STEM Beats - January 2013

Panning for Gold in the New STEMConnector Report

January 30, 2013

STEM Connector released a big, thumping report today that bears the very descriptive title, “Where are the STEM Students? What are their Career Interests? Where are the STEM Jobs?” (Get an executive summary here. The full 200+ page tome is for sale in the STEMConnector bookstore.)The report offers tantalizing new national and state-level data on how many students from different backgrounds are interested in STEM careers. It also cites previously published data on trends in STEM jobs. Intrepid readers who sift through the data—and there are a lot of data—can gain some real insights into what kinds of students are most interested in STEM.

Some Highlights

Reading through the report has been like panning for gold. Here are some of the valuable nuggets we have found so far:

  • High school girls’ interest in STEM seems to be falling, even as interest among boys rises. The data suggests that girls’ interest in STEM peaked in the class of 2010 and has been dropping off since. This comes in direct contrast to the trend for boys, who have been showing more interest with every successive graduating class. This will come as bad news for all of us who have been working to get more girls into STEM
  • Students with a “B” average in high school are much less interested in STEM than those with a C average or less. Why would that be? Are we paying too little attention to good students even as we lavish attention on great students? The A students are most interested, which isn’t surprising.
  • Those who aim to go to technical or vocational school are much more likely to be interested in STEM careers than those who have set their sights on other kinds of colleges. Nearly four in ten students with plans for technical or vocational school are interested in STEM, compared to fewer than three in ten students who aspire to private colleges, for example. This is just another reminder that we should never minimize the value of technical school as we sing the praises of college.
  • Students with an interest in STEM are much less likely than their peers to express interest in child care or development. We still have work to do to get STEM students interested in teaching.

The report breaks out its student interest data by race, ethnicity and gender, STEM discipline, STEM occupation, and a number of other categories. For more interesting highlights from the data, see Erik Robelen’s fine blog today.

Unanswered Questions

The report’s authors have not yet answered the biggest questions we have about the demand for STEM talent, but nor has anyone else to date: Just how big will the gap in each state be between the supply of STEM students and the demand for STEM skills? In which STEM fields is that gap most apparent?  (We tried to offer a general sense of the current gap between supply and demand in our special Vital Signs brief, STEM Help Wanted.)

Still, the report’s data on student interest can be very suggestive. As the number of jobs requiring STEM skills continues to grow, it is not at all clear that students’ interest is keeping pace.

Role Models and Corporate Outreach Can Help Change the Equation: We Need You (and You Need Us)

January 30, 2013

January is National Mentoring Month. For a student, building a personal connection with a STEM professional can be an important, and overlooked, inspiration for pursuing a STEM career. This is particularly true for young women and students of color, who may not necessarily "see" themselves in STEM. Techbridge is an afterschool program that helps girls build an interest in STEM, particularly through partnering with local professionals. Their executive director, Linda Kekelis, wrote CTEq a guest post explaining the importance of mentorship. 

Linda Kekelis

It’s not lack of ability that prevents girls from going into technology or engineering, but lack of interest or opportunity. Imagine that there was a program just for girls. We invited girls to do just that. Their ideas helped to shape Techbridge. 

In after-school and summer programs Techbridge girls build with Legos, make lip balm, solder solar night lights, and build green dollhouse. These projects get girls thinking about how things work, introduce them to the engineering design process, and help them understand that mistakes are part of learning.

Role Models Help Expand Girls’ Options. 

Hands-on projects are so important but they are not enough. We want to encourage girls to imagine their futures in STEM. We can’t do that without you—corporate partners that open their doors and role models who inspire.

Training is Key: Recipe for Success

Interactions with role models require just the right combination of career guidance and social engagement.  We have been working with corporate partners, helping host field trips and classroom visits for 13 years. We have learned a lot about what works (and what doesn’t). Here is our recipe for success.

