A Systems Approach to Improving K-12 STEM Education

The House Subcommittee on Research and Science Education held a hearing yesterday to examine how to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics education through partnership of public and private stakeholders in an urban K-12 system. Last year the Committee examined this issue by focusing on the small-town school district of Texarkana, Texas. In contrast, this hearing used the large urban school district of Chicago (400,000 students) to investigate a systems approach to STEM education. Panelists and Committee members agreed that STEM education successes occur in pockets throughout the country, but the question of how to bring these successes to scale remains.
(Watch the archived webcast of the hearing and view copies of witness testimonies at the House S&T Committee website.)
Witnesses included Dr. Wanda Ward, Acting Assistant Director at the Directorate for Education and Human Resources (NSF); Ms. Maggie Daley, Chair of After School Matters; Mr. Michael Lach, Officer of Teaching and Learning, Chicago Public Schools; Dr. Donald Wink, Director of Undergraduate Studies, Department of Chemistry, and Director of Graduate Studies, Learning Sciences Research Institute, University of Illinois at Chicago; Ms. Katherine Pickus, Divisional Vice President, Global Citizenship and Policy, Abbott Laboratories.
Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) framed the day’s discussion by recalling recent developments in STEM education: The National Academies Rising Above the Gathering Storm; the 2007 America COMPETES Act; and the passing of the STEM education bill H.R. 1709 in June of this year. From his opening remarks:

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. Unfortunately, American students have been lagging their international peers, while American businesses are warning about a wave of retirements without adequately trained young people to fill these vacated positions, especially in engineering fields.
Reform of our STEM education system will require coordination on multiple fronts across many diverse stakeholders. In addition to several federal agencies, there are state and local governments, school districts, universities, non-profits, businesses, community organizations, teachers, students, and – if a child is fortunate – their parents.
America needs to be successful in improving STEM education. Without it, we will lose our capacity for innovation and diminish our country’s economic strength and competitiveness in the international marketplace.

Dr. Ward opened her remarks by pointing to NSF’s role in aligning stem priorities in the America COMPETES Act and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, with four foci: innovation, broad participation to improve workforce development, enrichment of teacher education, and fostering cyber learning to enhance STEM education.
Ms. Daly used her opening statement to emphasize the importance of creating learning experiences in informal environments. Using her own program, After School Matters, as an example, Daly noted the successful interaction between hundreds of paid instructors and thousands of students in Block 37 programs where professionals address workforce trends with students, and students are exposed to workplace problems. She pointed specifically to a partnership for students to design and build robots with mentors provided by Motorola. Daly requested that more attention be given to assessment of such efforts; historically, little resources have been used for evaluating non-profit initiatives like After School Matters.
Mr. Lach provided the public school district’s perspective, sharing a vision of high quality instruction involving professional development of teachers that partner with local industry and higher educators. One area of strength in Chicago, he noted, are the strong partnerships between the public schools and local universities. In addition, he shared some of the learnings from Chicago’s efforts:

  • partner with universities for course support and classroom instruction
  • extend learning experiences beyond the classroom
  • create math and science focused schools
  • foster partnerships among schools, universities, and grants from the federal government
  • centralize coordination of program support

Dr. Wink focused his remarks on the relationships, leadership and research that are necessary for the flow between K-12 students and higher education to strengthen STEM education. The most valuable investment, in his view, is made in people and relationships. He recommended to focus work with existing products and on existing research and to incorporate K-12 data on student performance in universities.
Ms. Pickus gave the perspective of a private firm involved in STEM education activities. Abbott, a large pharmaceutical health care company, provides mentors that give real world experience for students. Abbott’s involvement in Chicago’s public schools represent part of the private science community efforts to creating meaningful, informal experiences for students and training for teachers. Pickus emphasized the need to give public schools access to scientists, start early, and involve parents.
Representative Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) lessened the sanguine tone of the hearing, asking Mr. Lach about dropout rates in Chicago’s public schools (above fifty percent). While there have been successes, Ehlers reminded the room of the tremendous work that must still be done.
During questioning, Representative Marcia Fudge (D-OH) asked about NSF’s work in developing the role of administrators. Ward responded positively, but did not give any specific examples of programs. Fudge also brought up the significant gap in achievement among minority students asking how STEM efforts can be targeted toward them. Mr. Lach responded that there is no silver bullet for decreasing the achievement gap. However, he felt that minority students can achieve when the supports he mentioned in his above opening remarks testimony are in place.
Representative Russ Carnahan’s (D-MO) question about the disconnect that often occurs between world-class institutions and infrastructure in large urban centers and STEM activities in public schools brought out discussion among the panelists about the critical role of the executive support. Each panelist agreed that mayoral support and political capital were vital to the success of STEM efforts in Chicago.
On a side note, when asked about compensation for math and science teachers, all panelists were in favor of increasing salary or stipends in order to attract, train, and retain quality STEM teachers.

A Systems Approach to Improving K-12 STEM Education