As part of the Obama administration’s emphasis on bringing education into the 21st century, it comes as no surprise that policy makers have trained their focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education as a way to give more students, especially girls and minorities, stronger global skills. And with this increased focus, some education experts say momentum is building for more recognition of the “T” and “E” in STEM–technology and engineering, two subjects often overlooked.

In fact, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), part of the National Research Council, recently completed a report that surveys the extent and nature of efforts to teach engineering to K-12 students in the United States. The report is set to be released Sept. 8.

The report, “Engineering in K-12 Education: Understanding the Status and Improving the Prospects,” defines what engineering is, because many people don’t understand much about the career, and also discusses research and evidence on the impact of engineering education on areas such as improved science and math learning and improved technological literacy, said Greg Pearson, an NAE program officer and the study’s leader.

Also covered in the report are what engineering concepts children are able to understand, and at what age, along with a detailed analysis of about 15 curriculum projects identified by the study team, which also examined how those different curricula treat engineering.

“One of the findings is that discussions of STEM tend to be focused on science, sometimes math, rarely both together–usually they’re siloed, and the T and especially the E are really just left out of the discussion in policy, education, and classroom practice,” Pearson said.

“Even though we use that acronym, in terms of what’s really happening and what people really mean, engineering is the silent letter.

” Since 1990, NAE estimates that 6 million U.S. students have been exposed to formal engineering in the classroom, along with about 18,000 teachers who have had formal training to teach engineering concepts.

But at the same time, Pearson said, engineering doesn’t have a formal place in the school day the way math and science do, and there are no learning or content standards the way there are for math, science, history, and other subject areas.

The study identifies a handful of countries that offer some kind of formal engineering education prior to college and examines those systems.

“A lot of things are missing, but these efforts are moving ahead,” Pearson said.

Although the report isn’t a guide for teachers, it does discuss the barriers to including engineering in schools and suggests different ways to approach the issue.

And the committee does not recommend one approach over another.

“For each school or each circumstance, certain approaches may make more sense than others,” Pearson said.

In an effort to strengthen STEM education throughout the nation, the House Committee on Science and Technology’s Research and Science Education Subcommittee held a recent hearing to examine the efforts of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) under then-superintendent (now U.S. Secretary of Education) Arne Duncan’s leadership–and the collaboration Duncan fostered among the private, public, and nonprofit sectors.

“In hearings and reports, we have repeatedly heard that innovation is key to maintaining a high standard of living for all Americans, and that we need more teachers and more graduates in the STEM fields if we want our country to continue to lead in the global economy,” said Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Lipinski, D-Ill. “Reform of our STEM education system will require coordination on multiple fronts and across many diverse stakeholders.

” Donald Wink, the University of Illinois at Chicago’s director of undergraduate studies in chemistry and director of graduate studies with the Learning Sciences Research Institute, said K-12 school systems and universities are part of a cycle.

“Students educated in K-12…move on for more specific training in higher education,” he said. “The colleges and universities have the opportunity to educate these students further, in specific disciplines, so those students are able to participate in health science careers. In addition, colleges and universities affect K-12 education by producing teachers….Further, colleges and universities work with existing teachers, both to provide deeper training in current topics in…STEM education and to receive from those teachers a better understanding of the actual issues that matter in K-12 STEM classrooms.

” Schools must implement rigorous and open learning programs to make STEM teaching effective, Wink said, in addition to having the technology appropriate for teaching what is current and relevant in these fields. And teachers should have thorough training as well, because lack of content knowledge or lack of experience with STEM can limit a teacher’s ability to fully educate students.

With a grant from the National Science Foundation, CPS created CUSP (Chicago Urban Systemic Program), a comprehensive science and math program aimed at reforming the district’s STEM teaching through teacher professional development. Local universities created content-rich courses that enabled teachers to earn state endorsements in mathematics and science. The program ran from 2000 to 2006. Now, most local colleges and universities offer courses that help teachers supplement their teaching certificates with content-based credentials.

“We work with local museums and community groups to create after-school clubs focused on science and mathematics; these programs often provide the spark that ignites a student’s interest in STEM disciplines,” said Michael Lach, teaching and learning officer at CPS. The district also creates student internship programs and other resources, all of which connect students and teachers to real-life STEM professionals.

The percentage of CPS students who met or exceeded science standards on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) increased from 43 percent in 2001 to 63.3 percent in 2006, then fell slightly to 62.6 in 2008.

Just 34.8 percent of CPS students met or exceeded ISAT math standards in 2001, but that figure rose to 64 percent in 2006, 68.6 percent in 2007, and 70.6 percent in 2008.

The subcommittee held a separate hearing on how to further involve girls in STEM learning and activities.

While women are active participants in some STEM disciplines, other areas show room for improvement. According to the National Science Foundation, although women earned more than half of all science and engineering bachelor’s degrees in 2006, they earned only about 20 percent of degrees in engineering, computer science, and physics.

