STEM gets broader — and shallower

In a vain attempt to make STEM appealing to right-brained students, educators are ignoring and alienating the left-brained math and science guys, writes Katharine Beals in Out in Left Field.

Efforts to Inspire Students Have Born Little Fruit, reports the New York Times. The story cites President Obama’s Educate to Innovate initiative and the lack of improvement by U.S. students on the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) tests.

Beals sees it differently.

. . . our schools, and our society more generally, are no longer encouraging and educating the kind of student who is most likely to persevere in STEM careers. These are the left-brained math and science types, more and more of whom face a dumbed-down, language-arts intensive Reform Math curriculum, and a science curriculum that increasingly emphasizes projects over the core knowledge and quantitative skills needed to succeed in college level science courses.

At the expense of encouraging this type of student, K12 schools are trying to broaden the appeal of math and science—by making them even less mathematical and scientific. And so we have algebra taught as dancefraction muralsphotosynthesis as dance, and science festivals featuring showy displays of gadgetry as well as theater, art, and music.

“The kind of student who finds these approaches engaging and enlightening” isn’t likely to persevere through a STEM major, she predicts. Those with the potential to be STEM specialists want to learn math and science.

At Auntie Ann’s school, the science fair used to require students to conduct an experiment. Now they can make a Rube Goldberg machine or a robot or research an environmental issue. “This year they’ve also connected it to an art exhibit to make it the full STEAM experience.”

It used to be the only time students did a research project and wrote a “serious paper,” she writes. Now students get full credit for writing 30 sentences. “The kids who did Rube Goldberg machines had nothing to write a paper about, so they had to write a biography of Rube Goldberg.”

STEM split: Women choose bio, but not physics

Two-thirds of Princeton’s molecular biology majors are female, but 76.2 percent of physics majors are male, reports The Daily Princetonian.

The most female-dominated majors for the class of ’16 are art and archaeology at 92.9 percent, psychology at 87.3 percent and comparative literature at 81.3 percent.

The most male-dominated majors are mathematics at 86.7 percent, philosophy at 77.8 percent and computer science at 77.3 percent. History, politics, sociology, classics, music — and astrophysics — are roughly even.

AP for average students

A Pittsburgh high school is “spreading the AP gospel” to average students, not just the high achievers, reports the New York Times. Brashear High, a school with “middling” performance, is collaborating with the National Math and Science Initiative, to get more students to take AP classes — and pass AP exams.

Brashear has offered A.P. classes in biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, calculus and statistics, but few among the school’s 1,400 students excelled. Last year, of the 159 enrolled in those classes, nearly two-thirds did not even take the tests, which normally cost $89 each. (Because of subsidies by NMSI and the school, the fee this year is as low as $9.)

Just 10 students accounted for the 13 passing scores of 3 or higher. No Brashear student has passed the chemistry exam since 2010, or scored higher than 1 in statistics in the two years that course has been taught.

NMSI uses teacher training, student study sessions and cash incentives to raise test-taking and pass rates.

In the first year of NMSI’s help, the number of passing scores on science and math A.P. exams jumps by an average of 85 percent, according to data from the College Board, which administers the A.P. tests. By the end of the three-year effort, the number has nearly tripled, on average.

Students get $100 for a passing score of 3 or better on the AP exam. The teacher also gets $100 — plus a $1,000 bonus for reaching a target number of passing scores.

Many Brashear students are struggling in rigorous AP classes this year, reports the Times. However, Principal Kimberly Safran has turned down most requests to drop AP. “Parents are beginning to understand that the rigor of the course and having the tenacity to complete the course are important for success after high school,” she said.

Advocates say students don’t have to pass the AP exam to benefit from the challenge.

“We think 20 out of 40 passing physics is better than 10 out of 10,” NMSI’s Gregg Fleisher said. “What typically happens is our pass rate usually stays the same, but the kids that were in class that were passing at 30 percent, now they’ll pass at 50 or 60 percent. And the kids who were never given an opportunity would pass at 20 or 30 percent.”

Teachers learn science so they can teach it

Many elementary and middle-school teachers who teach science didn’t study science much — or at all — in college, reports NPR. Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry offers  monthly science labs for teachers who want ideas, lessons and materials they can use in the classroom.

Teacher Jonathan Fisher, a philosophy major who avoided life science in college but now teaches it to fourth-graders, taught genetics to his class with an activity he learned here.

