Stem Education in the U.S. Needs Improvement

Published in UT San Diego, December 9, 2013

Rule No. 331

The Pythagorean theorem — don’t leave home without it.

STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). The future of our innovation economy depends on the next generation’s skills in these fields. And America is not doing so well.

Today, our K-12 students routinely receive low scores on international tests. For example, only 7 percent of U.S. students reached the advanced level in eighth-grade math, while 48 percent of eighth-graders in Singapore and 47 percent of eighth-graders in South Korea reached the advanced level, according to the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Study.

For thoughts on how to improve STEM education, we asked four current Achievement Rewards for College Scientists (ARCS) Scholars. ARCS is a national organization that provides financial stipends to American students seeking degrees in STEM fields. Barbara is a member of the San Diego chapter that recently awarded $405,000 to 57 students from the University of California San Diego, San Diego State University, University of San Diego and the Scripps Research Institute.

Here are their thoughts.

Ludovic Vincent

Ph.D. candidate in bioengineering, UCSD

My experience was that education in U.S. high schools is all about root memorization, regurgitation, and plug and chug problems. One of my greatest disappointments was the lack of the need to really think outside the box. If I did as I was told, I could do well. If I worked just a little harder, this was sufficient to excel. It wasn’t until the Advanced Placement classes like chemistry and physics that I finally had to think about the problems at hand and really use the concepts learned in class to solve more-complicated exercises.

The best aspect of high school that motivated me to follow a career in a STEM field was the lab component. The labs were rigorous and we had to actually apply and execute on concepts. Surprisingly, some of the most capable people (by high school standards) had the hardest time because they actually had to think and apply knowledge, rather than regurgitate it. Other times, the science demonstrations really made the class and the subject “fun.” No one cares about learning the oxidation-reduction reactions in chemistry class but when you toss a pound of pure sodium into water and watch the plume of water vapor formed by the sodium reaction rise 20 feet in the air, red-ox reactions are all of a sudden a lot more real as well as fun.

Demonstration-based, experiment-based learning is what STEM education in K-12 should strive for.

Laura Andersen

Ph.D. candidate, UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering

One main reason that students decide not to pursue a STEM career is that they don’t have strong math reasoning skills. In math education, we need to move away from the “plug and chug” math exercises and focus more on problem formulation and logic. Once you learn these skills, every math exercise becomes easier and easier.

Neil’s note: It is clear that just “getting the right answer” is not the solution to the problem.

George Campbell

Ph.D. candidate, Kellogg School of Science and Technology, Scripps Research Institute

Stronger integration of STEM disciplines such as reading a scientist’s biography in an English course or reading about scientific controversies in an ethics course would encourage interest in and familiarity with STEM disciplines often perceived as difficult and inaccessible. These changes might also enable better communication between the general public and STEM professionals.

Tawni Paradise

Senior, industrial and systems engineering and computer science, USD Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering

I strongly believe that supportive teachers can make a difference, and it can be as simple as telling a student, “You are good at this.” I chose one of my majors after a professor explicitly singled me out after class and told me, “You have the mind for this stuff. You might want to think about a major in computer science.” All students should be required to take STEM courses throughout their K-12 education and should be encouraged. I like to think of it like riding a bike with no training wheels. It’s difficult but with someone behind you supporting the bike, it becomes doable and exciting.

One aspect not mentioned by the students is a simple, economic one. With a STEM background or degree, your job opportunities are greater. It is nice if math can be fun, but as the competition for economic success continues to be global, the importance of mastering STEM skills becomes more apparent.

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