Momentum building on STEM education

As part of the Obama administration’s emphasis on bringing education into the 21st century, it comes as no surprise that policy makers have trained their focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education as a way to give more students, especially girls and minorities, stronger global skills. And with this increased focus, some education experts say momentum is building for more recognition of the “T” and “E” in STEM–technology and engineering, two subjects often overlooked.

In fact, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), part of the National Research Council, recently completed a report that surveys the extent and nature of efforts to teach engineering to K-12 students in the United States. The report is set to be released Sept. 8.

The report, “Engineering in K-12 Education: Understanding the Status and Improving the Prospects,” defines what engineering is, because many people don’t understand much about the career, and also discusses research and evidence on the impact of engineering education on areas such as improved science and math learning and improved technological literacy, said Greg Pearson, an NAE program officer and the study’s leader.

Also covered in the report are what engineering concepts children are able to understand, and at what age, along with a detailed analysis of about 15 curriculum projects identified by the study team, which also examined how those different curricula treat engineering.

“One of the findings is that discussions of STEM tend to be focused on science, sometimes math, rarely both together–usually they’re siloed, and the T and especially the E are really just left out of the discussion in policy, education, and classroom practice,” Pearson said.

“Even though we use that acronym, in terms of what’s really happening and what people really mean, engineering is the silent letter.

” Since 1990, NAE estimates that 6 million U.S. students have been exposed to formal engineering in the classroom, along with about 18,000 teachers who have had formal training to teach engineering concepts.

But at the same time, Pearson said, engineering doesn’t have a formal place in the school day the way math and science do, and there are no learning or content standards the way there are for math, science, history, and other subject areas.

The study identifies a handful of countries that offer some kind of formal engineering education prior to college and examines those systems.

“A lot of things are missing, but these efforts are moving ahead,” Pearson said.

Although the report isn’t a guide for teachers, it does discuss the barriers to including engineering in schools and suggests different ways to approach the issue.

And the committee does not recommend one approach over another.

“For each school or each circumstance, certain approaches may make more sense than others,” Pearson said.

In an effort to strengthen STEM education throughout the nation, the House Committee on Science and Technology’s Research and Science Education Subcommittee held a recent hearing to examine the efforts of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) under then-superintendent (now U.S. Secretary of Education) Arne Duncan’s leadership–and the collaboration Duncan fostered among the private, public, and nonprofit sectors.

“In hearings and reports, we have repeatedly heard that innovation is key to maintaining a high standard of living for all Americans, and that we need more teachers and more graduates in the STEM fields if we want our country to continue to lead in the global economy,” said Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Lipinski, D-Ill. “Reform of our STEM education system will require coordination on multiple fronts and across many diverse stakeholders.

” Donald Wink, the University of Illinois at Chicago’s director of undergraduate studies in chemistry and director of graduate studies with the Learning Sciences Research Institute, said K-12 school systems and universities are part of a cycle.