STEM Beats - 2017

Putting a Price on Elementary Math

October 12, 2017

Take a close look at the following chart. It conveys some bad, but not surprising, news about math education in elementary schools.

Students who aspire to elementary teaching face low scores & salaries

Students who are most likely to succeed in college math are most likely to plan majors in fields like engineering, computer science, or medicine, which lead to high-paying STEM jobs. No surprise there. Those who aspire to elementary teaching, by contrast, are among the lowest-paid professionals on the list, and most have a shaky foundation in math.

That spells trouble for elementary school children, whose grasp of math is unlikely to exceed that of their teachers. Elementary math skills are after all among the most important predictors of success in high school.

If our elementary teachers remain near the bottom of the salary and math achievement scales, can we expect our students to be first in the world?

Tags: math, teachers

Is CS for All Really a Sinister Plot Against Tech Workers?

September 26, 2017

If we are to believe Ben Tarnoff of The Guardian, he has uncovered a nefarious plot. The broad national effort to bring computer science classes to every American high school is, per Tarnoff, a cynical ploy to depress wages in the tech sector. Can Tarnoff be right? Can equity really be so unjust?

Let’s consider the alternative. If we keep rationing skills and opportunity by sticking with the status quo, the benefits of our innovation economy will continue to bypass millions of Americans. That would be sinister, indeed.

Tarnoff’s case rests on the faulty conviction that coding jobs are scarce. “Teaching millions of kids to code won’t make them all middle-class,” he claims. “Rather, it will proletarianize the profession by flooding the market and forcing wages down – and that’s precisely the point.”

To support his argument, Tarnoff turns to a four-year-old study claiming that the United States produces too many computer scientists as it is. That study was roundly discredited soon after it was released, and computing jobs have only gained steam since then.

Tech wages are rising, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that jobs in computing will grow by 12.5 percent between 2014 and 2024 (almost twice as fast as all jobs), and unemployment in computer occupations stands at a vanishingly small 2.4 percent

If anything, these figures probably minimize the demand for computer science skills. Our research has found that the BLS typically counts only half of the Americans who use complex computing skills in their work. Why? Traditional job titles have not kept up with the tech revolution.

Some 3.8 million Americans in careers we don’t normally associate with technology write computer code, develop software, or maintain computer networks on the job. For example, many ad agency jobs now require computer science degrees.

Computing across the economy

These jobs are out of reach for millions of poor and minority youth whose schools do not even offer computer science courses. Computer Science for All aims to upend that status quo. 

To Tarnoff’s credit, he implicitly backs away from his own argument near the end of his article. After impugning initiatives like code.org for their base motives, he writes:

Everyone should have the opportunity to learn how to code. Coding can be a rewarding, even pleasurable, experience, and it’s useful for performing all sorts of tasks. More broadly, an understanding of how code works is critical for basic digital literacy – something that is swiftly becoming a requirement for informed citizenship in an increasingly technologized world.

Amen! So why, then, should we deplore the effort to bring computer science into all high schools?

It’s preposterous to think that educators, tech companies, state leaders, President Obama, and now the Trump Administration have all signed on to a conspiracy to cheat America’s tech workforce. But let’s pretend for a moment that they have.

If so, Jorge Luis Borges’s famous dictum on art should give us comfort: “Nothing is more secondary than the author’s intentions.” If the road to a better future is paved with bad intentions, then so be it.

Tags: computer science, jobs & workforce

American Indian Students Face Deep Inequities

September 18, 2017

The  plight of American Indian elementary and secondary students often gets lost in reports about broader racial and ethnic gaps in educational opportunity. Their relatively small numbers can easily disappear into much larger datasets on students of color. Where it's possible to tease out data in American Indians, the results often look grim. Take K-12 science or example:

American Indian fourth graders are least likely to have access to science equipment and supplies:

Little access to 4th-grade science supplies or equipment

Eighth-grade American Indian students are least likely to attend schools with science labs:

American Indian 8th-graders least likely to have schools with science labs

American Indian high schoolers are least likely to be in schools that offer physics classes every year:

American Indian high schoolers have least access to physics

American Indian students in every U.S. state probably suffer from similar disparities, but small sample sizes in most datasets prevent us from knowing for sure. This is a problem.