Data from the National Association of Educational Progress reveal a small but persistent gap in performance within STEM education between boys and girls in primary and secondary schools–less than one percent for math and less than three percent for science. Many researchers believe issues such as self-confidence and perceived expectations negatively affect the achievement of girls on standardized tests.

According to 2009 figures from the National Center for Women and Information Technology, just 17 percent of Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science test-takers in 2008 were female. Girls represented 51 percent of AP Calculus test-takers and 56 percent of overall AP test-takers.

In early June, Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Del., introduced the STEM Education Coordination Act of 2009. Co-sponsored by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, the bill would ensure that existing STEM education resources are employed efficiently and effectively through greater coordination at the federal level.

The legislation would establish a committee, under the National Science and Technology Council, which would be responsible for coordinating federal STEM education programs and initiatives, including programs under the National Science Foundation and NASA. It also would develop, implement, and update a five-year STEM education achievement plan, including objectives and metrics for assessment, as well as maintaining an inventory of federally sponsored STEM education programs and activities.

The committee would produce an annual report that includes a description of STEM activities and education programs, funding levels for those programs, and progress updates.

Federal officials, as well as officials from other states, will be watching a new effort in Maryland to boost STEM education to see what they might learn.

All Maryland high school graduates would be prepared for college-level math and science courses, and the state’s universities would triple their production of teachers in those fields, under a five-year, $72 million plan unveiled Aug. 6 by a state task force appointed by Gov. Martin O’Malley. The plan also calls for a 40-percent increase in the number of STEM graduates produced by state universities and for a sweeping effort to convert research and development into jobs (see “Maryland plans to boost math, science learning) http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/around-the-web/index.cfm?i=60095).

The National Science Foundation’s involvement in STEM promotion extends into higher education as well as K-12. NSF’s Innovation through Institutional Integration (I3) program attempts to link institutions’ NSF-funded STEM education projects and to leverage their collective strengths.

In 2008, the six I3 institutions were Georgia Tech, Louisiana State University, the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of Washington, the University of Florida, and Hawaii’s Kapiolani Community College.

I3 promotes increased collaboration within and among institutions and addresses important initiatives, including broader participation of underrepresented minorities in STEM fields and the integration of research and education.

The I3 project at Louisiana State University will help students in their progress toward advanced degrees, create an interdisciplinary curriculum in materials engineering and science, and develop a mentoring ladder system involving faculty members, graduate and undergraduate students, and high school teachers and students.

The University of Colorado at Boulder’s I3 project picks up on recommendations made in the influential report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” to identify three broad goals: transforming STEM education, building a community of education research within science departments, and developing future educators. Toward that end, the university is using I3 funding to build a Center for STEM Education Research and Transformation that integrates STEM education projects across the campus. The center links more than eight traditional departments in three colleges and schools, including the schools of education and engineering and the departments of life sciences, mathematics, and physical sciences. Each department retains its identity, but the center provides an infrastructure for bringing together key ideas and sharing strategies and results.

Through various programs, faculty in Boulder’s School of Arts and Sciences and School of Engineering are partnering with faculty in the School of Education to recruit, prepare, and support the next generation of STEM teachers.

A June workshop at Arizona State University, meanwhile, introduced underrepresented youth to STEM disciplines and career pathways.

Participants in the summer research internship, which is an extension of an NSF-funded research and community collaboration, began their exploration by programming the TI-84 graphing calculator, in conjunction with the TI-robot chassis, to navigate student-constructed obstacles autonomously.

Participants then programmed the TI calculator robot to draw specific geometric patterns on 2-by-2 foot whiteboards. To accomplish this task, besides programming the calculator, they had to design and construct a pen holder using found objects that could be attached to the TI robot.

Wendy Garcia, 14, of Carson Junior High, who wants to be an engineer, was excited about using the calculator.

“I think it is pretty fun,’ Garcia said. “We get to use the calculators as robots and also collect data from the outside world. I didn’t think you could do so much with it.”

Garcia attached a pen to the calculator and manipulated it to draw a circle and a triangle.

“You think it is impossible, but when you put it to work, it makes sense,” she said.

The next phase of the workshop gave students an opportunity to explore graphs of distance versus time and velocity versus time using remote-controlled cars and the Calculator-Based Ranger (CBR) attached to the graphing calculator. Students were charged with manipulating their remote-controlled cars to match distance-versus-time and velocity-versus-time graphs stored in the CBR and displayed on the TI-84 graphing calculator.

“They learn to match the graph through trial and error,” said Jaime Gephart, an eighth and ninth grade science teacher at Powell Junior High. “We teach these concepts in ninth grade, but for a lot of students, they are very hard to understand. It seems hard until they do it.”

Links:

National Academy of Engineering

National Center for Women and Information Technology

House Committee on Science and Technology

National Science Foundation