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July 11, 2016

STEM has become the Beyoncè of the curriculum

STEM is steadily earning a place as the dazzling star in the high school curriculum and for good reason. The benefit of high-level science and math courses to later success in college, jobs, and even to healthy living is well-established (see, for example, here and here). But while the importance of STEM is unquestioned, we do risk allowing it to outshine other disciplines that may lack the same predictive value, but in their own unique ways contribute as much to preparing students for productive and fulfilling adulthood.

QueenBeyHow does Beyoncè fit into this? Right now, the Queen Bey touch predicts success like nothing else in popular culture. She drops a surprise album. Billboard gold. An hour-long music video? Three months later, critics still gush about it. She has the president on speed dial. Sure, we will sometimes weep with Adele, get uptown funky, or tell someone to shut up and dance with us. But the spotlight will inevitably draw our eyes back to Beyoncè.

STEM seems to have that same power in education policy discussions, often leaving the humanities and the arts as afterthoughts. This is not to suggest that course-taking in these other subjects are declining. Actually, high school seniors are earning more credits in all subjects. But we also don’t talk about English, history and the arts as much as we do STEM when we call for improving the curriculum.

Why do STEM courses get all the attention? I can think of a couple of reasons. The first is one, we at CPE, probably encourage, albeit not intentionally. Fact is, the evidence in support of high-level science and math is much stronger than it is for courses in other subjects. We therefore point more often to STEM subjects when writing about what works. Everything else gets short shrift by default.

A second possible reason is that the needs of the workforce often drive the conversation about the content of education we provide students. Technical jobs are leading the pack among fastest growing occupations, so we want to make sure our young people are prepared for them.

But the thing is, the research doesn’t necessarily say that STEM courses have more benefits than the humanities. What we do know is that it is easier for analysts to draw a line between science and math curriculum to college and career outcomes, particularly when the analysis is based on course titles. We can infer that a course named Algebra II, for example, is higher level than one called Business Math. But we typically don’t have a similar proxy to distinguish one English 4 course from another.

However, we can look to postsecondary education for some fairly strong hints about the importance of a well-rounded curriculum – one that emphasizes the humanities and arts as much as STEM. After all, exposure to a range of subject matter is an essential ingredient in the development of literacy skills, critical thinking and the ability to solve problems.  Entering college freshmen who lack these abilities are at a serious disadvantage. Barely one-third of freshmen who require remedial reading courses can expect to eventually earn a two- or four-year degree compared to 45 percent of students requiring remedial math and 56 percent who do not take any remedial courses at all.

Those who make it through continue to be served well by a broad-based general education along with their major. A session at the recent Aspen Ideas Festival specifically addressed business majors’ need for the liberal arts. One of the panelists cited a 2014 study from the Collegiate Learning Assessment – a national college assessment of critical thinking and writing – that found “business, health, and education majors substantially underperformed students in the humanities, sciences, social sciences and engineering” as seniors, even after controlling for students’ abilities’ levels when entering college. Rachel Reiser in the business school at Boston University went on to say that the skills businesses want include attributes developed through the liberal arts — “the ability to think, the ability to write, the ability to understand the cultural or historical context of whatever business decision they’re making.”

The evidence for the humanities and arts may not be as compelling as it is for STEM in high school, but I think it’s enough to make the case for giving them a prominent place in the curriculum. And let’s not forget that college and career readiness is just one part of public schools’ mission. We also want graduates to be prepared to be good citizens and enjoy satisfying lives. Beyoncè will still command our attention. But let’s leave room for some others, too, who we can love just as much.

May 8, 2013

Blinding us with science

Nanophysicists, as their name suggests, spend their days looking at really tiny stuff — atoms, electrons and other particles whose smallness can hardly be imagined by most of us non-nanos. Now IBM scientists have given us a glimpse of their microworld in what is billed as the World’s Smallest Movie. The plot may leave a lot to be desired, but that’s not why the one and a half minute film has been downloaded more than three million times in just the last week.  The film, “A boy and his atom,” is a stop action portrayal of a boy playing that was made by moving individual atoms one at a time and magnifying the image by a factor of 100 million. See for yourself.


[An interesting sidenote: Ray Harryhausen — one of the great pioneers of stop action film technique — died yesterday at the age of 92]

Making atom movies is not really an item in the IBM team’s job description. The scientists are actually working on vastly increasing data storage capacity in smaller devices. Last year, they found a way to reduce the number of atoms required to store one bit of digital information from one million to 12. That’s not a typo. But as their website says, “even nanophysicists need to have a little fun.”  That wasn’t the only motivation for producing this film. Looking ahead to a future workforce, IBM hopes that it will get more students excited in science.

