The seriousness of the crisis in US STEM education is illustrated by this statistic from the National Academy of Engineering.
While 21 per cent of undergraduate degrees in Asia are awarded in some form of engineering, this falls to 11 per cent in Europe and just 4 per cent in the USA. The country is not just failing to ‘catch ‘em young’, it is on a path where it is almost failing to catch potential graduates at all - with dire implications for the economy.
It is in this context that the National Research Council (broadly equivalent to The Royal Society) has just published a review of science teaching strategies from kindergarten to high school, its first in more than a decade. This addresses the perceived shortcomings via a series of broad, bold and even familiar strokes.
Perhaps the most striking is a call to put engineering-based concepts at the forefront of how a curriculum is structured. The thinking behind this is straightforward. Far too many kids struggle to understand abstract science concepts, so why not link them to real-world applications? Show them how science works, so they’ll understand why it matters and be willing to learn more about it, whatever their plans for adult life.
Many of you will read that and detect motherhood and apple pie wafting from the surface of the page. And fair enough. The idea is hardly new. But the NRC has now come up with a skeleton framework for its introduction and development.
First, they want to move science curricula to four disciplinary areas: physical sciences; life sciences; earth and space sciences; and engineering, technology and the applications of science.
“Engineering and technology are featured alongside the natural sciences for two critical reasons: to reflect the importance of understanding the human-built world and to recognise the value of better integrating the teaching and learning of science, engineering and technology,” the report says.
Second, the authors want to shift course content away from ‘breadth over depth’ (shorthand for curricula that seek to teach a little bit about a lot of things). Instead it proposes teaching based on tightly selected practical demonstrations and experimentation that are linked by ‘cross-cutting concepts’ which apply to all the disciplinary areas. These concepts might include “cause and effect” and “stability and change”.
The idea is to equip students with the basics of the scientific method, the ability to approach science and engineering (and arguably life in general) through a series of best practices. These include “asking questions and defining problems”, “analysing and interpreting data”, “constructing explanations” and “designing solutions”.
This is still high level stuff. In the US, individual states retain much control over specific curriculum content, so you need to start with something that can be further developed in conjunction with those devolved educators. For now though, the feeling within both the science and education communities is that this framework does represent a way forward that is easy to buy into and promote more widely. It is also, going back to the NAE data, well overdue.
The real challenge ahead is likely to be one of cost. Initial publication of the NRC report was overshadowed by Washington’s inane and destructive spat over the debt ceiling. However, that farce still serves to remind us that budgets are ludicrously tight and these ideas will obviously carry a cost. The key point may be whether American educators and their overlords are willing to think long-term. One has some faith that may be true for the former; but still plenty of doubts when it comes to the latter.