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Helping STEM Take Root

School districts ramp up science, technology, engineering and math curriculum as it gains more attention locally and nationally.

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.

But while the acronym may roll off the tongue, building and implementing programs that emphasize STEM subjects has proved easier said than done, as districts have faced challenges from financing STEM initiatives, to finding and training good science teachers, to simply making more room in the school day to offer more science. Over the past two years, though, the STEM movement has shown signs of taking root, as district leaders say they are finding public and private funding to develop STEM-related curricula, ramping up professional development, and even launching dedicated STEM academies from San Antonio to Baltimore.

Earlier this year, the STEM movement received an added boost during President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, in which he placed STEM high on the list of the nation's educational priorities. Recent national developments— including Obama's endorsement, the importance placed on STEM in awarding states federal Race to the Top funds, and the looming reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law—have all given proponents hope that STEM programs will become more common.

No STEM Left Behind

"We spent the past five or six years creating awareness about STEM we've got everybody saying STEM is important, and we've got business leaders and even the president talking about it," says James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, a national advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. "Now we've got to do something about it on a state and national level."

The most important national initiative, Brown adds, is changing the terms of NCLB to include student performance in science as a measure of Adequate Yearly Progress. Since NCLB became law in 2002, a school's AYP has depended on student results in reading and math, even though a number of states also test students in science. "You can show very clearly after math and reading determined AYP, there was a redirection of time spent on the sciences, and especially on lab experiments," Brown explains. "It's harder for schools to spend money on these things when they're not part of the accountability system."

Knox County Public Schools students perform science experiments. The district?s new STEM Academy High School is set to open in August.

Francis Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, says that science in elementary schools took a particularly hard hit when NCLB went into effect, with a 33 percent reduction on the time spent in class on science. "It's had a very chilling effect on the amount of science being taught," he insists, adding that he has heard stories of teachers being told to teach math and reading at the expense of science.

The NSTA is aiming to reverse that trend. The organization is providing advice to the National Research Council's Board on Science Education on developing a conceptual framework for the new National Science Education Standards. "We think they will fit the model of Common Standards," predicts Eberle, who has just finished reviewing the draft conceptual framework that was released widely for public input, which he says will increase inquiry-based learning and critical thinking in science classrooms.

The new science standards should be ready next year, just as the Common Core project expands its work from reading and math into other subject areas. Meanwhile, almost a dozen states have launched STEM networks over the past three years. The growing list includes Ohio, Colorado, California, Minnesota, Indiana, Arizona, New York and Pennsylvania. Their mission statements range from building coalitions of education and business leaders to defining the STEM skills needed in the workforce, to increasing the number of qualified math and science teachers.

A STEM Academy in Tennessee

Last summer, Tennessee started its own STEM Innovation Network with federal Race to the Top funds and with the aim of supporting "incubator" schools for promising STEM approaches. The new STEM Academy High School—one of an emerging crop of STEM academies around the country—is set to open as a magnet school in Knoxville in August, according to Jim McIntyre, superintendent of the Knox County Public Schools.

Knox County Public Schools students perform science experiments.

Among the innovations planned at the new academy—funded by $2 million in Race to the Top money—is an inversion of the usual course sequence in the sciences. Rather than starting with biology, ninth- and tenth-graders will take physics and chemistry, respectively, to pave the way for a more in-depth study of biology in grade 11.

All STEM Academy students will take an additional STEM seminar. At the ninth- and tenth-grade levels, they will study topical problems or "storylines" for several weeks—the recent Gulf oil spill, for example—before presenting solutions, symposium-style, to their peers and teachers. Upperclassmen will use their STEM seminar time to "major" in areas such as renewable energy, forensic science, and sound engineering.

"A lot of the thought process around the curriculum has centered on using the scientific method and the engineering process," notes McIntyre, who promises that the in-school learning will be supplemented by outside expertise and internships. "We have such incredibly rich STEM assets in our region, and the people from these places are incredible assets," he adds, pointing to the neighboring Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee, as well as an array of local engineering and technology companies.

Over the past three years, engineering and science professionals have volunteered for the Knoxville-based organization Vols4STEM to tutor students, help teachers create lesson plans and start STEM clubs at schools throughout the district. Besides the expertise added to curriculum, the presence of role models in science, technology and engineering has added value, McIntyre says.

Science in Sarasota

In Florida, the state science standards approved three years ago incorporate STEM-related changes such as a greater emphasis on inquiry-based learning and greater integration of technology, science and math. Middle school administrators in Sarasota are augmenting the new science curriculum with a focus on 21st-century skills—such as collaboration, communication, problem solving, creativity and critical thinking—in what they call the "classroom of tomorrow."

As part of her professional development, a Halls High School teacher at Knox County (Tenn.) Public Schools at the Y-12 National Security Complex.Teachers attend Y-12 as part of the district?s annual Vols4STEM day.

Page Dettmann, executive director for middle schools in Sarasota County (Fla.) Public Schools, points out that the district is beta-testing three such classrooms. As part of the revised curriculum, middle school science classes make regular use of groups of two to four students to pursue inquiry-based learning, running experiments and solving problems along the way. In a physical science lesson on the law of reflection, the middle school students create a maze of mirrors, perform calculations, and write up a procedure for steering a laser beam through the maze.

