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6 ways to bolster STEM education for the future

A new report draws on expert work to outline the ideal path for STEM education in the next 10 years

The ideal future of U.S. STEM education would emphasize problem-solving, interdisciplinary approaches and the value of discovery and play, according to a new 10-year vision from the American Institutes for Research for the U.S. Department of Education’s STEM Initiatives Team.

The report, STEM 2026, pulls from the work of experts in science, technology, engineering and math, and the authors point out that current conditions do not ensure equal access to STEM teaching and learning.

“Presently, policies and practices that ensure equitable access to the best STEM teaching and learning are not widespread,” according to the report. “The nation’s persistent inequities in access, participation, and success in STEM subjects that exist along racial, socioeconomic, gender, and geographic lines, as well as among students with disabilities, are therefore concerning and problematic. STEM education disparities threaten the nation’s ability to close education and poverty gaps, meet the demands of a technology-driven economy, ensure national security, and maintain preeminence in scientific research and technological innovation.”

Recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, show that 43 percent of white students and 61 percent of Asian students score at the proficient level in eighth-grade math, compared to 19 percent of Hispanic students and 13 percent of black students. Eighth-grade students with disabilities and students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch scored nearly 30 points below their peers in science and mathematics; English learners scored nearly 40 and 50 points below their peers in these two subjects.

STEM 2026 suggests ways to reverse such trends, providing examples of promising programs from around the country.

Courtney Tanenbaum, the report’s lead author, is a principal researcher at AIR and director of its STEM practice area. The report results from workshops convened by the U.S. Department of Education in collaboration with AIR. These workshops featured an exchange of ideas and knowledge among an array of thought leaders, including learning sciences researchers; experts in assessment and measurement; teachers from preschool, elementary-secondary, and higher education; education technology developers; leaders of informal and after-school STEM programs; and leaders of nonprofit organizations.

Next page: The 6 components of future STEM education

The intent of the report is to build a more robust and inclusive future for STEM education based on “what we know currently, what needs to be discovered, and what needs to be developed to achieve the ultimate goal — creating equity of opportunity in STEM to promote lifelong learning among the nation’s youth.”

“Effective STEM education that’s accessible and inclusive of all students is increasingly important,” Tanenbaum said. “In today’s world, all youth need teaching and learning experiences that empower them with the belief they can understand and shape the world through STEM.”

The report comes at a time when analysts predict that over the next five years, major American companies will need to add to their workforce a total of nearly 1.6 million employees versed in STEM: 945,000 who possess basic STEM literacy and 635,000 who demonstrate advanced STEM knowledge. Other data suggest that at least 20 percent of U.S. jobs require a high level of knowledge in at least one STEM field, according to the report.

The STEM 2026 vision includes six components:

1. Engaged and networked communities of practice. Schools and preschools need to build connections to each other and with STEM professionals who can serve as mentors.

2. Accessible learning activities that invite intentional play and risk. Such activities as games “offer low barriers to entry and encourage creative expression of ideas, while still engaging diverse students in complex content and difficult content.”

3. Educational experiences that include interdisciplinary approaches to solving “grand challenges.” Students tackling problems related to food, water, housing, transportation and so on can become engaged, draw on different fields of knowledge, develop teamwork and propose innovative approaches and solutions.

4. Flexible and inclusive learning spaces. Teachers and students need flexibility in structures, equipment and access to materials in both the classroom and the natural world, as well as environments augmented by virtual and technology-based platforms.

5. Innovative and accessible measures of learning. While evaluating, measuring, and assessing core content knowledge remains important, the future measures of learning envisioned by project contributors also reflect the skills and personal qualities that undergird academic tenacity and competence, as well as lifelong learning 10 to 20 years down the road.

6. Societal and cultural images and environments that promote diversity and opportunity in STEM. The report urges the purveyors of popular culture to portray positively those who excel in science to counter stereotypes and mitigate biases that have historically prevented certain groups from fully participating in STEM fields.

Material from a press release was used in this report.

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