Improving the quality of STEM education in our schools

Computer Science For All. Were you aware this was a federal government program?

It was announced by the White House January 30, 2016, over four years ago (see the full announcement here). The initiative appropriated $4B for states and $100M directly to school districts to expand computer science in grades K-12 for, among other things, “training teachers, expanding access to high-quality instructional materials, and building effective regional partnerships. It would seem that such a program would have an impact on the types of courses offered at the high school level and below.

Well, my daughter recently chose the classes she wanted to take for her senior year of high school here in Southern California. I looked over the classes offered. Do you know how many computer science, technology, robotics, or other classes that may require programming?

Zero.

That’s right, zero.

Over the last four years, I haven’t seen any changes in the computer offerings at the high school my kids have attended. If anything, it’s gotten worse over the last 10 years. My oldest daughter may have had more choices when she selected classes back in 2010. There may, and I emphasize may, have been one class offered back then.

I give credit to the White House for making an effort. Saying you are going to do something is a start. Mandating it means more, but it’s still not enough. To effect change, you need to measure results and enforce accountability. As we all know, you get what you measure.

So how do we improve the quality of STEM education in our K-12 system?

Why does it matter?

Before tackling how we fix it, the first question we need to ask is why should we fix it?

The modern economy is driven by technology. There is an abundance of good paying job and career opportunities in the STEM fields. When kids aren’t exposed to these fields and the available opportunities, they choose other areas of study. For example, two of my children were not exposed to computer science while in high school or middle school. With some prodding from me, they took their first CS classes in college, discovered they liked it, and have since done well. However, they had to catch up. They were far behind their peers who had taken classes in high school, or self taught themselves. If they hadn’t tried the field, who knows what they would have ended up doing.

Second the strength of our economy depends on having an available and trained workforce. Many businesses, both large and small, have turned to the H1-B visa program to hire qualified workers. Some say this is done for cost purposes, but I would contend it is because there are not enough available citizens who are learning these skills. We are being outdone by other countries, and then having to rely on them to provide the skilled workers we need.

For our country and its businesses to stay competitive on a global scale, especially small businesses and technology start-ups, we need to have a sufficient number of trained individuals coming out of college with STEM degrees. Waiting until these kids get to college and hoping they choose these degrees is not a recipe for success. Students need to be exposed to the STEM fields early in their education. Will all of them choose it? Of course not. As with any field, some will not have the aptitude, and other won’t like it. They won’t know, though, unless they try.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting everyone needs to be a computer science major, engineer, math whiz, or scientist. In fact, there’s shortages of qualified individuals in other vital fields such as the trades like carpentry, plumbing, electrical, and pipe-fitting. What I’m saying is that we need to provide the opportunities to all students so they can choose the path they want to pursue. The earlier students can discover their interest, the better. They will be better prepared heading into college. They will be better prepared entering the workforce. They will be better prepared to compete on a global scale.

The suggestions

While mandates at the federal government level are nice, they worry me. Too much money gets lost in the bureaucracy. It rarely trickles down to where it needs to go, or only a fraction makes it to the desired destination.

Instead of issuing grandiose mandates and pledging millions of dollars, I believe there are simpler and more direct actions that could be taken at the school district level.

  1. Redirect spending, starting with academics over athletics
    The athletic budgets for high school sports is absurd. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent annually on football, basketball, soccer, baseball, softball, volleyball, wrestling, track and field, and more. When I was in school over 30 years ago, these were considered extra-curricular activities. They were done after school. Now they are given class periods, class periods that could be used for learning.

    Spending money on STEM materials does not need to be a costly endeavor. Raspberry Pi computer kits are available for $25. Arduino kits are available for $50-$60. 3D printing machines have come down in price to hundreds of dollars which can be shared among multiple students. Cheap laptops and chromebooks, which students use for other classes, are all that is required to teach basic programming skills.

    Bottom line, it’s pretty sad when I learned more about computers programming on Radio Shack TRS-80 computers back in the eighties than my kids are getting to do in the present day. The technology has advanced, the education has not.

  2. Commit to training teachers
    Districts need to commit and make the effort to train or hire teachers to teach these classes. It’s not an easy task, but with the right level of focus, it can be done. There are many individuals who have led successful careers in industry that may find it rewarding to give back, and existing teachers in the science and math fields may find it interesting to expand their skill set if given the right opportunity and motivation.

  3. Emphasize hands-on teaching methods
    As mentioned above, the materials needed to provide a hands-on education are cheap, and getting cheaper. The focus needs to be hands-on and less on theoretical, PowerPoint presentations. Students should enjoy the process and get to see the end result of their learning. They should experience first hand how the technology works, how much fun (and challenging) it can be to work with, and pique their interest so they are encouraged and want to learn more on their own.

  4. Change the measurement criteria
    Possibly one of the biggest impediments to changing STEM education at the K-12 level are standardized test, as pointed out in the article from 2015. Because of how funding is allocated, schools and teachers are focused on having students do well on standardized tests. They focus on these test scores at the expense of a proper education. I’ve seen it first hand. In some cases, once the testing is done, many teachers simply shut down their instruction. Until standardized test are either de-emphasized, or changed to reflect the skills required in our modern economy, schools will not have an incentive to change the types of classes they offer students.

At some point, change needs to happen. Personally, I don’t think it’s going to come from the top down. It’s requires a champion at the administration and faculty levels to make it happen. People at the ground level need to stand up and take action. Until that happens, our students’ preparedness to compete in the critical STEM fields at a global level risks falling further behind, hurting the competitiveness of our economy. And as the competitiveness of our economy falls behind, our standing on the global stage will suffer along with it.