  1. Be personal and passionate, communicating how work matters.  We advise role models, “When you get excited, the students will too.”  With a personal story role models can describe how their work makes a difference in making the world a better place. We also encourage role models to talk about their lives outside of work—to describe their hobbies, friends, and family.  This helps dispel stereotypes about what life as a computer scientist or mechanical engineer is like.
  2. Engage and inspire students through a hands-on activity.  The activity may be related to work or introduce processes like generating and testing hypotheses that are key to scientific and technical careers.
  3. Share successes and challenges and how you persevered. Knowing that you overcame a challenge in middle school conveys an important message—if you work hard at something and find resources you can succeed.
  4. Share advice on what girls can do right here, right now. Role models can encourage youth to participate in summer programs, take advanced math and science classes, and find mentors.

Stay the Course

Support for outreach comes and goes. When budgets have to be cut, what often go first are the resources that support outreach.

I ask that we rethink outreach and its funding. The next generation of our leaders and workers will be affected by our decisions to cut or continue these programs. Instead of asking if we can afford to support outreach programs for youth, we need to ask if we can afford not to support these programs.

A High Return on Investment

When all the pieces are in place—when events are well planned and supported with training—role models and field trips can be transformational. They lead to increased confidence and interest in STEM. Interest that is sparked on a field trip can persist for years and set youth on a path and help them stay the course in STEM.


We are pleased to share our resources so that others don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Whether you are brand new and planning your first event or are a seasoned veteran with years of experience, our role model guide and training can strengthen your efforts. You can download them on our website.

About Techbridge

Promoting career exploration is an important element of Techbridge. Techbridge offers hands-on science and engineering opportunities for girls and partners with Bay Area school districts to encourage youth to experience science and technology in a fun, informal way. Techbridge also works with local and national partners to support youth’s engagement in STEM out of school.  Find out how you can spark the engineer and scientist in youth in your community at

It takes a village to inspire the next generation of computer programmers, engineers, and biomedical researchers. Techbridge is here to help you. Together we can make a difference!

Tags: women & girls, engineering, technology

STEM in the News: Jan. 29, 2013

January 28, 2013

Last week STEM got a nod in the inaugural address. While nothing quite as historical happened in the last seven days, it was still a packed week for STEM. Here are your quick hits to keep you up to date. 

Q and A: Consortium Tackles Family, Class Issues in Steering Minorities to STEM Majors

Getting more underrepresented groups into STEM fields is going to take more than just offering rigorous courses at inner-city schools. Recently the Verizon Foundation partnered with Pace University in New York to launch the STEM Center Collaboratory, to bring together officials, teachers, and academics can come together to help solve the problem.  The National Journal has a great Q&A with Jonathan Hill, associate dean at Pace, and Lauren Birney, an assistant professor of education at Pace, who are heading up the project. 

Why Smart Poor Students Don't Apply to Selective Colleges (And how to fix it) 

Getting more low-income students to scale the walls of elite institutions is unquestionably an aim of education policy these days -- for businesses, it's a necessity to continuing to grow the workforce and a major area for philanthropy. But even when well-qualified for rigorous four-year schools, many low-income students don't even apply. The Atlantic takes a look at why, and offers some solutions for the future. 

Revolution Hits the Universities

 MOOCs are here to stay, and Thomas Friedman, in the Sunday Times, offers an assessment of their current (explosive) growth, as well as how he imagines MOOCs might play into higher education in the future. Given the announcement, also last week, that a few colleges are beginning to design systems where MOOC credit can lead to degrees, that future may be very, very near. 

Top K-12 Senator Tom Harkin to Retire

Tom Harkin, the Iowa Dem who heads the Senate HELP (Health, Education, Labor, Pension) Committee -- and therefore leads most K-12 ed legislation -- announced over the weekend that he is retiring after five terms. This could mean potentially big changes in the federal education agenda, including, potentially, an opening to reauthorize ESEA. 

Chinese Graduates Say No Thanks to Factory Jobs

The number of students graduating from Chinese universities has long been a potential cause for concern in the U.S., as it continues to outpace American grads. But for many of those grads, an underemployed, and under-paid, future awaits, as many discover that it's not the ticket to the middle class they initially thought it was.

We Need More Than STEM

History pushes back on the idea that we need more STEM education, arguing instead to boost the diminishing support for the social sciences. Thoughts?  

Will new tests make the achievement gap grow wider?

