washington, DC (which did not participate in 2015 NAEP science). We examined results for the following survey questions: “In this class, about how much time do you spend on engineering and technology? (teacher-reported)” (None, a little, some, a lot); “In a typical week, how much time do you spend teaching science to the students in the class? (teacher reported)” (<1 hour, 1-1.9 hours, 2-2.9 hours, 3-3.9 hours, 4-4.9 hours, 5-5.9 hours, 6-6.9 hours, 7 hours or more); “About how often do your science students discuss the kinds of problems that engineers can solve? (teacher reported)” (Never or hardly ever, Once or twice a month, Once or twice a week, Every day or almost every day).

[2] From the evidence at hand, Washington State seemed to do somewhat better in technology than in engineering. The data don’t tell us why, but fourth-grade teachers may have found time for technology content in subjects other than science.

Tags: Next Generation Science Standards, science

Quick take: New Jersey's Computer Science Challenge

March 23, 2017

The impending talent shortage in computer science has been in the news for some time now. New Jersey could face a particularly sharp challenge.

A Quick look at our Vital Signs for the state reveals some troubling trends. No other state has seen a steeper decline in the number of degrees and certificates awardedn in computer science and related fields:

Declining degrees in computer science

This trend is perplexing, because demand for computing talent in the state remains robust. According to Economic Modeling Specialiststs, International, the state boasts one of the highest concentrations of computing jobs in the nation [1], and prospects for future growth look robust:

New Jersey STEM job growth

These conflicting trends do not bode well for New Jersey. That said, there may be glimmers of hope. The state is among the growing number that allows high schoolers to count computer science credits towards graduation requirements, and charts like the ones we share here will surely push state advocates to go even farther. After all, grim realities can be very compelling.

To dig into more data on STEM education in New Jersey, check out our New Jersey PowerPoint presentation.

[1] EMSI ranks the state eighth on this measure.

Tags: computer science

The Tale of Rogue Numbers: A Pi Day Story

March 14, 2017

This Pi Day we’re unraveling the mystery behind the math—and the tale might just be worthy of the big screen.

Around the 6th Century BC, Pythagoras, the famous philosopher credited with the Pythagorean Theorem, established a school in southern Italy. The school believed in mathematics as a religious principle, declaring that “God is number.” This was the foundational ideology that guided life and worship at the Pythagorean School—similar to the ideas behind Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.  This idea led to other practices at the school, like vegetarianism and the idea that every number held special human characteristics.

One of these firm beliefs included the notion that every real number could be rewritten as a fraction or ratio, thus the term rational numbers. So, you can imagine the shock when a Pythagorean student named Hippasus first discovered that √2 doesn’t break down to a familiar fraction. When expressed as a decimal, there is no ending or pattern. It is said that this discovery of endless, patternless (thus irrational) numbers was so disturbing for Pythagorean philosophers that it resulted in Hippasus’ death.

Though no one knows for certain, many credit Hippasus with finding irrational numbers. To this very day, many compete to memorize the most digits of Pi, arguably the most famous irrational number of them all. Even with their turbulent past, Pi and other irrational numbers have had many practical implications. Pi continues to play a major role in fields that shape our future like architecture, engineering, computing, and astronomy. Hippasus and intellectual explorers like him have helped us discover sublime order in apparent chaos throughout history.

Check out this cool link to discover 1 million digits of Pi!

Photo courtesy of the University of Indiana Department of Mathematics & Computer Science.

Michigan Tackles its STEM Challenge--with CTEq's Help

March 9, 2017

In the past few years, Michigan has roared back to life as a magnet for STEM jobs like engineering, and the state's employers are right to wonder if they will be able to fill those jobs with qualified people. Fortunately, we see strong signs that Michigan leaders are on the case.

On Tuesday, I was honored to testify before Michigan's House Education Reform Committee about Change the Equation's efforts to help the state identify and scale K-12 STEM education programs that are most likely to have an impact. CTEq's STEMworks has already helped rigorously-vetted programs, such as Engineering is Elementary and Project Lead the Way, receive $1 million in state funds. We have high hopes for much more to come.

Efforts like these are very timely. For a state that was ground zero in the Great Recession, Michigan has an uplifing story to tell about STEM jobs. For example, it has been a great place for engineers. The number of engineering jobs in the state grew 11 percent from 2006 and 2016, compared to a meager 2 percent for the nation as a whole. Engineering jobs will probably grow another 13 percent between 2016 and 2026, faster than the 11 percent projected for the nation. That amounts to tens of thousands of engineering jobs.

Will employers be able to find the engineering talent they need over the coming decade? That's a harder question to answer. There is some reason for concern. First, they cannot fully tap the state's minority talent. Black, Latinos, and American Indian Michiganders make up 23 percent of the state's college-age population but receive only 5 percent of engineering degrees and certificates:

Underrepresented minorities in engineering

Women are almost as scarce in the field:

Few female engineers

There's good news on the horizon: In late 2015, the state adopted academic standards in science that formally incorporate engineering principles. If other states that have adoped similar standards are any indication, all Michigan students, regardless of race or gender, will soon learn the fundamental principles of engineering.

Programs like those in STEMworks will only help.

Tags: STEMworks, engineering, women & girls, minorities

Washington State takes on STEM

March 2, 2017

Last week, the Washington State Olympian newspaper ran an editorial urging state legislators to support Governor Inslee's STEM education funding proposals, which include dramatically expanding access to computer science classes and connecting students to careers. Washington STEM, the state's leading STEM advocacy group, is doing critical work to fuel this agenda, and to ensure that it focuses on "access for low income, rural and underrepresented populations."

We think that focus is spot on. Like many states, Washington struggles with enormous gender and racial gaps in the STEM fields. Here's a small sample of state data from our Vital Signs website.

First, women receive less than one out of every four computer credentials in the state. Compare that to roughly 37 percent in 2001:

Washington State Women in Computing

The racial and ethnic gaps are equally alarming. Black, Latino, and American Indian Washingtonians make up 21 percent of the college-age population but receive only 11% of degrees and certificates in computing:

Washington State Minorities in Computing

Such gaps begin early. There is evidence that many minorities' talents are getting squandered in high school or earlier:

Washington State AP--Minorities

To dig deeper into STEM education data in Washington State, download our Washington State PowerPoint presentation. For similar data on other states, see our state Vital Signs Summaries page.

Tags: STEM & the states

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