In another activity, student groups produce and analyze a series of sounds at different stations around the room to determine how changes in the amplitude and frequency of the various sound waves affect the characteristics of those sounds. The students are already beginning to see a difference in how they study science in the classroom, Dettmann says.

Besides aiming to expand the number of these classrooms next year, Dettmann also hopes to bolster the collaborative, hands-on approach with an investment in classroom technology. "We're seeking funding to get touchscreen technology and other digital learning tools into the hands of our students," she says.

The plan includes lightweight mobile computers for students as well as interactive whiteboards so teachers can demonstrate what students need to do; touchscreen computers for the student groups (about six per classroom) to create and project their work; and digital microscopes, cameras and balance scales, which will connect to those computers. "It will allow student groups to create information, produce data and arrive at conclusions based on their experiments," Dettmann says of the planned technological upgrade.

Foundation Funding

The story in Sarasota also highlights the difference that non-government funding is beginning to make in STEM reform for schools. Almost a dozen schools throughout the district and in neighboring Charlotte County are the beneficiaries of a five-year, $2.5 million grant to develop a STEM program. The source of the grant, the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice, has contributed more than $100 million over the past decade to community causes, from improving 911 services and helping military families involved in the war effort to providing student scholarships.

"I talked to the two superintendents [in Sarasota and Charlotte County schools], and they said, ‘Help us.' And they really meant it," says Mark Pritchett, Gulf Coast's vice-president for community investment. "They see the connection between the jobs of the future and what we're teaching kids. And there's a gap."

The middle schools in Sarasota are seeking funding to finance the technology upgrades in science classrooms. Pritchett emphasizes that his foundation is not simply handing out money. "We're working with the districts on their plans," he says.

To that end, Gulf Coast has provided a staff liaison with a biology and physics background; the foundation has hired a former principal who often worked with benchmarks to work with schools in defining STEM benchmarks; and Pritchett has been tapping local businesses and organizations to off er students real-world experiences, from shadowing to apprenticeships.

"If you can show kids there's a job at the end of the rainbow, that makes a big difference," Pritchett explains, noting that Gulf Coast is also spending thousands on a public awareness campaign about STEM. "If we don't have parent and community buy-in, it's just another project," he says. "This has to be catalytic."

Professional Development

Where districts are going to find qualified teachers in the beefed-up STEM disciplines is another matter. The STEM Education Coalition's James Brown points to the nearly 15-year-old UTeach Natural Sciences program at the University of Texas in Austin, which recruits promising freshmen and shepherds them to a degree in a STEM field as well as high school teaching certification over the course of their four-year college careers. "They've figured out how to identify the small fraction of engineering and science majors who have the aptitude to teach," Brown says.

Twenty-one other universities have since adopted the UTeach Program, including the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Kansas and Florida State University.  ere are also several innovative programs for teachers, including Pennsylvania's statewide "Science, It's Elementary" program, which the education improvement nonprofit organization, ASSET, Inc., designed and still manages.

A second-grade teacher from the Mohawk Area School District in Pennsylvania takes part in a two-day ASSET Inc. professional development course focusing on a hands-on science module on soil, which is part of Earth Science.

The program, which partners with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, provides high-quality, hands-on-oriented science instruction for nearly 2,235 elementary school teachers who do not have science degrees in 104 districts. "It's addressing a fundamental problem," Brown says, "and a large fraction of the state's teachers are going through the program."

The NSTA's Eberle suggests that teachers, and not just their students, could benefit from private-sector internships. "Many teachers haven't been in any workplace other than schools," Eberle explains. "To work in industries and in manufacturing plants can be very valuable activities for teachers."

Getting School Boards Involved

A more active role for school boards in promoting STEM can also make a difference, according to the National School Boards Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2006, the two organizations joined forces to create Science, Math, and Technology Action and Resources for School Districts (SMarT).

SMarT mainly offers a Web site that lays out the problems of making STEM-related changes in schools—from securing resources and community support to finding qualified teachers and evaluating programs. The site ( also provides extensive resources, such as descriptions of almost two dozen model district programs around the country, as well as talking points and PowerPoint slides to use in conversations with other board members and community stakeholders.

Among the suggestions SMarT makes is to push for the study of science through trade publications—books intended for the general public—instead of traditional science textbooks. "Too often, textbooks give a cursory treatment to big topics. They're trying to cover too much," explains Shirley Malcom, the American Association for the Advancement of Science's director of education and human resources programs. "Quite frankly, if you give people lousy texts that emphasize memorization, we won't be better off."

Malcom also suggests that board members may be in a unique position to stand up for the expenses of improving STEM education, from recruiting teachers to improving laboratories in schools. "They have to support the fact that this may be a more costly way of proceeding," she says. "But even though these practices cost money, they'll give you a better product in the end."

That product, Malcom and other STEM advocates agree, will be twofold: graduates who are better trained to continue STEM studies beyond high school and those who will simply become more science-literate citizens. "They'll be the ones sitting on a jury who can interpret what the DNA expert is saying," Malcom predicts. "They'll be the ones who understand what the doctor is saying to them. They'll be the citizens who vote to make sure the levees are in place and who can make sense of our country's energy options."

Ron Schachter is a contributing writer to District Administration.