STEM Education's National Moment

01/23/2013 06:52 pm 18:52:41 | Updated Mar 25, 2013

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly) hosted 400 students on its downtown Brooklyn campus. It's of course not unusual for a university to invite young people to its campus; only, these students were 9 to 14 year olds. They came with parents, teachers and other important adults in their lives. And robots: that they researched, designed, built and programmed.

It was the 'Brooklyn Qualifier' for FIRST Lego League. 42 teams competed to advance in this national robotics program, which NYU-Poly sponsors in New York City as one in a suite of programs designed to increase access to and the opportunity for high quality K-12 STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.

In microcosm, many of the things we find effective in K-12 STEM education are evident here -- it's hands-on, activity based, promotes teamwork, involves mentors and allows young people to engage with STEM in ways as varied as building, programming and research. These elements are critical to high quality STEM education programs; it also points to one of several constructive roles for STEM institutions of higher education in advancing the causes of opportunity and access.

We also focus on developing lessons, curriculum and techniques that bring together STEM disciplines, concepts, and learning standards through creative hands-on projects, demonstrations and experiments. We have found that the concept of 'engineering as the application of science and technology' is a powerful lens for young people through which to view -- and truly appreciate -- the rules of the natural world.

An example: in our National Science Foundation (NSF) supported GK-12 Fellows Program, we now work intensively with 27 Brooklyn public schools, about 40 teachers and over 1,500 K-12 students. In this project, graduate students from diverse STEM disciplines are paired with K-12 teachers to develop and teach STEM lessons, based on the research and applied science they practice; these students are scientists and engineers "in residence" at schools. By June of this year, we will have launched three new STEM education programs in 12 months. Demand is very high among schools, teachers, after-school programs.

And, obviously, NYU-Poly is hardly alone here. Many other universities, organizations, associations and the like are defining the cutting edge of contemporary science education. And the field is clearly having its national moment; if everyone from the president on down talking about it isn't evidence enough, just click the STEM Education tag on this website for a primer on the diverse voices insisting that access to high quality STEM education may be the nation's most important priority.

There are good reasons for this. In STEM, the medium truly is the message. What we see in schools, partnerships and programs that are doing this work well is what we want for students everywhere: education is interdisciplinary, applied through projects and experiments, and intentionally taught to show students how to bring together knowledge and skills to investigate, learn, and solve problems. Inherent in this kind of inquiry is the need to develop the personal qualities of persistence and resilience, key attributes for learning. STEM is creative: whether that's expressed through designing and building an experimental apparatus or as art rendered with 3D printing or in digital media. And it's authentic, reflecting the practices of scientists and engineers that draw on many disciplines, using technology and real equipment to make discoveries and products.

As Common Core becomes the norm in schools, STEM education should be the glue that binds -- an anchor of integrated curriculum; a vehicle to higher order thinking; a way to assessments that demonstrate students have brought together new content knowledge and skills to arrive at and discuss sound conclusions. If students can manipulate the rules of science and math to build things that work as predicted, it's a strong sign that education is happening.

Next Generation Science Standards, we hope, will raise the bar for schools even higher. But the reality is that most schools and teachers are unprepared. Ask a principal how she intends to address the engineering embedded in NGSS and the discussion (immediately) turns to something like 'who's going to teach that?'. It's a good question. While all the great organizations and institutions that create and run "best-practice" programs for schools, teachers and kids can and will do more, democratizing access to high quality STEM education and preparing all our young people for the opportunity to choose higher education and careers in these fields requires tremendous scale and the systems to match.

In this period of STEM education having its national moment, so much great work has been done and new knowledge accumulated. I know that through these existing programs and others we've changed the path for a lot of kids and created opportunity for intellectual and personal achievement, which they've seized with zeal. The important next step is to move from the programmatic to the systematic, both to make this possible for all young people and to make sure we put what we know to work.