STEM Beats - March 2014

Millions of High Schoolers Still Lack STEM Opportunities

March 21, 2014

Only half of the nation's high schools offered Calculus in the 2011/2012 school year, and less than two thirds offered physics. The result? Millions of American young people don't have access to courses that open the doors to critical and rewarding careers like engineering and computer science.

These sobering new data from the U.S. Department of Education suggest that we're stuck in neutral when it comes to expanding access to challenging courses. The numbers haven't really budged since the 2009/2010 school year, when the Department last released data on course access. Our analysis of the 2009/2010 data found that minority students were least likely to attend schools that offer the most challenging classes.

Here are some of the most stunning results from the 2011/2012 school year:

  • While 81 percent of Asian high students and 71 percent of white students attend schools that offer a full range of math and science courses--algebra 1 through calculus; biology through physics--only 57 percent of African Americans and 47 percent of American Indian students do.
  • Black and Latino students comprise 37 percent of high school enrollment, 27 percent of students in AP classes, and only 18 percent of students who earn a passing score on at least one AP test.

This is a crisis. We can't very well expect students to surge into STEM fields if we don't give them access to critical gateway courses like Calculus and Physics. Nor should we be surprised that so few Black and Latino students become engineers.

So what should we do? First and foremost, states should stick with high standards. The Common Core State Standards that 45 states have adopted are much more likely than previous state standards to help schools prepare students for challenging courses like Calculus. All too often, schools have trouble sustaining those courses if too few students are equipped to take them.

Yet high standards aren't enough if students have little opportunity to learn them. Schools cannot merely pop tougher courses onto the syllabus and then pray for success. Instead, they need to give teachers and students intensive support to help them succeed. To see how it's done, take a look at the National Math and Science Initiative's Advanced Placement Program. In schools where it operates, the program has dramatically boosted the numbers of Black and Latino students who take and pass AP tests in math and science.

We cannot overestimate the importance of this work for a nation that has yet to make good on its founding ideals of equal opportunity.

(The New York Times quotes a Change the Equation representative in its summary of the new Education Department Data.)

Tags: math, science, Common Core, minorities, standards

This Day in STEM: birth of Joseph Fourier

March 21, 2014


Here at CTEq, we're taking a moment on the first Friday of spring to celebrate the birthday of Joseph Fourier, who was born on this day in 1768!

Fourier is perhaps best known for his contribution to the studies of heat conduction, periodic functions, and differential equations.  Most notably, Fourier devised an alternative method for representing waveforms, known as the Fourier series.  This breakthrough had widespread application, from sound waves and magnetic fields to topography and the stock exchange.

Even today, Fourier's work has real-life, on-the-STEM-job applications.  For example, mechanical engineers use the Fourier series to understand the physical movement of cylinders in a combustion engine.  Likewise, electrical engineers rely on the Fourier series when designing forms of digital communication since it explains how signals behave when traveling through filters and amplifiers.

Fourier is also credited as the first person to argue the existence of the naturally occurring process that we now call the greenhouse effect.  And while his thoughts from 1824 were later refined, he is considered to have laid the groundwork for environmental scientists to better understand and study the ways in which human endeavors impact the world.

While history will foremost remember him as a mathematician, Fourier's varied interests led him to life experiences beyond his discipline.  He was an avid Egyptologist, one-time advisor to Napoleon, and even served as Governor of the island of Grenoble!  Like the man, Fourier's work in mathematics is also transcendent, crossing into the art world where the curves of the Fourier series are translatable into vivid, geometric design.


As the flowers begin to bloom and the days grow longer this spring, be sure check back here for more of the who's who in STEM history!

Tags: This Day in STEM, math

This Day in STEM: Catch STEM Fever at Spring Training!

March 7, 2014

Whether it seems like it or not, relief from this record-breaking winter is less than two weeks away, and here at CTEq, we've got one thing on our minds:  spring training!  Baseball is arguably the most STEMtastic sport and the start of spring training is cause to celebrate the long and rich history of America's favorite pastime.  In fact, today marks a very important milestone in baseball history: on March 7, 1857, the nine-inning baseball game was officially established.  What you may not know is that those nine innings are packed with hard-hitting STEM fundamentals. 

For example, ask any fan of baseball where they'd step up to the plate in the hopes of hitting a homerun and you'll find that most will point you toward Denver.  At Coors Field, because of its "thinner" air at elevation, baseballs can fly 10 percent further.  In fact, a whopping sixty percent of MLB teams' homeruns are hit there! 

Corked bats, as another example, are considered to allow a batter to respond faster to a pitch given their light weight – which is why they’re illegal in the game of baseball.  However, given the immense forces involved in the ball-bat collision and the fact that about two-thirds of the energy of that collision is dissipated before the ball begins to fly (that's the sound you hear, by the way),  a bat with less mass actually limits how much mechanical energy the hit has.  While corked bats do increase the chances of a batter hitting on the "sweet spot," the qualities of the perfect bat for any one player or pitch are hard to come by.

Baseball swing

In the age-old debate over whether it's easier to hit a softball than a baseball, physics provides us with some facts behind the pitches.  It turns out that the size of the ball, the pitcher's distance from home plate, the height from which s/he throws the ball, and of course the pitching technique all factor in to argument.

The game of baseball, as it is played today, has evolved dramatically and we see can see this evolution through mathematical analysis of trends in the style of play.  For example, the popularity of the sacrifice bunt play has fallen nearly seventy percent over the last hundred years.  The same can be said for stolen base attempts per game, which were cut in half between 1912 and 2011.  The strategy of intentionally walking a batter rather than risking a big hit peaked in 1967 at 0.4 per game and has declined steadily since at a rate of about 1.1 percent.  Interestingly, it turns out that even Barry Bonds, the infamous homerun hitter who accounts for an incredible 3.3 percent of all intentional walk plays in 2007, couldn't even reverse that downward trend!

Barry Bonds

Baseball is a game of numbers and fans may not realize that they're actually minor league statisticians.  Whether you're trying to predict the occurrence of a rare baseball event like a no-hitter or just want to keep track of your favorite player's ERA or RBI, STEM's got you covered!  So as the fields begin to thaw and MLB mascots come out of hibernation, be sure check out a baseball game and see if you can "catch" STEM principles at work!  Stay tuned for more posts this spring, but in the meantime, we'll be in the stands root, root, rooting for the STEM team.

Tags: This Day in STEM, video