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Texas State Board of Education, Cargill

The 2011-2012 school year marked the first time in decades that Texas school districts could purchase instructional materials without approval by the state board of education. Senate Bill 6, which was implemented Sept. 1, 2011, freed up $792 million for school districts to purchase materials. The intent behind the bill was twofold: to allow district textbook coordinators to spend more money on instructional technology, and to prevent the content of textbooks from being held hostage to the political opinions of the state board of education.

The lack of stem [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] educators is a national crisis, according to education leaders such as Martha Cyr, executive director of the newly created STEM Education Center at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts. So WPI is one of many higher education institutions nationwide focusing on preparing its undergraduates to teach STEM topics inside the classroom and, ultimately, prepare students for careers in science or math.

For many, an instinctual reflex is to marry the term “college town” with images from the movie Animal House. While stories of youthful exuberance make for interesting water cooler conversation, they serve to conceal real opportunities for public schools to collaborate with postsecondary institutions.

Making the most out of fewer resources is a mantra recited by nearly every school district these days. So when Vickie Hallock, supervisor of elementary education at the Penn Manor (Pa.) School District, realized there would be a shortage of physical education teachers at the elementary level this school year, she saw it as an opportunity to introduce a new 21st-century skills course.

By the fall of 2012, the Next Generation of Science Standards will be available for states to adopt. Part 1 of the process, the Framework for K12 Science Education, was released July 19 by the National Research Council (NRC), an arm of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Traditionally, states have developed their own individual standards by extracting components from science benchmarks set forth by organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Girl doing chemistry exercise

Three years ago, sophomore environmental science students at the Science Leadership Academy (SLA) in Philadelphia needed a problem to solve. But they weren't just looking for any old problem; they wanted a big one, a real-life one that could make a difference in the world—one that would challenge them to be creative, to work in teams, to think and plan and build, and, by the way, to allow them to meet all of the state and local standards for the class.

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.

Ask any random college educated American adult to recall the processes of cell respiration so painstakingly memorized in freshman biology, or to rehearse the dates of the Progressive Era that had been absorbed as part of the standard American history survey course, and you're likely to receive a blank stare, proving something that cognitive scientists have been shouting from the rooftops: Coursework focused on memorization of a broad body of content knowledge will not produce the sort of learning that lasts.

While most schools are under increasing pressure to improve the STEM education of their students, finding more effective—and cost-effective—ways to teach science concepts can be a challenging task. But as with many dilemmas in education, the right technology, when properly implemented, can be a big part of a successful strategy.


Maryland’s high school assessment (HSA) exams indicated that students in Prince George’s County Public Schools learning STEM subjects were not as prepared for graduation as their statewide counterparts. Just sixty-five percent of first-time takers passed the state’s Biology HSA, indicating a disconnect between the content and the skills and processes portions of the exam. Secondary science instructional specialist Godfrey Rangasammy felt that students were having a difficult time making interdisciplinary connections and interpreting science data they were learning.