STEM Beats - May 2013

Spelling Bee winner buzzy about physics, too

May 31, 2013

Last night, when 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee winner Arvind Mahankali was asked what he was going to do next, he replied that he'd probably be spending his summer studying physics.

Mahankali, who won on the Germanic-Yiddish word 'knaidel,' elicited laughs with his response, but the 13-year-old would be in good company: According to NPR, several past winners have gone into STEM fields. More than a half-dozen in the past two decades have gone onto careers as physicians. 

What's the link between spelling words like 'euonym' and excelling in math and science (the speller in that video, Rebecca Sealfon, is now studying computer science at Columbia)? For one, spelling at this level is less about rote memorization and more about deep understanding of the logic of language. More than one speller was tripped up by weak knowledge of 'schwa' (middle vowel) sounds. Arvind came in third the last two years, tripped up by Germanic root words. Instead of going straight through the dictionary, top spellers study the roots of various languages -- Latin, French, Greek -- to understand how exactly the words come together. Math is underpinned by a similar focus on deriving meaning from unseen, elegant, logical relationships.

Second, training for a spelling bee is hard. Amber Born, an aspiring comedy writer who charmed the audience last night, admitted that she hadn't watched a lot of TV the past year. It requires hours of focus -- something that comes in handy when working in a lab.

And finally, there's also the perseverance factor. Arvind, Amber, and second-place finisher Pranav -- another crowd favorite -- have all been multiple times: Arvind and Amber were at their fourth rodeo; Pranav, his third. They've all failed, many times, in the past, but have kept going. That kind of attitude is essential to success in science and math.

So congrats, Arvind. We've got our eyes on you. 

Tags: science

Not All STEM Degrees Created Equal

May 30, 2013

In the wake of the Economic Policy Institute report alleging that the STEM worker shortage is a myth, the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce has produced a new look at the unemployment statistics, major by major. 

The report is mostly an update of earlier research. After all, we've known for a while that college grads fare better than high school grads, and that in general, STEM majors face lower unemployment and receive higher salaries than their friends in the liberal arts and social sciences overall. We've even known for a while that the toughness of the initial job market depends on your major. 

But in light of the EPI report, which focused preponderantly on IT as a representative of all STEM degrees, it's worth taking a look at this data, to see the differences between different STEM majors. And truthfully, information systems isn't doing that hot. In fact, it's the major that shows the highest rate of unemployment.

Why -- after all, isn't a STEM major the magic pill to job security and economic prosperity? 

First, the affects of the recession cannot be overstated: employment in all sectors, for all levels of experience, suffered in the last several years. This recession still reverberates throughout the economy, affecting employment numbers and making it difficult for new grads to get the first job, when more-experienced, but unemployed, workers are competing for the same jobs.

But the truth is -- as has been said before -- not all STEM majors are considered equal. Some, like software development, build skills that employers can't get enough of right now. Others, like engineering, teach direct skills that are appealing in a variety of professions. But others, like information systems, are vulnerable to broader trends like outsourcing.

The skills and knowledge taught in an IS program don't translate to engineering -- or vice versa. While a freshly minted humanities graduate might be able to show that a political science degree is just as valuable as an English degree when it comes to teaching writing skills, the skills in STEM aren't nearly as malleable. They all, by and large, have a foundation in logic, critical thinking, and problem solving, but the very skills that make most STEM degrees so in-demand -- their high level of specialized knowledge -- also make it more difficult for STEM workers to slide from one STEM-centric field to another. STEM skills and workers aren't widget employees. Unfortunately, that means that hiring in information right now (and potentially for the next several years) is much slower than hiring for those with the skills to write new programs and design software applications.  

When the data is scrutinized, though, it's clear that STEM is still a strong career path. Unemployment among those with experience and advanced education is  less than half the unemployment rate for new grads, a greater drop than in fields like business, the arts, and education. At 3.0, 2.1 and 3.6 percent, respectively, unemployment for advanced-degree holders in engineering, science and computers/mathematics is lower than in almost all other fields. STEM is still a strong choice, it's important to see which major offers the strongest bang for your buck. 

Tags: jobs & workforce

Is Common Core "Dumbing Down" American Education? Hardly!

May 30, 2013

Since 45 states adopted new “Common Core” standards for what K-12 students should know and be able to do in math and English, so many spurious or downright fanciful arguments against those standards keep popping up that putting a stop to all of them can feel like playing a game of whack-a-mole. Still, it’s worth taking aim at the most persistent and dubious claims. One such claim is that the new standards will “dumb down” education in this country.

