STEM Beats - August 2017

How NASA Gets Ready for a Solar Eclipse

August 16, 2017

Are you ready for the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017? NASA sure is. And their new 2017 eclipse-dedicated website wants you to be ready too! A North American eclipse of this magnitude offers scientists and engineers a unique opportunity to study and observe a rare natural phenomenon. So, they’ve got several research projects planned across the nation—both in the sky and on the land—as well as ways to get you in on the action at home.

“NASA is supporting research using balloons, ground measurements, and planes that ‘chase’ the eclipse, all of which can help scientists take continuous measurements of the sun and the eclipse’s effects on Earth for relatively long periods of time,” reads NASA’s detailed breakdown of the imminent research.

The data and information NASA gathers from the eclipse could challenge commonly accepted ideas and theories as well as answer lingering questions in multiple disciplines. One of those big mysteries include the sun’s corona. You might already know that in a solar eclipse, the moon gets between the Earth and the sun. Depending on where you are when it happens, the sun appears to be partially or totally covered. For many that will mean darkness at an hour that isn’t typically dark. But for NASA scientists, it will be the best visual of the sun’s lower atmosphere that appears as a bright halo of light emitted around the moon called the corona. The NASA website goes on to assert that “the lower part of the corona is key to understanding many processes on the sun, including why the sun’s atmosphere is so much hotter than its surface, as well as the process by which the sun sends out a constant stream of solar material and radiation, which can cause changes in the nature of space and impact spacecraft, communications systems, and orbiting astronauts”. Sounds pretty useful for future missions!The totality point when the moon fully blocks the sun revealing the corona.

Because this is such a monumental scientific and celestial event, NASA makes it a point to include everyone in on the action—especially all the citizen scientists at home—with just as much excitement and anticipation. They’ve compiled a massive list of official viewing sites including national parks, zoos, airports, and more within the eclipse path. Some of these locations will even host eclipse parties. Or if staying home is more your style, read NASA’s step-by-step guide to throwing an eclipse party. And what’s an eclipse party without activities? Check out the activities page for a myriad of arts & craft projects, math and science challenges, and some tips on how to get your own eclipse data.

We can tell NASA’s ready. And we hope you’re getting ready too! Check out the interactive map with timelines to best plan out where you’ll be during eclipse time. 

Photos are courtesy of NASA's eclipse website.

Google Trends Has Good News about STEM

August 10, 2017

If people's Google search habits are any measure, STEM education and jobs have caught the public's attention. That's good news for STEM advocates, even if the road to universal STEM literacy remains steep and rocky.

Google Trends is a nifty, if imperfect, tool for measuring people's interest in a topic by estimating how often they search for it online. We used it to gauge public interest in STEM and uncovered some interesting patterns.

A scant ten years ago, people were much more likely to be Googling "stem cells" than the kind of STEM we advocate for--science, technology, engineering, and math.That changed around 2011, and STEM has been surging ahead ever since.

Over the same period, interest in computer science bachelor's degrees narrowly eclipsed interest in the once-dominant English degree:

Below the bachelor's level, some STEM fields STEM raced ahead of non-STEM fields. In 2004, for example, interest in "HVAC technician" ($46,000 per year; 14 percent growth from 2014-2024) started behind "beautician" ($24,000 per year; 9-13 percent growth), but it soon left "beautician" in the dust:

A comparison of "computer science" and "cosmetology" (both as "fields of study"), reveals an interesting, if somewhat different, pattern:

Computer science tumbled from its lofty perch in 2004, as the dot-com bust took hold, and it barely kept pace with cosmetology for five years before surpassing it again.

These trends are encouraging, but past isn't necessarily prologue. STEM advocates should take heart, but we can't rest easy until this attention translates into lasting improvement.

Tags: STEM

Dropping the Algebra Requirement: a Solution, or a Surrender?

August 8, 2017

The Cal State system, which enrolls almost half a million California students, will no longer require them to pass Intermediate algebra. The decision may have been necessary, but it raises unsettling questions about the prospects of a diverse STEM workforce.

It’s reasonable to see Cal State's move as a simple case of education Realpolitik. Too many students get stuck in the bottleneck of intermediate algebra, a remedial course that delays their progress, drains their bank accounts, and raises dropout rates—all without conferring college credit.

