STEM Beats - June 2012

Keeping STEM in the Community

June 29, 2012

At the STEM Solutions conference in Texas this week, panelists discussed the impact community colleges can have on STEM education in under-served communities, which feel the shortage of STEM workers more acutely than other areas of the country. Although STEM and community colleges have long been connected, new efforts to strengthen the connection between K-12 and the community college could help open even more STEM doors to students in under-served communities.

The role of both the K-12 pipeline and the community college in STEM education are both well-documented: without adequate preparation and rigor in K-12 many students aren’t even given the opportunity to develop an interest in science or math, and a large portion of the STEM workforce receives at least part of their education at a community college. Given that the U.S. population is expected to become both more diverse but also more low-income, accessing the human capital living in these communities is important to create the necessary available workforce.

But the hardships under-served communities face in creating and sustaining a STEM workforce are multi-faceted: They often have fewer, less rigorous K-12 educational opportunities for students, meaning their grads are less ready for college, if it’s even presented as an option; few adults currently have the skills and degrees necessary; it’s often difficult for communities to attract employment-generating businesses to areas with a dearth of economic, social, and cultural opportunities.

That’s where community colleges come in. One solution -- which has a long and distinguished history -- is the “early-college high school” model, where community colleges partner with feeder high schools so students can earn their diploma and associate’s degree concurrently. Students in these partnerships can even get credits toward their bachelor’s, making the four-year degree more of a possibility and less of a pipe dream.

One problem presented by these solutions, though, is that they can unintentionally feed the “brain drain.” As articulated in Hollowing Out the Middle, which profiles a small Iowa manufacturing town, once grads attain an education, they leave their hometowns to pursue more lucrative options elsewhere. One school, the Dallas County Community College, which keeps 75 percent of grads in its county, noted that it often educates students who are already in the workforce, increasing the odds that they’ll stay.

President Barack Obama, Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden – a longtime community-college educator at Northern Virginia Community College—and philanthropist Melinda Gates have already committed dollars and energy to promoting community college as a key aspect of American higher education moving forward. Let’s keep figuring out ways to continue to enhance the paths between the high school and the community college down the street and increase the numbers of STEM-skilled workers in our economy.

STEM pays: Minority students studying STEM out-earn others by 25, 50 percent

June 26, 2012

While the achievement, opportunity, and income gaps between white students and students of color still persists, STEM may just offer a way to bridge those divides. A recent report in the Research of Higher Education showed that minority students who major in STEM fields out-earn minority students studying other subjects by 25 percent – and those who took STEM-related jobs out of college out-earned others by more than 50 percent.

The students surveyed aren’t exactly a representative sample – researchers focused solely on Gates Millennium scholars, meaning that the students are an unusually focused and driven bunch. Still it presents compelling evidence that STEM can play an important role in erasing discrepancies among student groups. And, as further number-crunching by the Chronicle of Higher Education shows, reaching our nationwide potential in STEM fields becomes truly possible when we narrow these divides.

As the USC researchers behind the Research report point out,

increased earning potential can become a huge incentive for students to keep persisting on STEM-degree tracks. Notoriously, these programs have extremely high attrition rates for all students, but particularly for students of color. This has become particularly problematic due to the growth in STEM fields, which ihas been outpacing growth in other sectors by a ratio of three to one, and the U.S. population growth rate, which is being fueled largely by minorities. As S. James Gates and Chad Mirkin demonstrate in the Chronicle article, the best strategy for coming up with the human capital to meet this demand rests on increasing the number of women and minorities pursuing STEM careers.

But to ensure that all students have an equal chance of success at the collegiate level and maximize this incredible economic potential, more can be done to improve access and rigor in K-12 programming. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 29 percent of high schools with high populations of African-American and Latino students offer calculus; working backwards, the National Assessment of Education Progress shows large gaps in both science and math by fourth grade. Learning that minorities employed in STEM fields earn more than those in other fields is certainly a positive sign, but also can inspire us as we determine how to stem the STEM gap at all levels of education.

Tags: minorities, jobs & workforce

Gender gap in STEM still persists, 40 years after Title IX

June 25, 2012

When most people hear the words ‘Title IX,’ their minds immediately go to football and field hockey. No wonder—Title IX of the 1972 Higher Education Act is most known for, quite literally, evening the playing field for young women. But the law, which had its 40th anniversary on Saturday, fully states that no young woman be subjected to discrimination in any “education program or activity.” So why, when the mandate has been used to introduce thousands of young women to soccer balls and softball bats, has it not led to the same increase in women studying mathematics and mechanical engineering?

It’s complicated, according to a recent article in Edweek.  Overall, women have made huge gains educationally since the 1970s – they are now going to college at higher rates than young men and earn degrees in fields like law and medicine at nearly equal rates. In admissions and access, Title IX has had a huge impact, retooling admissions and financial aid policies for state institutions that once limited women’s access to higher education. Further, according to a Wharton study, Title IX is likely responsible for 40 percent of the rise in employment in women ages 25-34 over the past 40 years.