It’s hard to imagine how an idea so totally estranged from reality could ever take hold.

Common Core standards aim to raise the bar for a large majority of American children. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which has long campaigned for high standards, found that the Common Core was more rigorous than standards in 46 states and on par with standards in another five. When the respected non-profit research organization WestEd compared Common Core to Massachusetts standards, which had long been considered among the nation’s best, it concluded that Common Core “tend[s] to include a slightly higher percentage of standards that reflect higher levels of cognitive demand.”

States have been bracing themselves for what will happen when the new standards take effect. We’ve already had a preview in Kentucky, one of only two states that has tested students on Common Core so far. The rate of students deemed proficient fell by some 30 percentage points. Hardly evidence of “dumbing down.” (New York has also tested its students on Common Core content, but the results of those tests aren’t in yet.)

And what were things like before Common Core? The Fordham Institute noted that math standards in most states lacked rigor. What’s more, more than half of states set the bar for passing their state math tests near or below where the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often called “the nation’s report card,” sets the bar for merely “Basic” performance. As a result, 47 states reported that most of their 8th graders were “proficient” in math in 2009. Only one state reached that level on NAEP.

On its own, Common Core cannot guarantee that states will hold students to a higher bar. That still depends on the quality of the common tests states are still developing. It also depends on states’ courage in setting a high bar for passing their tests. Otherwise, there will be little way of knowing how many students have truly mastered the standards.

But Common Core has been a critical first step to raising standards. To suggest that they are “dumbing down” the American education system is just plain wrong.

Tags: Common Core, STEM & the states

STEM in the News: May 28, 2013

May 28, 2013

Teachers Gear Up For Science Standards, Ed Week, May 24 

Rhode Island became the first state to OK the Next Generation Science Standards this week, but some teachers nationwide are already looking at how they introduce and explain content to better align with the new standards, which call for greater depth of understanding. Helping teachers implement the new standards is a major hurdle facing NGSS, and this article takes a look at what some early-adopters -- who will be critical conduits in many districts -- are doing with the standards. 

More Young Adults Hold Degrees, a Boost in the Job Market, U.S. Says, The Chronicle, May 24

More Americans than ever are going to college, according to the Department of Education's massive annual report on education, and more are earning bachelor degrees. While this strengthens the job market overall, a deep dive reinforces the common, troubling disparities that persist in education: Students from lower-income families are far less likely to earn a college degree, racial gaps continue to plague achievement, and overall, men earn fewer degrees. There's still work to do. 

The Condition of Education, 2013, Department of Education

And here's a link to the Department's study, which is the closest thing to a complete compendium of education information that you'll see until 2014. 

Though Enrolling More Poor Students, 2-Year Degrees Get Less of Federal Pie, New York Times, May 22 

Speaking of troubling and persistent gaps, this article takes a look at the economics of 2-year colleges, which are educating a greater portion of the population but receiving less money for doing so. Some of the reasons? State budget cuts, a wariness to raise tuition, poor alignment with 4-year schools, and the stratification of higher education. 

STEM in the News: May 21, 2013

May 20, 2013

Common Science Standards Face Capacity Issues, Ed Week, May 15

The Next Gen Science Standards were released to much fanfare earlier this spring, but now the attention rightfully turns to how to make the standards work at the classroom level. Ed Week takes a look at some of the capacity issues facing the standards as they move forward, including teacher buy-in, professional development, and curriculum building. 

Children's Spatial Skills Seen As Key to Math Learning, Ed Week, May 15

Learning how to color inside the lines may actually have some benefits. A new study of what teachers typically term "executive function skills" -- think being able to draw straight lines, cut out shapes using scissors, and yes, coloring inside the lines -- found that strong motor skills in prekindergarten and kindergarten primed students for later success in subjects predicated on abstract reasoning, like geometry and algebra. 

What it takes to become an all project-based school, KQED, May 16

As schools strive to provide students with more experiential and in-depth learning opportunities, every school wants to be considered 'project-based.' KQED takes a look at what exactly it will take for schools to make that big jump. 

Adoption Of New Science Standards May Start With Rhode Island, Ed Week, May 16

Rhode Island became the first state to consider the Next Gen Science Standards -- the state board of education is expected to vote on adoption this week, on Thursday. Several other states that took part in the creation of the standards are also expected to consider adoption in the next several weeks. 

Gorgeous Black and White Photos of Vintage NASA Facilities Brain Pickings

BrainPickings found some wonderful early photos of NASA facilities. Retro but futuristic, they were taken from the 1920s to the 1950s, when space flight was still more sci-fi than reality.

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