That’s certainly one of the goals of the Next Generation Science Standards, the final draft of which was released in mid-April.  The Next Gen standards are intended as a companion to the common core state standards.  The initiative was led by Achieve, Inc., which was also a key player in drafting the common core and directs the PARCC consortia developing aligned assessments.  It further involved twenty-six so-called lead states and was privately funded.

The final standards have been endorsed by the business community, science teachers and others.  Some earlier critics like the Fordham Institute have been more muted in their comments and are withholding judgment until the integration with the common core is completed. Nonetheless, many agree that they improve on current science standards in most states by defining a coherent K-12 program, emphasizing science practice alongside content, and not shying away from sensitive topics like evolution and climate change.

I was privileged to have a small part in an earlier science standards-setting effort called Project 2061 that was led by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Then and now, my number one criterion for reviewing standards is: do they make me wish I could be a student again? Project 2061 definitely did that. To the degree that the Next Gen standards will demand more science, particularly at the elementary level, and encourage children’s curiosity about exploring the world, they are a definite move in the right direction. However, like Fordham, I am waiting to see more before making a final call.

The next gen standards can be downloaded for free. Be aware the format requires some perseverance on the part of the reader.

And talking about being excited about  science … below is a photo of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson who wowed 5,000 attendees at NSBA’s annual conference in April. Dr. Tyson showed us that in relation to the cosmos, we are as tiny as the “boy and his atom” are to us. A great advocate for science research and education, he inspired everyone to make sure their students are encouraged to explore and imagine. And not just because our nation needs scientifically literate workers and citizens. But also because our students need a little fun, too.


February 8, 2013

When ‘academic freedom’ really means ‘bad science’

Several state legislatures have introduced variations of a so-called “Academic Freedom Act” that purports to encourage openness and critical thinking in science classrooms. To critics of these laws — which include virtually every scientific professional organization and a slew of Nobel laureates — it is a thinly veiled effort to insert unscientific ideas into the science curriculum.

Similar bills have already been voted into law in a few states including Tennessee and Louisiana, and are pending in Arizona, Oklahoma among others. An attempt to introduce one in Colorado failed to make it out of committee. Among those testifying against it were our friends at the Colorado Association of School Boards.  The bills have different names but the language is surprisingly the same: they call on schools to “help students develop critical thinking skills necessary to become intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed students” and specifically name the teaching of “scientific subjects, such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”

There’s a reason for the uniformity: the model language for these acts originated with the Discovery Institute, a think tank that promotes “intelligent design.”  Intelligent design is an attempt to bring scientific legitimacy to the idea that a supreme hand was behind the origin of the universe and it should therefore be allowed to be taught in public schools.  Yet this notion was famously shot down by the 2005 Kitzmiller v Dover court decision that ruled intelligent design  “is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism” and has no place in the science classroom. And although the courts have allowed for other origin explanations like Intelligent Design to be taught in humanities courses, there remains a push to treat them as another scientific theory.

The new bills try to circumvent Kitzmiller through re-purposing. They don’t explicitly call for teaching intelligent design alongside evolution. Rather they propose to protect “academic freedom” and promote “critical thinking” in public school science classes. The bills further assert that the provisions “must not be construed to promote religious or nonreligious doctrine.”  Yet the specific inclusion of evolution and global warming as “scientific controversies” belies their words.

To be absolutely clear, there is no scientific controversy on these issues. There is plenty of political and ideological controversy, however.  How these topics are presented, then, means a lot when the goal is to develop scientifically literate students.

I wrote about this science-ideology conflict as it relates to evolution in the September 2012 American School Board Journal. The main point I make is that a scientific theory is not just an opinion or educated guess, but must meet rigorous standards of scientific evidence. Other such theories include plate tectonics and the idea that living things are made of cells, although these do not seem to be controversial to anyone.

Global warming has been debated for years, and not just in the political arena. Scientists have also disagreed on certain aspects. But the science community overwhelming agrees that the planet is warming and that human activity is at least partly to blame.  The University of Illinois-Chicago surveyed earth scientists in 2008 on these questions. Of the over 3,000 who responded, 90 percent agreed that “global temperatures have generally risen” compared to pre-1800s levels, and 82 percent reported that “human activity is a significant contributing factor.”  The consensus among those who specialize in climate science was even stronger:  96.2 percent agreed that temperatures are rising and 97.4 percent agree on the question of humans’ contribution.