However, a pronounced gender gap still exists in STEM education and employment. Changing the writ of law has only been the first step – studies point out that the number of female role models in science, pop-culture portrayals of STEM fields, K-12 curricula structures, societal attitudes, and longstanding hiring and tenure processes at companies and universities all contribute to the persistent, cyclical difference in achievement and opportunity.

In STEM, it starts young. The National Assessment of Educational Progress’s most recent surveys of fourth graders showed a small, but statistically significant gap in both math and science. The gap is more pronounced in science – in fourth grade, girls scored, on average, two points below boys; by 12th grade it widens to six points. Translated, this means only 19 percent of girls are considered proficient in science, compared to 26 percent of boys Recent studies have shown that young girls have internalized the “math is hard” mantra by the age of seven. Women earn only 20 percent of the degrees and hold only 27 percent of the jobs in computer science; despite the rapid growth in STEM related jobs, growth for women in the field has remained flat for the last 12 years

There are signs of progress. Young women out-enroll young men on exams such as the AP Biology test, and the number of women earning Ph.D.s in STEM subjects has quadrupled since 2006 alone. But until the opportunities for and achievement of young women are even in the lab and on the courts, we’ve still got work to do.

Tags: women & girls

Let's End the Battle Between Knowledge and Skill

June 21, 2012

In the education world, a battle has long raged between knowledge and skill. Are facts most important? Or should the ability to apply those facts take precedence? The answer, of course, is yes and yes. Yet that doesn't keep the battle from raging on.

The latest combatant in this battle is esteemed scientist Paul Gross. In a blog posting yesterday, he shared a curious reaction to a recent national test of US students’ ability to perform hands-on tasks in science. The test found that US students "were able to accurately report what was happening in scenarios with limited data, but were challenged by manipulating multiple variables and making decisions as part of running an experiment, according to the findings." While most could draw the right conclusions, few could explain them well.

For Gross, both the test and the widespread dismay at its results reflect the delusion "that scientific reasoning is separable from the content of science, or worse, that the content of science is some form of skill, parallel to, but not to be confused with, knowledge and experience."

The test does no such thing. The test's stated aim is to gauge "students' ability to combine their scientific knowledge and investigative skills in a real-world situation."

People on both sides of the Great Battle between Knowledge and Skills are sustaining the false distinction between the two. It is true that some advocates of hands-on learning have turned "facts" into a sort of curse word. Yet Gross's disdain for "hands-on tasks" is just as palpable. If you ask him, the claim that too much science in our schools boils down to "rote memory and how to follow instructions” is nothing but a "canard." Tell that to the many students who have lived through rote learning.

Unfortunately, bad science teaching comes in many flavors. To be sure, too many teachers of science lack the science background to foster their students’ knowledge of science. But rote learning in US schools is not some kind of myth concocted by the boosters of hands-on. Data from NAEP confirm that a large share of US students are seldom or never asked to discuss, explain or write about what they are learning. It won’t do to turn a blind eye on this problem.

Gross is right when he argues that “All good science teaching and learning, in school and the early college years, is about concepts, and about their application in situations beyond the original locus of elaboration.” We should certainly celebrate the teachers who teach this way. But all too many teachers cannot, because they lack the background, the support, the time or the resources to do so.

More Evidence that Stereotypes Drive Girls Out of Science, Math, Engineering and Technology

June 19, 2012

In case you needed more proof….

A recent study finds that gender stereotypes affect children’s performance in tasks like math and science. Tell a girl that boys are good at math, and watch her performance fall.

That, at least, is what happened in a study of some 150 children ages 4 to 7. As reported in Slate, they “played a game in which they looked at pictures of 3-D blocks shown from different angles, then matched pairs of images that showed the same block from a different perspective.” After the first round of this game, “the adult leading the experiment told some children that the other gender group was successful at that game (so girls heard, 'Boys are good at this game'). A second group was told about other individuals’ skills ('That girl is good at this game'), and a third group heard no further information.”

Children in the first group saw their scores fall an average of almost 13 percent in the second round. Those in the second group saw their scores remain steady. Those in the third saw their scores fall about 3 percent. Simply hearing that another group (as opposed to another individual) does well had a big impact on young children.

The problem, of course, is that children are hearing these stereotypes in countless subtle and not so subtle ways. Recent research has shown that girls internalize the message that “math is for boys” as early as second grade. It’s getting harder to ignore the possibility that pervasive stereotypes are a major reason for the paucity of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

It's not easy to combat gender stereotypes, because they're so pervasive. The worst thing we can do, however, is ignore them.

Tags: women & girls