January 28, 2013

For years now, states have been reporting “academic achievement gaps” that separate students by race, ethnicity and income. Yet for all that attention, decision makers in many states may not know how big the problem really is. In some states, very low expectations of students have long masked just how far many minority and low-income youth lag behind their peers in school. Now that dozens of states are preparing to raise the bar on their tests, those achievement gaps may seem to explode overnight.

We cannot let that prospect soften our resolve to keep the bar high. Tests should tell us the truth about how our students are doing, or we’ll have little hope of giving those students the help they need.

We all know that fewer students of all backgrounds will pass state tests after states with low expectations adopt new common standards and make those tests harder. Less well known is the fact that the passing rates of low-income or minority students will probably tumble the farthest.

Here’s a quick overview of what happened in five states that recently made their math tests more rigorous or raised the scores students must earn to pass them. The tables below show achievement gaps before and after each state changed its test. (What’s an achievement gap? In this case, the white/Black achievement gap would be 10 percentage points if 50 percent of white students and 40 percent of Black students passed the state test. The “Income” gap measures the difference in passing rates between students who receive free or subsidized lunches (a common measure of low-income) and those who do not.)

Gaps in Mathematics Achievement Before and After States Raised the Bar

4th Grade:

Table of Math results


8th Grade:

Table of 8th grade math results

In most cases, the gaps grew, often dramatically, after the bar went up. There are exceptions of course,† and the changes in some states are starker than in others, but the overall pattern is striking.

So why does this matter? Since No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, we have celebrated schools that have narrowed or closed gaps among different “subgroups” of students. In some states, those schools’ success might be as much an artifact of the tests as of anything else. That may come as a terrible shock as new assessments come on line. Award-winning school districts may lose some of their luster. “Blue Ribbon” schools may be dethroned. Some principals and teachers who thought they had mastered the gaps may have to reexamine their practice. 

Yet this outcome shouldn’t be so shocking for anyone who has followed the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which offers a consistent and reliable picture of student progress across all states. Most states have larger achievement gaps on NAEP than on their own state tests. But NAEP does not produce results for single schools or students. They have to rely on state tests for information about their progress.

Yes, this will be a very bitter pill for many schools and communities that have been working hard for equity, but the alternative is much worse. Some businesses have learned very painful lessons about what happens when their measures of performance inflate their successes and conceal their shortcomings. We’re learning similar messages in education. If state tests aren’t sensitive enough to measure real inequity, it becomes all too easy to ignore it.  


* We had to estimate income-based achievement gaps in Kentucky and Virginia. Both states report proficiency rates of low-income students, but they do not report achievement gaps between students who are low income and those who are not. We estimated those achievement gaps by using U.S. Department of Education data on each state’s student enrollment, broken out by income, to estimate proficiency rates of Kentucky and Virginia students who are not low-income. That, in turn, allowed us to estimate the gaps.


Black 8th graders in Kentucky and Michigan are the biggest exceptions here. In Michigan, however, 8th grade is an outlier. Black/white achievement gaps in 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th grades grew substantially after Michigan raised the scores required to pass the state tests.

Tags: minorities, math, STEM & the states

This Day in STEM -- January 25

January 25, 2013

Alexander Graham Bell speaks into the telephoneFew inventions more directly signaled the advent of the modern era better than the telephone, and today is the anniversary of two important dates in telecommunications. First, in 1881,  two early titans, Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, created the Oriental Telephone Company, which sold telephones in Asian countries, from Turkey to China. Second, while Bell  initially invented the telephone in 1876, it was on January 25, 1915, that he inaugurated transcontinental phone service, speaking from New York to his onetime assistant Thomas Watson, in San Francisco. 

According to an article published in the New York Times the day after the transcontinental call, the 1915 call was much clearer than the first telephone call, despite the distance. To commemorate their first conversation, the two men spoke on a model of the original telephone, after establishing contact on a more modern (for 1915!) device. The wires connecting the two men also looped in telelphones in Georgia and Washington, creating what we'll refer to as a conference call. Several people joined into the call, including the mayors of New York and San Francisco, and President Woodrow Wilson, who congratulated both Watson and Bell on their achievements. 

Tags: This Day in STEM