Education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is already essential for the modern citizen. In the future, it will likely be even more important. However, the U.S. is not doing as well as it could be in providing a STEM education to its teenage students. A 2009 report from Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) ranked U.S. 15-year-olds as 18th and 13th in mathematics and sciences, respectively. This news is especially somber because only 34 nations were assessed by PISA, and many of them are far less wealthy than the U.S.
The problem was noticed long before the 2009 PISA assessment, however. Concerns in the early part of the century resulted in the 2006 Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Initiative. This initiative aims to provide better training for teachers and more access to high-quality STEM education for students. The focus of the initiative is on applied STEM topics, the very skills that will be required to train the scientists, mathematicians, engineers and technicians of the future.
Even before the STEM Initiative, many schools had made their own efforts to improve education in these areas. However, the initiative made it possible for both new and existing schools to obtain funding for STEM education. Help from business and government funding enabled many schools to provide a greater focus on STEM topics and ensure that their graduates were conversant in these essential fields.
Because the focus on STEM education was new, schools also pioneered new and innovative methods of teaching to see what effect they had on student success. Smaller classrooms of no more than 10-12 students and a computer for each were debuted. The use of Skype, video conferencing and electronic textbooks brought technology into the curriculum at many high schools.
Support for those who had the ability but not the financial means to continue a STEM-related education was also created. A Washington state program that provided scholarships to students who scored highly on the STEM sections of state or college entrance tests is one such offering. In return for the scholarship funding, the students had to agree to pursue a STEM major in college and work for a Washington-based company within the field for a given period after graduation.
Innovation was only part of the push for better STEM education, though. Solid improvement in the fields required several basic elements, such as well-trained teachers, appropriate curricula, and meaningful assessments. Improving the number of specially trained teachers, student access to integrated-technology classrooms, and encouraging interactive, inquiry-based learning were all important parts of the STEM Initiative.
Schools can and have become STEM-designated institutions by meeting certain educational requirements. This designation can bring access to significant funding from government and business sources. What constitutes a STEM-designated school depends on the state, however. Federal regulations outlined the basic idea, but each state made its own rules regarding what exactly was required.
The designation was based on a number of factors, but considerable weight was placed on teaching methodology and curricula. Some STEM-designated schools came into being as entirely new schools, designed from the ground up to meet these requirements. Others shifted their existing methodology and curricula to be more in line with those required to become STEM-designated.
There is solid national support for the STEM Initiative from most corners. However, some people believe that the focus of the program is too narrow and could be an idea latched onto by government and business officials in an attempt to bolster the economy. Concerns from these critics include the idea that an extreme focus on STEM education may result in too many qualified people for the STEM careers of the future.
The critical assessments of the STEM Initiative by a few are unlikely to influence the overall forward momentum of the program. State and national governments continue to push for more STEM-designated schools and put aside money to fund these efforts. The hope is that the combined efforts of governments and businesses will improve the state of math and science education for U.S. students.
PISA’s 2009 evaluation is the latest assessment until its updated 2013 release. The assessment is done every three years and released the following year; hence, sometime in 2013, the 2009-2012 data will be available. All eyes, both supportive and critical, are focused on the results of this assessment in the hopes that it will provide a measure of how the STEM Initiative has worked out for U.S. students.