Vernon Johnson, President and CEO, Accelerate Learning
The demand for workers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) continues to outpace the supply of trained workers in the United States. Yet, of the 50 million students in public elementary and secondary schools, the vast majority will not major in a STEM field or graduate with a STEM degree.
To complicate matters, many teachers don’t feel confident about teaching science, especially at the elementary level where most do not have specialized education or training in science. Another issue is that science is often taught in a vacuum rather than integrating it with other content areas.
A national survey of science and mathematics education found that K-3 students spent only 19 minutes per day on science compared to 89 minutes per day on reading. Similarly, students in grades 4-6 spent 24 minutes a day on science and 83 minutes on reading. As a result, many students lack the prerequisite knowledge to understand increasingly complex science content in middle and high school. Plus, science instruction in many classrooms still focuses heavily on “book learning” rather than hands-on learning, so science doesn’t come to life for students.
Although all of these factors are contributing to a leaky STEM pipeline, that pipeline can be patched and improved by providing more and higher level STEM instruction for teachers and students.
Support teachers with a continuum of professional development
A successful STEM classroom isn’t just about the content; it’s about how that content is taught. So, how do we support teachers so they can feel more prepared and more comfortable teaching science and in a way that is more effective for their students?
The key is to provide a continuum of professional development that includes and goes beyond content area training. For example, teachers should be trained in ways to effectively teach their curriculum and in best practices for creating an effective learning environment, building scientific understanding, and engaging students in scientific and engineering practices. Further, teachers should have the opportunity to participate in inquiry-based learning experiences, e.g., using the 5E instructional model, and collaborate with their peers so they can experience what their students will experience when they implement these strategies in their classrooms.
Make it easy for teachers to help students learn science by doing science
Even for teachers who have years of experience teaching science, states are requiring students to master increasingly rigorous standards, and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) require significant changes in curriculum, instruction, and assessment. As such, districts and schools should provide teachers with a STEM curriculum that makes teaching science easy and engaging and provides support at the moment they need it.
The STEMscopes™ PreK-12 Curriculum suite, for example, is built from the ground up to address today’s state standards and the NGSS. It combines an award-winning digital curriculum, supplemental print materials, and ready-made exploration kits to engage students in the world of STEM and hands-on science. For teachers, it includes embedded support such as professional development videos, how-to guides, and best practices to help them continuously improve their instruction.
Research shows that students who expect to have a science-related career are more likely to complete a college degree in a STEM field than students without those expectations. To inspire students to pursue STEM, it is crucial to expose students to meaningful STEM learning experiences early, with age-appropriate expectations that embrace learning by doing. By starting in preschool, students can get a jump-start on learning key concepts and experience how much fun STEM can be.
In addition, by making STEM accessible and easy for preschool teachers to implement, time spent on STEM instruction increases. In a 2015 study, preschool teachers using the STEMscopes Early Explorer curriculum reported spending an average of 36 minutes per day on STEM instruction, compared to the national average of just 1 to 3 minutes spent on math and science in preschool classrooms. Further, a 2016 study showed that those students who had received STEM instruction in prekindergarten had higher science achievement in kindergarten.
Certify that teachers, campuses, and districts are prepared to teach STEM
While many schools have launched or are planning to launch STEM programs, are they actually prepared to teach STEM? How do we know?
The National Institute for STEM Education (NISE) was founded to support excellence in STEM programs and teaching by providing flexible, personalized professional development, culminating in National STEM Certificates for preK-12 teachers, campuses, and districts. Using an online learning platform and supported by a dedicated academic coach, participants produce a digital portfolio of work that demonstrates proficiency across 15 teacher actions and three domains essential to increasing student achievement in STEM.
Prepare all students for STEM success
To fill the STEM pipeline with qualified workers, it’s time to give teachers and students the tools they need to make science more relevant and engaging for all students. Even if students choose to pursue other college majors or careers after high school, STEM competencies are still highly useful. Equipping students with the knowledge and skills to solve problems individually and collaboratively, gather and evaluate evidence, and make sense of information are valuable skills for any field.
Vernon Johnson, Ed.D., is president and CEO of Accelerate Learning. He served in public education for over 25 years before moving into the business of developing and providing effective learning programs to schools. As a superintendent in several districts, he was nominated as one of America’s Top 100 School Executives, selected twice for the Annual Congress for Exemplary Superintendents, and chosen as Indiana University’s first Berkley Emerging Leadership Award recipient.