STEMbeats Blog

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

Pennsylvania's Gender Divide in Career/Technical Education

February 23, 2017

Last Friday, I was honored to give a plenary talk to an inspiring group of career and technical education (CTE) advocates at the Winter Meeting of the Pennslyvania Association of Career & Technical Administrators. Before traveling to the Keystone State, I looked into some data on the condition of STEM CTE there. Two conclusions leapt out at me:

  1. In Pennsylvania, STEM CTE creates a pathway to solid and plentiful middle class jobs;
  2. The pathways young Pennsylvanians choose depend largely on their gender. 

In both regards, Pennsylvania resembles the nation as a whole. At a time when STEM employers are looking for all the talent they can get, this gender segregation is bad for their bottom line, the nation, and the thousands of young people who need access to more and better jobs. The good news is that advocates and educators in Pennsylvania are on the case.

You can download my presentation to PACTA here, or check out some of the major takeaways below:

Middle-skill STEM jobs in PA

PA girls flock to health CTE, avoid other STEM fields

PA STEM Gender imbalance--cte

Computing credentials below bachelors plummet

Engineering: PA women gain in bachelor's, fall in subbaccalaureate

Tags: Career Technical Education, women & girls

New Data: New Science Standards Are Boosting Engineering in Schools

February 21, 2017

Let's usher in this year's National Engineers Week with some good news. We've crunched some numbers, and it looks like efforts to make engineering part of the K-12 curriculum are beginning to pay off. 

Why? Our guess is that the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are succeeding in their aim to integrate engineering and technology into science classrooms. These standards debuted in April 2013, and eight states adopted them by the end of that year: California, Delaware, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington State.

We had a look at data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) eighth-grade science test to see if schools in those eight states were teaching more engineering and technology. NAEP is a good tool for this exploration, because it surveys teachers and students about engineering and technology in the classroom, among other subjects.

What we found suggests that the Next Generation Science Standards are making a difference in schools. Between 2011 and 2015, teachers in the first states to adopt the standards increased the amount of class time they spent on engineering and technology:

NGSS is boosting class time

Sticklers might note that these gains could have occurred before April 2013, when the new standards burst upon the scene. Unfortunately, we can't settle that question definitively, because we lack data from that year. Still, the data we do have make a very strong case for NGSS. States that adopted the standards after 2013, or that never adopted them at all, saw smaller gains between 2011 and 2015.

One striking finding from our analysis is that the early adopter states started from behind. This pattern holds when we examine each of those states individually. In 2011, eighth-graders in our eight NGSS states were less likely than their peers in the nation as a whole to spend at least "some" time on engineering and technology. The picture looked dramatically different in 2015:

Individual states ramping up engineering & tech

What does it mean to spend "some" or "a lot" of time on engineering and technology? The results of another NAEP survey question offer at least some insight: "About how often do your science students discuss the kinds of problems that engineers can solve?" Here again, it appears that the NGSS states started well behind their peers but caught up:

NGSS boosting engineering in classrooms

These data reinforce our conclusion that teachers in NGSS states have grown more likely to focus on engineering. So far, so good. But are their students noticing the difference? The results of another NAEP survey item suggest that they are...but only up to a point.

NGSS students more likely to notice tech & engineering

Again, the NGSS states have made swifter progress than other states, but it seems a tad early to declare victory. Even though more than half (52 percent) of eighth-graders have science teachers who spend time on engineering and technology, far fewer (31 percent) seem to have noticed that fact.

Of course, students may still be learning about engineering and technology without realizing it, but their lack of awareness is troubling. After all, the Standards themselves specify that students should "understand the work of scientists and engineers" and "recognize" that what engineers do is "a creative endeavor." We know we haven't reached the goal line if so many students don't yet recognize engineering or technology when they see it.

On balance, though, we should be optimistic. We have strong evidence that standards can make a difference in the classroom, and in a relatively short time. In fact, engineering and technology are probably more pervasive now than our numbers suggest: almost two years have passed since the 2015 NAEP test, and more states have adopted the Standards.

The ultimate test of the Standards' success, of course, will be students' performance. That verdict will have to wait a bit longer. States are still developing tests that incorporate engineering--and they can use federal money to do it. And a representative sample of U.S. eighth-graders will take NAEP's next Technology and Engineering Literacy Assessment in 2018.

In the meantime, states and districts must continue the hard work of creating teaching materials, training teachers, and providing supplies to make engineering real in the classroom. If they succeed, future Engineers Weeks will bring even better news.

NOTE: We were not able to assess the impact of NGSS on another jurisdiction that adopted them before 2014: Washington, DC. Unfortunately, the 2015 science NAEP did not include state-level results for DC.

Tags: engineering, computer science, Next Generation Science Standards

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