Yesterday the House Committe on Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Science Education held a hearing on the National Research Council’s report “Successful K-12 STEM Education Identifying Effective Approaches in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics” Dr. Adam Gamoran, the chair of the committee that produced the report stated three goals for STEM education they were interested in – increase the number of students going into STEM fields, increasing the diversity of the STEM workforce to include more women and minorities, and to improve STEM literacy in those that don’t go into a related career. It focused on three aspects, measuring student outcomes, the effectiveness of specialized schools to focus on STEM topics and what practices are most effective.
When discussing how outcomes are measured, several of the witnesses made note of how a lot this kind of data has focused test scores and aptitude, but many programs have additional focuses. For instance there is little data saying how well a program may be improving critical thinking skills or increased interest in scientific fields. Even what data we do have is difficult to interpret since it often can’t distinguish whether high performing students are attracted to programs versus good programs producing high performing students.
When looking at specialized STEM schools, it seems like there’s still very little data at how effective they may be. I was surprised to see that at the time the report was written they only were aware of one study that was still in progress had even looked at how these schools compared to regular schools, with another report coming out since that time. While these show some improvements probably isn’t surprising, though it seems like the benefits may be limited, especially considering the limited number of students that might be able to take part in these programs. Dr. Barbara Means, another member of the committee that wrote the report, noted that Texas has been especially effective at creating schools with a STEM-focus and having not using exclusive criteria to limit it to already-high achieving students, but even there only about 1% of all students are enrolled in schools. Given how much science and technology will be influencing all people, we can’t rely solely on specialized programs to educate people on these subjects.
There seems to be more information available about what kind of educational practices may be effective, though several times witnesses emphasized that what works in some situations may not work as well in others. An example of this Dr. Means described was recently written up in the New York Times, where a series of different software products were tested, and none found to be significantly different then the control classrooms. However all of the different products had least some classroom where it seemed to have improve performance, while some classrooms were better in the controls, and some with no difference. Dr. Means said “[w]e can choose to treat such variation as random “noise,” or we can focus on it as an object of study.”
While there is some uncertainty about what specifics may be more effective than others in a given situation, Dr. Gamoran pointed a few general areas that seem important. First, it is important to catch students’ interest early on and keep them engaged while building off information they may already know. This seems to be reflected in the approach taken in the recommended science standards that I wrote about last year. Second, it is important to have conditions that can be conducive to learning.
While a lot of the ideas presented don’t seem too surprising, Dr. Gamoran noted this makes sense given the mission was to summarize the current knowledge, and identify where research still has gaps that need to be looked at.