STEM Education: The Pursuit of Excellence and Diversity

Featuring Faculty Guest Blogger Dr. Sharon J. Lynch

Participants in our 10th annual Educational Symposium for Research Innovations (ESRI), or at least those who were lucky enough to wake up early on Saturday morning for the keynote address, had the extra bonus of hearing Dr. Joan Ferrini-Mundy’s superb talk about the National Science Foundation’s commitment to improved STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education at all levels.   The timing of ESRI and of Ferrini-Mundy’s visit was exquisite, coming just a few weeks after President Obama reaffirmed that the state of our union hinges on continued investments in education to meet changing job and skill needs of the coming century. (By the way, major kudos to Professor Rick Jakeman, the faculty supervisor for ESRI, and to Chris Harriss, Student Chair, for pulling off yet another outstanding conference!)

Today I am happy to welcome my first faculty “guest blogger” to this site, Professor Sharon J. Lynch, who is involved in critically important research on STEM education.   Here Professor Lynch reviews preliminary findings from her NSF-funded project.  I urge you to read on for her thoughtful summary, which is not only substantively rich but also is a model for the ways in which GSEHD strives to connect rigorous research to improved policy and practice.

February 25, 2013

Inclusive STEM High Schools: Test Beds for STEM Education Innovation

by Sharon J. Lynch

George Washington University (GSEHD)
Principal Investigator for NSF-funded: Opportunity Structures for Preparation and Inspiration (OSPrI)
(Opinions expressed here are based on early findings and in no way reflect the opinions of the funding agency.)

In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama once again signaled his strong support for STEM-focused high schools (as he did in 2011).  The President pointed out the need for high schools that better prepare students for 21st Century jobs that require technical skills, and singled out , “…P-Tech in Brooklyn, a collaboration between New York Public Schools and City University of New York and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in computers or engineering.  We need to give every American student opportunities like this.”

Our research on inclusive STEM high schools (ISHSs) has found them to be pockets of innovation, inspiration, and hope. Such schools are often born at the grassroots level. But they are catalyzed by accessory public or private funding to spur fresh new thinking about STEM teaching and learning. They break the boundaries between formal and informal education, or secondary and college course sequences, to bring opportunities to students. ISHSs accept students primarily on the basis of interest rather than aptitude or prior achievement to provide the STEM preparation needed for a STEM college major. They provide programs of greater depth and breadth and inspiration than required for high school graduation in their state. ISHSs enroll students through an application process that does not require high test scores. The students who attend these schools include the range of “regular kids”.

We are betting that ISHSs are likely a major policy lever in STEM education because they are test beds for innovative education in the 21st Century.  They may be the game-changer that alters students’ perspectives and develops untapped pools of talent through community based efforts. The missions of ISHSs are aimed at students under-represented in STEM careers such as African American and Hispanic students, or students from low SES backgrounds. These schools also target “first generation” students—those who are the first in their families to attend college. The result should be a net increase of STEM-qualified minority students who can enter the workforce at all levels. ISHSs are public schools of choice; some are charter schools, but most are not. Students and their families choose to attend because they want a more rigorous and engaging high school experience through a focus on STEM subjects. They know that the ISHS offers a variety of experiences and opportunities to students who either want to do STEM, or who understand that their STEM knowledge and skills give them a leg up them to success, no matter what career they eventually choose to pursue. This democratizes STEM.

ISHSs are potentially ubiquitous. The carefully planned and supported ones seem to flourish in rural, urban and suburban communities. Local community resources are gathered around a common vision. These schools can have modest facilities, but use community resources to expand opportunities. If ambitious in vision, the returns can be substantial if the school has community support, from organizations that range from 4H clubs to major corporations. ISHSs require the freedom to hire STEM teachers who have exceptional backgrounds, but who are also willing to innovate and collaborate to achieve the school’s mission.

STEM identities are changed when regular students elect to do STEM.  Minority students come to see STEM knowledge and skills as important and accessible. They become more confident as opportunities open up. They are increasingly engaged in STEM as their knowledge and skills progress. This changes stereotypes about who can do STEM in a healthy way as communities come to see potential in minority students as performers and resources. This holds promise for closing achievement gaps in STEM.

However, a note of caution is important. The ISHSs that we are studying have been carefully selected by expert nomination and prescreening as “exemplar” schools, rather than being randomly picked from the array of schools that label themselves as STEM schools. The goal of our study is to identify the critical components across successful ISHSs to help define a scalable model that can be replicated. While our study is young, it seems clear that ISHSs have the capability of changing up school cultures. They purposefully create and offer opportunity structures to students. Graduates can access a 21st Century economy with the 21st Century skills that will help them to succeed.

February 25, 2013

1 Comment

Filed under Guest Blogger

One response to “STEM Education: The Pursuit of Excellence and Diversity

  1. Pingback: STEM Education and the Condition of American Science | Class Notes

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