The fact that the response is not 100 percent is all the evidence climate-change deniers need to argue that there is a scientific debate, and that the domination of climate change-accepters in the discipline is somehow a sign of academic bias. But such thinking is itself a denial of the scientific zietgeist with its emphasis on skepticism and questioning as a guard against bias.

Better for me to let astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson explain:

Filed under: instruction,national standards,Public education — Tags: , , — Patte Barth @ 8:00 am

May 11, 2012

NAEP science: gaining ground, but a long way to go

Eighth-graders in 2011 did better in science than their counterparts did two years before. Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) science assessment improved for every racial, ethnic and income group and achievement gaps are narrower. That’s the good news. But there’s still a long road ahead to proficiency, especially for Black, Latino and low-income middle-schoolers. 

NAEP overhauled the science assessment in 2009, so it’s not possible to compare current performance to tests administered before then. But between 2009 and 2011, overall scores increased 2 points which is pretty good for a relatively short period of time. However, while nearly two thirds (65 percent) performed at the basic level or better, only a third (32 percent) met proficiency. As Jim Hull argues in his paper on NAEP performance levels, “proficient” is an aspirational level and basic should not be interpreted as weak. Even so, we should aspire to have more than one third of students proficient.

The lion’s share of the gains were produced by traditionally under-performing groups of students. The proportion of Black and Hispanic eighth-graders moving from below basic to basic and better — 4 and 5 percentage points respectively — was greater than for their White classmates, who improved by 2 points.  Likewise, low-income students gained more than more affluent students, even though both groups did better. This is the pattern we hope for and is necessary to closing achievement gaps:  everyone improves and the low-performing groups improve the most.

But make no mistake, those gaps still loom large. Eighty percent of White eighth-graders scored at basic or above compared to 37 percent of Black and 48 percent of Hispanic students. This means that most Black and Hispanic students are not even at the basic level in science.  Low-income students are in a similar place.

So although we’re moving the right direction, we need to find ways to accelerate these gains. Fortunately, NAEP gives us some insights into what to do.  NAEP analysts found that eighth-graders who were assigned hands-on science activities at least once or twice weekly performed significantly higher than their classmates who did them once or twice a month or less.  Likewise, students who frequently collaborated on science projects did better than those who did so rarely or never.

You can find the full report and your state results here. — Patte Barth

Filed under: Data,Report Summary,science,Testing — Tags: , , — Patte Barth @ 11:59 am

February 24, 2012

Putting the spotlight on our future inventors

According to a recent Huffington Post article, President Obama wanted a special light shined on the recent White House Science Fair winners. The winners had extremely creative and innovative ideas.

Students from Detroit’s The Paul Robeson/Malcolm X Academy designed an energy efficient city, while eighth grade students from Monroeville, Alabama developed and marketed a robot to heighten their understanding of business and engineering. Another student from Phoenix has already started his own small business selling Extreme Marshmallow Cannons and LED Cube Microcontroller Shield kits.  Other inventions include a telepresence robot that allows senior citizens to connect to family members via Skype. There was also a portable disaster relief shelter complete with renewable energy source for an LED light, and water purification system. A team of Girl Scouts developed a prosthetic arm that enabled a young girl to write. Another young CEO developed dissolvable sugar packets and created a business selling them.

It is truly an incredibly talented group of students. Perhaps these innovative ideas do more then just address a need in our society. They also highlight the importance of providing a curriculum that allows students to think outside the box. Most of these science project winners have some prerequisite understanding of science on a deeper level, but it also appears that they were supported a great deal with their endeavors.

President Obama talked about not wanting to ignore students who may be leaders of this country in the next 30 years. It makes me wonder: how many creative projects around the country do not receive enough light? What happens in schools where creativity isn’t fostered, but instead suppressed? I would be curious to see what kinds of support these student groups received in developing their projects overall.  

I believe more of this kind of acknowledgement needs to happen on a national level. More student achievements need to be highlighted and out of the box thinking needs to be encouraged. How can we prepare students for change? I really believe these students were able to identify a need and come up with solutions. How can we as teachers, parents, and policy makers continue to help students grow and feel prepared tomeet demands with innovative ideas and solutions? —Joyti Jiandani

Filed under: 21st century education,technology — Tags: — Jim Hull @ 3:25 pm

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