Helping Stem Take Root: School Districts Ramp Up Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Curriculum as It Gains More Attention Locally and Nationally

By Schachter, Ron | District Administration, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Helping Stem Take Root: School Districts Ramp Up Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Curriculum as It Gains More Attention Locally and Nationally


Schachter, Ron, District Administration


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STEM--THE CATCHY shorthand for "science, technology, engineering and mathematics"--has been part of the school improvement discussion for more than a decade, as educational leaders and policy makers have underscored the importance of these areas in preparing students for an internationally competitive, 21st-century economy.

But while the acronym may roll off the tongue, building and implementing programs that emphasize STEM subjects has proved easier said than done, as districts have faced challenges from financing STEM initiatives, to finding and training good science teachers, to simply making more room in the school day to offer more science.

Over the past two years, though, the STEM movement has shown signs of taking root, as district leaders say they are finding public and private funding to develop STEM-related curricula, ramping up professional development, and even launching dedicated STEM academies from San Antonio to Baltimore. Earlier this year, the STEM movement received an added boost during President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, in which he placed STEM high on the list of the nation's educational priorities.

Recent national developments--including Obama's endorsement, the importance placed on STEM in awarding states federal Race to the Top funds, and the looming reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law--have all given proponents hope that STEM programs will become more common.

No STEM Left Behind

"We spent the past five or six years creating awareness about STEM we've got everybody saying STEM is important, and we've got business leaders and even the president talking about it," says James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, a national advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. "Now we've got to do something about it on a state and national level."

The most important national initiative, Brown adds, is changing the terms of NCLB to include student performance in science as a measure of Adequate Yearly Progress. Since NCLB became law in 2002, a school's AYP has depended on student results in reading and math, even though a number of states also test students in science.

"You can show very clearly after math and reading determined AYP, there was a redirection of time spent on the sciences, and especially on lab experiments," Brown explains. "It's harder for schools to spend money on these things when they're not part of the accountability system."

Francis Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, says that science in elementary schools took a particularly hard hit when NCLB went into effect, with a 33 percent reduction on the time spent in class on science. "It's had a very chilling effect on the amount of science being taught," he insists, adding that he has heard stories of teachers being told to teach math and reading at the expense of science.

The NSTA is aiming to reverse that trend. Toward that end, the organization is revising the voluntary National Science Education Standards for the first time since 1996, with the aim of having them become part of the Common Core State Standards being developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

"We think they will fit the model of Common Standards," predicts Eberle, who has just finished reviewing an unpublished draft of the new standards, which he says will increase inquiry-based learning and critical thinking in science classrooms. The new science standards should be ready next year, just as the Common Core project expands its work from reading and math into other subject areas.

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Meanwhile, almost a dozen states have launched STEM networks over the past three years. The growing list includes Ohio, Colorado, California, Minnesota, Indiana, Arizona, New York and Pennsylvania. …

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