“The students used Styrofoam blocks and different body parts — so limbs and dowel rods and different-sized eyes — [and flipped] coins to figure out which genes would be passed on to their kids,” he explains. “The classroom couldn’t have been more excited.”

. . . Today, the teachers here at the museum will be given diagrams of cells, petri dishes, bottles of Glo Germ (a lotion that exposes bacteria on hands), and even instructions for a simple incubator that enables students to grow bacteria from their own dirty hands.

There’s little high-quality science teaching in the middle grades, says Andrea Ingram, who oversees education at the Museum of Science and Industry. “We either capture kids’ enthusiasm there, get them committed to science, or we don’t.”

At Sawyer Elementary on Chicago’s Southwest Side, Graciela Olmos is trying out a mechanical engineering lesson that she first saw at the museum.

Students at Sawyer Elementary in Chicago try out a mechanical energy lesson that their teacher learned at the museum's training program.Her eighth-graders roll marbles down incline planes and measure how far the marbles push a little Styrofoam cup.

At the museum, “They model for us, ‘This is how it’s going to look.’ And that’s something that we lack,” says Olmos. 

The school also lacks “science labs with gas lines and sinks.”

Olmos can’t focus strictly on science. “If my specialty is science, well, let it be science,” she says. “Don’t give me so many other things to do aside of that.”

Elementary schools should have science specialists who know their subject, says Joanne Olson, a professor of science education at Iowa State and president of the Association for Science Teacher Education.

‘Children of the Common Corn’


After watching a trailer for Scarlett Johansson’s new sci-fi-ish movie, science teacher Paul Bruno has been coming up with ideas for Hollywood movies on education at #EduFictionMoviePitches.

“The world’s scientists are debilitated by disease; laypeople race against time to cure them using only creativity.”

“By standing in the center of the classroom and filling a pail, a teacher inadvertently summons an ancient evil…”

“Children of the Common Corn”

Eric Horowitz jumped in:

“Futuristic sentient VAM computers go haywire and start trying to kill teachers with low ratings.”

Marc Porter Magee added:

“Minority Report 2. USDOE PreCogs predict bad teacher evals before they happen. PreFire teachers before grades slip.”

There’s more.

ACT: 10% of blacks are ready for college

Most black high school graduates aren’t prepared to succeed in college, according to an ACT study.

Only 10 percent of African-Americans met at least three of the ACT’s four College Readiness Benchmarks in 2013, compared to 39 percent of all graduates who took the test.

Sixty-two percent of African-Americans who started college in 2011 made it to their second year, compared to 73 percent of all  ACT-tested 2011 graduates.

Blacks were somewhat less likely to take a college-prep core curriculum in high school. “While 81 percent of Asian-American students and 71 percent of white students had access to a full range of math and sciences courses, only 57 percent of African American students had full access,” observes Ed Week‘s CollegeBound.

Is the STEM shortage a myth?


On the Big Bang Theory, physicist Sheldon visits neuroscientist Amy in her lab.

The shortage of scientists and engineers is a myth, writes Michael S. Teitelbaum in The Atlantic.  If there were a real shortage, wages would be rising, he writes. To the contrary, “real wages in many—but not all—science and engineering occupations have been flat or slow-growing, and unemployment as high or higher than in many comparably-skilled occupations.”

U.S. students earn mediocre scores on international exams because large numbers of high performers are balanced by lots of low performers, he argues. 

. . . there continues to be a large pool of top science and math students in the U.S. OECD data on “high-performing” students suggests that the U.S. produces about 33 percent of the world total in this category in the sciences, though only about 14 percent in mathematics.

“Every high school graduate should be competent in science and mathematics — essential to success in almost any 21st century occupation and to informed citizenship as well,” he writes. But that doesn’t mean there’s a huge unmet demand for scientists and engineers.  

The STEM shortage myth is a myth, responds Robert D. Atkinson in the Washington Monthly‘s College Guide. Science and engineering graduates are finding jobs — not just in tech-based industries — at higher wages.

As the Brookings Institution’s Jonathan Rothwell shows, the earnings premium for STEM skills (controlling for experience, education and sex) has grown from around 22 percent in 1990 to 30 percent in 2012. Dartmouth’s Matt Slaughter and UC San Diego’s Gordon Hanson found that “the inflation-adjusted wages of major STEM occupations grew over the last decade while real wages for most other U.S. occupations fell.” Hardly evidence of surplus.

