STEM Beats - August 2017

K-12 Engineering and Technology Classes Have Hit the Big Time

August 29, 2017

K-12 engineering and technology have gone mainstream. A new poll from Phi Delta Kappa shows that "technology and engineering classes" top the list of Americans' priorities for school school quality.

Results: aspects of school quality

This is a startling finding. Not long ago, teaching engineering or technology classes in grade school or high school was an exotic idea. Neither subject fit easily into most school curricula, and few states' academic standards acknowledged either. Engineering was the stuff of college, and computer science seemed to atrophy within high schools as rapidly as it overtook the world beyond them.

The polling results crown years of effort. Pioneering initiatives such as Engineering is Elementary and Project Lead the Way have exposed millions of K-12 students to engineering. Computer science has seen a more recent resurgence, fueled by efforts of organizations such as Microsoft, Oracle, and The Next Generation Science Standards, which most states have either adopted or adapted, have enshrined engineering and technology in states' formal expectations for what their students should know and be able to do. We at CTEq joined with these and other advocates to make the case for careers in engineering and computing.

And now the obligatory disclaimer: We still have far to go to deliver on Americans' new vision of school quality. Computer science classes remain scarce, and most students still go through school without learning much about engineering. Even so, the nation has made big gains in a relatively short time.

And now public opinion is on our side.

Tags: engineering, technology, computer science

Back to School: Do Schools and Teachers Have the Support They Need?

August 24, 2017

TV ads and news stories featuring parents and their children buying school supplies herald the close of summer just as surely as shorter days and falling temperatures do. These images tend to convey hope and optimism: children fully equipped for a fresh start in a new year. The reality, however, is less rosy.

Leave aside for a moment the fact that many parents cannot easily afford school supplies. Even students lucky enough to start the year will full backpacks will too often enter schools where teachers lack the supplies, materials, and support they need to teach. As we start a new school year, we should keep a few of our recent STEMtistics in mind.

Schools lack lab supplies, a problem most likely to afflict students of color:

Science labs and supplies are even scarcer in elementary schools, especially in those that enroll the most low-income students:


Teachers say the lack the resources to teach math and science—and, again, poor students get the short end of the stick:

These data are troubling at a time when dozens of states have ratcheted up their math and science standards. Schools and teachers need all the support they can get to lift students to these standards, and it’s not clear that enough help is on the way.

There are some encouraging signs, however. A new brief from Chiefs for Change highlights states such as Massachusetts and New York that give teachers strong teaching materials aligned to new standards--while respecting local authority and teachers' autonomy over what they teach. Programs like ASSET STEM Education and the Amgen Biotech Experience offer supplies and equipment--together with teacher professional development--to prepare schools for new science standards.

Yet, as the Chiefs for Change brief suggests, these examples are the exceptions that prove the rule. It's high time to learn from them.

Tags: science, math, teachers

How NASA Gets Ready for a Solar Eclipse

August 16, 2017

Are you ready for the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017? NASA sure is. And their new 2017 eclipse-dedicated website wants you to be ready too! A North American eclipse of this magnitude offers scientists and engineers a unique opportunity to study and observe a rare natural phenomenon. So, they’ve got several research projects planned across the nation—both in the sky and on the land—as well as ways to get you in on the action at home.

“NASA is supporting research using balloons, ground measurements, and planes that ‘chase’ the eclipse, all of which can help scientists take continuous measurements of the sun and the eclipse’s effects on Earth for relatively long periods of time,” reads NASA’s detailed breakdown of the imminent research.

The data and information NASA gathers from the eclipse could challenge commonly accepted ideas and theories as well as answer lingering questions in multiple disciplines. One of those big mysteries include the sun’s corona. You might already know that in a solar eclipse, the moon gets between the Earth and the sun. Depending on where you are when it happens, the sun appears to be partially or totally covered. For many that will mean darkness at an hour that isn’t typically dark. But for NASA scientists, it will be the best visual of the sun’s lower atmosphere that appears as a bright halo of light emitted around the moon called the corona. The NASA website goes on to assert that “the lower part of the corona is key to understanding many processes on the sun, including why the sun’s atmosphere is so much hotter than its surface, as well as the process by which the sun sends out a constant stream of solar material and radiation, which can cause changes in the nature of space and impact spacecraft, communications systems, and orbiting astronauts”. Sounds pretty useful for future missions!The totality point when the moon fully blocks the sun revealing the corona.

