The State of STEM Education in the U.S.

The science of teaching is no easy subject to tackle. American public education is in dire straits. Elementary, secondary, and post-secondary institutions are increasingly under the gun to perform and help students “learn”. Specifically, K-12 schools have been hammered by the high expectations set forth by the No Child Left Behind Regulations (http://www2.edweek.org/rc/issues/no-child-left-behind/). Right now, teachers and school administrators are trying not to be ‘left behind’ in the dust of all of the recommendations and the multitude of pilot programs that promise to be quick and effective fixes to this problem.

Beginning this school year, 2007-2008, public school districts must test students in science at least once in each academic level (elementary, junior high, and high school). Regrettably, our nation’s schools have always been challenged to offer quality science education to its students, especially those from poor school districts in rural and inner-cities. The matter of addressing science education has resulted in several initiatives and proposals by several agencies and organizations, most notably the American Association for the Advancement of Science or AAAS (http://www.aaas.org/aboutaaas/) and the Project 2061 Program (http://www.project2061.org/).

However, it is important that we fully recognize the seriousness of this problem. My main point is to draw attention to the current state of public school education. Secondly, I hope to encourage more people, specifically scientists to become more involved in outreach and policy forums designed to improve the state of science education in our nation’s schools.

First, it is important to distinguish between effective teaching and learning versus presenting information and testing students on the presented material. As reported in an Education Forum article in Science Magazine, many of our students receive very little quality instruction (http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/315/5820/1795). Most of the ‘teaching activities’ involve teaching basic skills such as reading and completing routine seatwork. My personal experiences in a high school science classroom support these findings. Students spend a considerable amount of time completing worksheets and their grades are based upon the completion of these daily activities. Though I hate worksheets, there is an interesting study that demonstrates that quizzing can be an effective tool to student learning (http://sciencenow.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/2006/1113/2). One problem is that teachers have so many assignments to grade that have little opportunity to interact with students during lesson activities and can only offer students generic feedback. This results in classrooms that offer relatively few opportunities for students to practice problem-solving skills, engage in inquiry-based learning activities, or to apply the concepts and lessons they’ve spent so much of their time working on. Not only are these practices counterintuitive to ‘real learning’, such classroom behaviors are often incongruent with most standards and education benchmarks.

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