A recent piece by Rebecca Clarren in The Nation puts it this way: "Without reliable data and research [on native students], government agencies at every level don’t know how to fix problems or allocate funds." By way of example, Clarren points to "The Johnson O’Malley program, created in 1934 to fund basic educational needs of Native students," which relies on information about the size of the American Indian population:

Congress hasn’t completed the necessary population survey since 1994, while the number of Native students has grown by approximately 4 percent per year—meaning that the same pool of money authorized in 1994 must now cover far more children. In 1995, the federal government allocated $125 per student; last year, the allotment was just $63.80.

Data are important, because they can attract attention and resources. The National Center for Education Statistics helps fill the gap by releasing the invaluable National Indian Education Study every few years, yet that study does not cover access to STEM education opportunities. 

At a time when STEM education is a critical gateway to the middle class, states should do more to shine a light on American Indian students' STEM opportunities.

Tags: minorities

A 24-7 Science Lesson

September 12, 2017

Since Harvey took shape as a tropical depression on August 23rd through today’s coverage of Irma, José and Katia, we’ve been treated to ongoing, fascinating in-depth scientific coverage on every channel.  The good news is that this coverage is apparently finding an audience, even beating out TV ratings for the opening week-end of the NFL season! 

We have learned that storms intensify quickly when passing over patches of warm ocean water. Harvey’s path took it over water 1 to 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the surrounding Gulf of Mexico, moving its winds from a Category 1 hurricane to a Category 4 in only a day’s time.  We have learned that Irma’s arrival ‘sucked’ the Tampa Bay ocean bed dry—albeit temporarily—though less through suction than through fierce winds pushing water away from the coast. This phenomenon, although textbook perfect, is apparently an uncommon occurrence. We got a lesson in probability as experts explained the real meaning of a 500-year flood. Not that such a massive flood occurs only once every 500 years, but rather that there is a 1-in-500 (0.2%) chance of such a flood occurring in any given year.  

Hurricane Irma seen from space

In fact, the odds are probably much worse. Houston has had three consecutive years of massive floods, so complacency is dangerous. Even more severe storms may follow on Irma’s heels this season alone. Lee, Maria, Nate and Ophelia, already named although not yet formed, may follow.  Their paths, yet to be determined, may wreak even more havoc than Harvey and Irma.

Cable and regular news outlets found willing audiences for the round-the-clock coverage, even in areas far removed from the storms’ track. Yes, there were stories about remarkable heroism and good deeds as a welcome respite from the scenes of devastation. But the steady drumbeat of scientific knowledge coming over the airwaves was inescapable. And with that drumbeat comes the responsibility for all of us to participate in the necessary decision-making that will better prepare us for these fierce storms in the future.

It is a population that understands STEM—and not just meteorologists or engineers or climate scientists or politicians—who will be the critical thinkers demanding informed public policy. Yes, Mother Nature can be fierce and unpredictable, but knowledge empowers us. We need citizens who push for better zoning policies, more up-to-date data on flood plains, better evacuation strategies, and deeper understanding of earth science. Knowledgeable voters will support good public policy and make wise personal decisions.

If mega-storms and massive floods become routine, STEM literacy can be a matter of life or death.

Tags: science

Do You Run an Excellent STEM Program? Apply for Iowa Scale Up Initiative

September 5, 2017

If you need a respite from the daily diet of partisan gridlock and political brawling, take a look at Iowa. The bipartisan Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council there has opened doors to world-class STEM education opportunities for some 400,000 K-12 students across the state since 2012.

Today, the Council is working with Change the Equation to bring leading STEM education programs to as many as one in five Iowa students next school year. If you run a STEM education program, be sure to check out the new request for applications.

Iowa is among a growing of states where leaders from government, business, higher ed, and K-12 put aside political differences and collaborate to improve STEM Education. Most important, the state house commits substantial funds to the effort, which lends it influence and staying power. 

Would you like to see something similar take root in your own state? Learn how it's done from our short history of the Iowa effort, which is hot off the presses.  To understand the Council’s impressive impact, take a look at their 2015/16 outcomes report. Here's one especially compelling tidbit: "minority students who participated in the STEM Scale-Up Program scored an average of 10 percentage points higher in National Percentile Rank in mathematics and 8 points higher in science compared to minority students who had not participated."

We hope more states take Iowa's lead.

Tags: STEMworks

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