Such august organizations as The Charles A. Dana Center, Complete College America, and Jobs for the Future have endorsed the move, arguing that other math courses are more appropriate for students who don’t plan to major in STEM fields. Their logic is compelling: Why uphold the idea of intermediate algebra for all when it stands between so many students and college graduation?

And yet the move risks exacerbating the very problems that forced administrators’ hands in the first place. If past is prologue, many poor and minority students will avoid intermediate algebra rather than fail it.* The Cal State System’s change could effectively codify the informal sorting mechanisms that have long kept those students out of STEM fields.

Cal State’s move could also send a message to high schoolers, their parents, and their schools that algebra is too hard for some students--and not that important, anyway. Poor and minority teens, many of whom have never met anyone in a STEM field, may well take that message to heart. If so, they are essentially taking themselves out of contention for many of the nation’s highest-paying careers.

This is not a call for Cal State to uphold the principle of algebra for all at the expense of the many thousands who cannot complete the course. High ideals don’t amount to much if they don’t offer real help to real people. Rather, the end of algebra for all in so many colleges and universities underscores the urgent need to expand math education opportunities in K-12.  

Too many poor and minority students face barriers in their communities and schools that all but destine them to opt out of intermediate algebra. Many start Kindergarten behind, and their elementary and middle school teachers say they lack support to teach math. Teachers are less likely to recommend high-achieving minority students for gifted programs or algebra in eighth grade. Poor and minority students are much more likely to attend schools that don’t offer advanced math. Indeed, of the roughly 41,000 black and Latino high schoolers who had the potential to succeed on AP math and science tests in 2014, only half actually took them.

It may be necessary—at least for now—to surrender to the harsh realities that drove Cal State’s decision. Yet we still need to uphold challenging standards in K-12. Ensure that teachers of math have the support they need. Give students more and better counseling about the courses they need to take for different careers. Help schools prepare students for AP classes and tests. Coax more STEM majors into the classroom, particularly in poor schools. The list goes on.

Yes, this is a tall order, but the decision to drop math requirements should never be a signal that we’re giving up on preparing every high school graduate to pursue a STEM degree in college if she chooses to do so. All too often, we limit, rather than expand, students' options.

Tags: minorities, math, standards

Eye-Popping Gains in Computer Science!

August 2, 2017

All too often, stories about education reform start with herculean efforts and end with anemic results. Fortunately, the story of at least one large national reform movement is poised to have a happier ending. The push to expand computer science in K-12 is already yielding impressive results.

According to early data from The College Board via, the numbers of high schoolers taking any Computer Science AP more than doubled between 2016 and 2017. The numbers for girls and students of color grew even faster--135 percent and 170 percent, respectively. The College Board's new test--AP Computer Science Principles--contributed most of those gains. 

AP CS Exams chart

Girls rose from roughly 18 percent to 27 percent of all test takers from 2013 to 2017, and students of color advanced from 12 to 20 percent over the same period. If we keep to this pace, we can close the gaps in gender and race/ethnicity in just over a decade. For ed reform veterans who are used to the snail's pace of change in education, those numbers are eye-popping.

Technology companies, visionary state leaders, and organizations like The College Board and have fueled this growth through their full-throated advocacy and support. Employers raised a hue and a cry about computer science in schools and joined other advocates in urging states to guarantee computer science classes every high school. The College Board created Computer Science Principles to introduce students to "the underlying principles of computation," and organizations like have helped prepare students for the test through new courses and teacher training.

CTEq just included two such courses in STEMworks, our honor roll of programs that stand up to rigorous review.'s AP Computer Science Principles course "introduces students to the foundational concepts of computer science and challenges them to explore how computing and technology can impact the world." 

Computer Science Discoveries, also from, targets seventh- to ninth-graders, empowering them "to develop digital and physical projects using creativity and problem solving in a fun, collaborative environment." Both courses are filling a vacuum in our nation's middle and high schools, where computer science courses have been as rare as hen's teeth, even as the tech revolution has raged just beyond their walls.

Indeed, last year, CTEq released grim data on access to computer science classes by race and ethnicity::

Race determines access to computer science classes

Given the new data on AP participation, we have high hopes that these numbers will change for the better:

Of course, that won't be the whole story. CS advocates have a monumental task ahead of them, even as they expand access: They must train thousands more teachers to teach the new courses, and those teachers need to lift their students over the AP tests' high bar.