STEM shortage denial is rooted in a desire to keep out high-tech immigrants, Atkinson argues.

You can’t go wrong with a computer science major, writes Yahoo’s Rick Newman, looking at PayScale’s 2014 College Report. 

Only two of 288 schools that offer computer science — Indiana University-Purdue and Virginia Commonwealth — produced a return below the median for their graduates. At the top of the scale, meanwhile, more than a dozen computer-science schools returned $1 million or more over 20 years, making this the top-performing field.

By contrast, the return-on-investment for business majors varies depending on the college, he points out. “At nine schools, including Fayetteville State in North Carolina, the University of Montevallo in Alabama and Colorado Mesa University, students studying business actually earned a negative return, according to PayScale. That means they would have done better, on average, if they went to work right out of high school and never spent money on college.”

The earnings data relies on self-reporting, so be wary.

In This is Not Your Father’s STEM Job, Jessica Lahey looks at women who are “forging novel, interdisciplinary, STEM-based careers that blur categories and transcend agenda.”

But are they typical of female STEM workers? Probably not.

Don’t know much about ‘stronomy

Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? One in four Americans gets it wrong, according to a National Science Foundation report.

But the rest of the world doesn’t know science facts either, writes Eleanor Barkhorn in The Atlantic. I’m not sure if the international results are comforting or alarming.

5. Electrons are smaller than atoms

Correct answer: True

The right to nonpolitical homework

Can a teacher require students to be activists? There’s a First Amendment right to nonpolitical homework, concludes the New York Times‘ ethics columnist.

A parent wrote:

For my daughter’s high-school biology class, the students are required to take a public action addressing climate change. They have a wide range of options of what they can do: write a letter to a public official, design a website, develop a public-service announcement or organize a flash mob. They are required to submit proof that they presented their work publicly — that is, that they mailed the letter, launched the website, etc. Is it ethical for the school to require students to speak publicly on a specific issue? Or even to give extra credit for doing so? Does the students’ right to free speech also give them the right not to speak publicly on this topic? KATHARINE LONDON, CAMBRIDGE, MASS.

The teacher can “teach climate change as hard science” without “universal community support,” responds the ethicist. But requiring public support for a divisive idea is not science.

Asking students to create the groundwork for a presentation (letter, website, flash mob) is not unethical, because it’s mostly a way to make students investigate a subject in a less conventional, more practical context. They will understand the ideas with greater depth. It’s a creative means for self-directed education. But forcing them to publicly advocate for that idea is something else entirely. That’s an extension of civics. And if a civics instructor demanded all her students campaign in public for a controversial environmental view that she personally supported, it’s pretty easy to see how this would be a problem. Here again, the issue is not about the subjective accuracy of the concept; it’s about forcing someone without agency to serve as a conduit.

The biology teacher might respond that students could “address” climate change by writing a letter saying it’s all hooey. That would be a brave student. But, even if students were given a real choice about what opinions to voice, mandatory activism is creepy.

And . . . organize a flash mob?

PISA: No U.S. gender gap in math, science

U.S. girls do as well as boys in math and science on the PISA exam, notes Liana Heitin on Ed Week‘s Curriculum Matters.

 In many other countries, the 2012 OECD report notes, “marked gender differences in mathematics performance—in favour of boys—are observed.”

Three years ago, American boys outperformed girls in math on PISA; their science scores were similar.

However, the STEM gender gap hasn’t vanished, reports Erik Robelen.

Take the AP program. In all 10 STEM subjects currently taught and tested, including chemistry, physics, calculus, and computer science, the average scores of females lagged behind males, according to data for the class of 2011.

U.S. girls aren’t as confident as their male classmates, the 2012 PISA report found.

[E]ven when girls perform as well as boys in mathematics, they tend to report less perseverance, less openness to problem-solving, less intrinsic and instrumental motivation to learn mathematics, less self-belief in their ability to learn mathematics and more anxiety about mathematics than boys, on average; they are also more likely than boys to attribute failure in mathematics to themselves rather than to external factors.

Young women are losing ground in computer science, according to Change the Equation: Women earned 18 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computing in 2012, down from 27 percent about a decade earlier. Of those earning a master’s degree in computer science, only 28 percent were female in 2012, compared with 33 percent in 2001.