Because this is such a monumental scientific and celestial event, NASA makes it a point to include everyone in on the action—especially all the citizen scientists at home—with just as much excitement and anticipation. They’ve compiled a massive list of official viewing sites including national parks, zoos, airports, and more within the eclipse path. Some of these locations will even host eclipse parties. Or if staying home is more your style, read NASA’s step-by-step guide to throwing an eclipse party. And what’s an eclipse party without activities? Check out the activities page for a myriad of arts & craft projects, math and science challenges, and some tips on how to get your own eclipse data.

We can tell NASA’s ready. And we hope you’re getting ready too! Check out the interactive map with timelines to best plan out where you’ll be during eclipse time. 

Photos are courtesy of NASA's eclipse website.

Google Trends Has Good News about STEM

August 10, 2017

If people's Google search habits are any measure, STEM education and jobs have caught the public's attention. That's good news for STEM advocates, even if the road to universal STEM literacy remains steep and rocky.

Google Trends is a nifty, if imperfect, tool for measuring people's interest in a topic by estimating how often they search for it online. We used it to gauge public interest in STEM and uncovered some interesting patterns.

A scant ten years ago, people were much more likely to be Googling "stem cells" than the kind of STEM we advocate for--science, technology, engineering, and math.That changed around 2011, and STEM has been surging ahead ever since.

Over the same period, interest in computer science bachelor's degrees narrowly eclipsed interest in the once-dominant English degree:

Below the bachelor's level, some STEM fields STEM raced ahead of non-STEM fields. In 2004, for example, interest in "HVAC technician" ($46,000 per year; 14 percent growth from 2014-2024) started behind "beautician" ($24,000 per year; 9-13 percent growth), but it soon left "beautician" in the dust:

A comparison of "computer science" and "cosmetology" (both as "fields of study"), reveals an interesting, if somewhat different, pattern:

Computer science tumbled from its lofty perch in 2004, as the dot-com bust took hold, and it barely kept pace with cosmetology for five years before surpassing it again.

These trends are encouraging, but past isn't necessarily prologue. STEM advocates should take heart, but we can't rest easy until this attention translates into lasting improvement.

Tags: STEM

Dropping the Algebra Requirement: a Solution, or a Surrender?

August 8, 2017

The Cal State system, which enrolls almost half a million California students, will no longer require them to pass Intermediate algebra. The decision may have been necessary, but it raises unsettling questions about the prospects of a diverse STEM workforce.

It’s reasonable to see Cal State's move as a simple case of education Realpolitik. Too many students get stuck in the bottleneck of intermediate algebra, a remedial course that delays their progress, drains their bank accounts, and raises dropout rates—all without conferring college credit.

Such august organizations as The Charles A. Dana Center, Complete College America, and Jobs for the Future have endorsed the move, arguing that other math courses are more appropriate for students who don’t plan to major in STEM fields. Their logic is compelling: Why uphold the idea of intermediate algebra for all when it stands between so many students and college graduation?

And yet the move risks exacerbating the very problems that forced administrators’ hands in the first place. If past is prologue, many poor and minority students will avoid intermediate algebra rather than fail it.* The Cal State System’s change could effectively codify the informal sorting mechanisms that have long kept those students out of STEM fields.

Cal State’s move could also send a message to high schoolers, their parents, and their schools that algebra is too hard for some students--and not that important, anyway. Poor and minority teens, many of whom have never met anyone in a STEM field, may well take that message to heart. If so, they are essentially taking themselves out of contention for many of the nation’s highest-paying careers.

This is not a call for Cal State to uphold the principle of algebra for all at the expense of the many thousands who cannot complete the course. High ideals don’t amount to much if they don’t offer real help to real people. Rather, the end of algebra for all in so many colleges and universities underscores the urgent need to expand math education opportunities in K-12.  

Too many poor and minority students face barriers in their communities and schools that all but destine them to opt out of intermediate algebra. Many start Kindergarten behind, and their elementary and middle school teachers say they lack support to teach math. Teachers are less likely to recommend high-achieving minority students for gifted programs or algebra in eighth grade. Poor and minority students are much more likely to attend schools that don’t offer advanced math. Indeed, of the roughly 41,000 black and Latino high schoolers who had the potential to succeed on AP math and science tests in 2014, only half actually took them.

It may be necessary—at least for now—to surrender to the harsh realities that drove Cal State’s decision. Yet we still need to uphold challenging standards in K-12. Ensure that teachers of math have the support they need. Give students more and better counseling about the courses they need to take for different careers. Help schools prepare students for AP classes and tests. Coax more STEM majors into the classroom, particularly in poor schools. The list goes on.

Yes, this is a tall order, but the decision to drop math requirements should never be a signal that we’re giving up on preparing every high school graduate to pursue a STEM degree in college if she chooses to do so. All too often, we limit, rather than expand, students' options.

Tags: minorities, math, standards