No easy task, but we're off to a good start.

Tags: computer science, women & girls, minorities

Guest Blog: Girls Should Feel Like They Belong in STEM

August 1, 2017

STEM education is as crucial as the air we breathe. We can find its influence everywhere. Yet, there remains a low percentage of students graduating with STEM literacy. As told by the Business Roundtable, “thirty-eight percent of companies say that at least half of their entry-level job applicants in the U.S. lack even basic STEM skills.”

It is our job as industry leaders, educators and communities to do more to expose and encourage students to these principles, especially young women. According to the U.S. Census, “women make up nearly half of the workforce, [and] they were 26 percent of the STEM workforce in 2011.” Techbridge Girls (TBG) and the 49ers STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) Education program are moving the needle to change not only the statistics but also the narrative and industry so more girls can feel they belong. Both programs focus on providing accessible, free, informal learning opportunities to populations that are under resourced. Our organizations are laying the foundation to bridge the gender and socioeconomic gap in STEM professions and removing barriers that prevent marginalized communities from reaching success. Techbridge Girls has a 17-year track record, reaching over 7,000 girls from low-income communities in Title 1 schools across our three regions (Pacific Northwest, California and D.C. Metro Area) with girl-centric and culturally-responsive STEM enrichment programming. TBG also builds the capacity of educators across the country so they understand how to deliver high-quality STEM enrichment programs that recruit, engage and retain girls – especially in low socioeconomic communities. The 49ers STEAM Education Program has served 150,000 participants in the three years since it’s been established, with half of all participating students coming from Title 1 schools. Among other STEAM focused initiatives, the 49ers have also wrapped up the second year of their teacher professional development platform in STEAM integration and Project Based Learning serving 190 educators to date.

Being intentional in exposing students to STEM ideas that connect to their everyday life can ignite and push students to new pathways in their education. In a Technology and Engineering Literacy (TEL) survey done by Nation’s Report Card, “It is more likely for students to tinker and troubleshoot outside of school than in school,” which are both key components of STEM. It is essential to craft relevant real-world experiences for students that go beyond the classroom in order to reinforce this type of thinking.

Techbridge Girls does this by offering year-round and summer-based afterschool programs for girls from low-income communities in grades 4 – 12. Techbridge Girls’ curriculum is research-driven and implements holistic interventions that engages girls through hand-on activities that bring STEM concepts to life so they can see how STEM is a vehicle to change their circumstances and the world around them. Similarly, the 49ers STEAM Education Program hosts students in grades K-8 and teaches STEAM concepts through a 49ers Museum tour, Levi’s® Stadium tour, standards-aligned STEAM lesson and a movement lab. During a five-hour session, participants can learn a variety of information, including all about the evolution of football equipment and how a material scientist contributes to its creation, to the importance of preserving history in relation to art, culture and the technology that helps make it possible.

In collaboration with Techbridge Girls, the 49ers STEAM Education Program hosted over 100 girls for a field trip to Levi’s Stadium to learn about the engineering and design process and its relationship to the game of football. Together, Techbridge Girls and the 49ers co-designed a field trip experience that aligns with both pedagogies and infused a mentorship component where a dozen 49er women employees were able to connect and draw parallels to their work and lives of the girls. This opportunity allowed Techbridge Girls participants to see STEAM in their day-to-day, from the concrete they walk on to graphics they see on TV. Most importantly, they saw that women contribute to the success of a sports organization.

This is just one piece of the puzzle. The 49ers and Techbridge Girls are working on lesson materials that will live in Techbridge Girls’ curriculum as well as collaborating on how both of their professional development platforms can reach a broader audience. It is not only important that girls get exposure to STEM but that educators and school programming give girls the tools to help them succeed. The Techbridge Girls and 49ers STEAM Education Program collaboration is a partnership that offers innovation, high-quality pedagogy and cutting-edge technology and it provides more students the opportunity to learn about STEM and all of the benefits it can provide.

Our end goal is to equip more young girls with the confidence to charge powerfully into school subjects and careers that are underrepresented by their gender. Bringing more and more girls into this equation will not only transform their life but the STEM industry and our world.

 Nikole Collins-Puri is the CEO at Techbridge. She co-authored this piece with Sofy Navarro, San Francisco 49ers STEAM Education Manager.

Tags: women & girls, guest blog