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Report identifies critical areas for K-12 STEM improvement

There is a general consensus among education experts in the United States that the K-12 public school system faces critical challenges when it comes to improving the teaching and learning of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects. A solid background in STEM knowledge is not only essential to successful careers in science and engineering, but is also a way for the general public to be engaged in an increasingly complex world of science-based issues - from understanding the causes of global warming to having a basic understanding of evolutionary theories.

The weaknesses in the current way of teaching STEM subjects have recently been addressed by Congress through Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), who requested the National Research Council (NRC) write a report to identify the characteristics of highly successful K-12 STEM schools and programs.

The report, entitled "Successful K-12 STEM Education," was prepared by a committee of educators in order to examine successful STEM-focused schools and to carry out a broader base of research related to effective STEM education practices.

The report offers two areas of recommendation, which are summarized below:

  1.   School districts seeking to improve STEM education should:

   -   Consider the adoption of STEM-focused schools. The report identifies three potential models:
          ·  Selective STEM Schools for academically talented students who need to apply for admission
          ·  Inclusive STEM high schools, often referred to as "magnet schools"
          ·  Schools and programs with STEM-focused career and technical education
   -  Devote adequate instructional time and resources to science in grades K-5
   -  Ensure that their STEM curricula are focused on the most important topics in each discipline
   -  Enhance the knowledge, training, and professional development of K-12 teachers
   -  Provide teachers with instructional leaders to help them create the school conditions that best support student achievement

2.    Policy makers at the state and national levels should:

   -  Elevate science to the same level of importance as reading and math
   -  Develop effective systems of assessment that emphasize science practices rather than factual recall
   -  Invest in a coherent, focused, and sustained set of support for STEM teachers

This report is long overdue. Having been involved in the AAAS/SSE STEM volunteer program for the past two years, I can confirm that the science curriculum in most schools does not stimulate excitement among students. The system is too focused on testing protocol and not enough on teaching the subject matter in an interesting and creative way.

Our volunteer program is intended to put the students in contact with experienced scientists and engineers in order to provide them with insights into the outside world of science and technology. However, as volunteers there is only so much we can do in the limited time we are in front of the students. Unfortunately, science teachers, though enthusiastic, don't have the experience to relate the subject matter to real-world applications of science.

The recommendations outlined in this NRC report should go a long way to improving the way K-12 STEM subjects are taught. However, a word of caution: For this plan to work, it has to be embraced by all stakeholders, including school districts, schools, parents, and the teachers themselves. Without the support of all these community partners, the study's recommendations are doomed to  fail. Many commissioned reports have been brimming with good ideas, but a failure of implementation has followed. We can hope—and work—for better.

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