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STEM Gets a Boost From Business

Business leaders are partnering with elementary schools to help increase students’ interest and achievement in STEM.
By Linda Rosen
Principal, November/December 2012
Web Resources

STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math­ematics—has become a fixture of the education debate, and much effort already has been put toward improving student performance. Yet troubling statistics persist: On the lat­est round of testing for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 40 percent of fourth graders nation­wide were found to be proficient in math, and students at all grade levels were especially weak in inquiry-based science.

Business leaders, like education leaders, are acutely aware of what this could mean for the future of our country: Young people might be unprepared for rewarding jobs and the demands of informed citizenship, businesses may not find the talent they need to keep innovating, and the economy may stagnate with too little innovation.

To turn the tide, we must start with math and science in elementary school. Business leaders, understand­ing this, are increasingly partnering with educators and one another to curtail the flow of talent away from STEM-related careers by investing in our nation’s youngest learners. That, in fact, is a major focus of Change the Equation (CTEq), a nonprofit, nonpartisan, CEO-led initiative that is mobilizing the business community to improve the quality of pre-K-12 STEM learning in the United States.

Shared Vision

Business leaders are not in a position to make detailed judgments on best teaching practices or to determine what works best for an individual school with its own unique set of circumstances. However, business and education leaders do share a com­mon vision of excellent teaching and learning in math and science. They know that such teaching and learning inspires and engages young learners, giving them exciting, real-world exam­ples of the application of math and sci­ence. It aligns to business world’s need for people who can apply knowledge and work collaboratively, and it whets students’ appetites for the possibilities inherent in a STEM-based career.

Yet what happens in elementary classrooms often does not match this aspiration. Time for science in the classroom has dwindled, making it difficult for teachers to conduct the project-based learning that can spark interest. Addressing these problems can form the start of a solution. Profes­sional development, hands-on learn­ing, and after-school programming are three tactics that are among the most promising for supporting stu­dents’ performance in STEM.

Professional Development

Business leaders instinctively grasp the need for professional development because they know how important it is to cultivate talent. Professional development is especially critical in elementary school math and science, because elementary teachers tend to lack content knowledge and confi­dence in these subjects. Programs that address this weakness can be effective when they strengthen teachers’ grasp of the content while equipping them to convey it to young students in a way that promotes understanding and prevents misconceptions.

Professional development programs that bolster teachers’ knowledge and confidence can be particularly effec­tive if they strengthen teachers’ grasp of the content while equipping them to convey it to young students in a way that promotes understanding and prevents misconceptions.

Intel Math, which operates in schools across Arizona, California, Illinois, and Connecticut, among other states, is an intensive profes­sional development program for K-8 teachers created by CTEq member Intel. It has increased teachers’ understanding of math and confi­dence in teaching the subject. In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the Merck Institute for Science Educa­tion partners with school districts to deliver science professional develop­ment to educators who serve some 100,000 students. Merck, another CTEq member, provides major sup­port for the initiative, which encour­ages inquiry-based learning in elementary schools.

As elementary principals prepare for Common Core math standards— and perhaps new common science standards down the road—they should look for sustained professional development programs with a clear vision for what teachers should know and be able to do. The best programs also clarify for teachers how this vision can improve their practice. Principals should ask: Does the pro­gram adhere to commonly accepted standards for effective professional development? Is it job embedded?

Hands-On Learning

Businesses also have rallied around programs to bring more hands-on learning into classrooms. Employers need people with the ability to apply knowledge in practical and innova­tive ways, and many say that ability is hard to come by. The problem starts as early as fourth grade, as revealed by the NAEP results. Initiatives such as Engineering is Elementary integrate project-based learning in engineering—the hands-on appli­cation of content in a concrete, problem-solving manner that excites and engages young learners—into science curricula already in schools. The program serves about 2 million students in every U.S. state.

Principals should look for pro­grams that tie engaging and authentic activities to academic con­tent standards. Just as important, they should insist on programs that train teachers to deliver engaging instruction.

After-School Programming

In many schools, finding the time for more engaging, hands-on math and science learning in a tight daily schedule just isn’t possible. In these instances, school leaders can encour­age after-school programming to fill the void. Strong after-school programs in STEM areas often complement and enhance the work of schools. The best of them get students excited about STEM by helping them tackle real-world challenges.

One program that has helped busi­nesses nationwide reach thousands of students each year is the Junior FIRST Lego League, which is active in thou­sands of cities across the country. Like many strong after-school programs, FIRST uses small groups and an infor­mal setting to engage students. Elemen­tary students get the chance to work with adults, including STEM profes­sionals from local businesses, to design, build, test, and program robots before competing against other schools. Ini­tiatives such as these give them the opportunity to apply STEM concepts in a real, tangible, and exciting way. Many scouting clubs, 4-H Clubs, Boys and Girls Clubs and similar programs are increasing their programming in STEM, often with the support of the business community. Principals who are looking for ways to ex tend the cur­rently scarce time for science may want to identify STEM afterschool programs that complement—without mimick­ing—their math and science curricula. Such programs can strengthen stu­dents’ academic foundation while mak­ing STEM fun.

Underserved Populations

No discussion of STEM is complete without touching upon the two popula­tions of historically underrepresented groups. Women and minorities are far less likely than their white, male classmates to major and pursue a career in STEM. Given the demand for STEM skills in the work force, busi­nesses and educators alike realize that they must focus on these two groups specifically—and early—so that they do not squander the needed talent and potential of millions of young people.

Young women and minority stu­dents begin leaking out of the STEM “pipeline” at a young age. Despite little or no difference in performance at the elementary-school level, girls assume that math is for boys as early as second grade. The lack of female STEM role models—only one in four STEM professionals is a woman—only exacerbates this stubborn problem.

The gap between minority students and their white peers presents itself earlier and often is a con­sequence of school and socio-economic context. By fourth grade, black and Hispanic students often are two to three grade levels behind their white peers, and they have less exposure to rigorous content. These opportunity and achievement gaps only widen as students enter middle and high school, so it is imperative that elementary schools provide rigorous classroom instruction and early expo­sure to STEM opportunities that will provide a strong foundation for students as they progress through the education system.

To address these areas of need, many businesses have specially sup­ported programs that focus on young girls and minority students. Such programs as Techbridge Girls and GirlStart, which are in communities across the country, serve elementary girls by exposing them to hands-on STEM-based inquiry in an empower­ing, girl-centric setting. Similarly, a recent initiative by CTEq member companies has brought such pro­grams as FIRST, Intel Math, and Engineering is Elementary to more than 100 new sites that specifically serve low-income, minority students. By increasing these partnerships and opportunities, schools have a greater chance of reaching all students who may become passionate about STEM.

Partnering for Success

Amid all the worry about our elemen­tary students’ math and science performance, it’s easy to forget that elementary students have made big gains in the past two decades. Fourth graders have made the equivalent of several grade levels of progress, and minority students have made the biggest gains of all. This success is a testament to the dedication of educators working with business and other commu­nity leaders to improve the lot of children.

We know from experi­ence that improvement is possible, but we also know just how far we still have to go. Working together, we can brighten the future of millions of American children.

Linda Rosen is chief executive officer of Change the Equation.

Your comments are always welcome, so send us an email at to let us know what you think about this issue.

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