Over the course of the last year everyone from economists to politicians have begun to discuss a concern that educational researchers have seen on the horizon for decades: the low numbers of youth who are engaged in the sciences and the need for increased attention to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education. With the release of a report from the Department of Commerce announcing that STEM jobs grew at three times the rate of non-STEM jobs, and offer higher pay, the fact that there is such a low interest in STEM is an interesting conundrum. If STEM careers are high-paying, and more available, why aren't we creating more scientists?
In response to the issues surrounding STEM recruitment and engagement, President Obama has pushed the issue of STEM education to the forefront of the national debate. Across the political spectrum, there has been increased lip service to supporting K-12 science initiatives, transforming STEM education, and focusing on getting "minority" populations more engaged in STEM.
Despite these efforts, much research in urban science education has proven that youth are more disengaged than ever in STEM-focused classes. Students are bored, don't find the topics being discussed as engaging, and opt for majors and interests in other disciplines. For those who are engaged in science classes, and are doing well in them, the nature of the instruction and the assessments often reflect more of an ability to memorize facts and sit attentively than truly actually engage in science. For these students, when they are faced with "true science" further along in their academic careers, they are underprepared for the creativity, analytical skills, and curiosity necessary to truly engage and be successful.
While the paragraphs above show that the future of STEM in the United States is grim, we need to target some specific reasons why this is the case, and figure out what we as parents, educators, and concerned citizens can do about it. In response, I have outlined five major reasons for why youth, particularly youth of color who populate most urban schools, are not likely to have careers in the STEM disciplines, and what we can do about it.
1) We have instilled the phrase "I'm not good at math or science" into a new generation.
One of the most amazing discoveries I have found is that STEM majors almost always have at least one scientist in the family, usually a parent. They become interested in STEM because they see examples of STEM-minded careers in their own lives. For these people, being a scientist seems natural. However, in too many homes, the phrase "I'm not good at math and science" or "science is hard" have become part of everyday conversation. In fact, they have become part of the national lexicon. When children get this message, they internalize it, and start to believe it.
The reality is that all youth have the potential to be the "best and brightest" and can do well in STEM areas. A big part of the battle is allowing them to see that this is possible earlier in life. Instead of saying "science is hard," consistently use phrases like, "science is exciting" or "I wish I had a chance to learn science again." As adults, realize that your inability to do well in science when you were a student may have been a result of the way it was taught to you, and not your inability to do well in the discipline. Science is truly for all, and the best way to articulate that to your student/child is to say it consistently, and begin learning with them.
2) Science is taught in a way that is opposite to what it truly is.
In too many cases, science teachers see science as an exclusive club only for the "best and brightest" students. Consequently, the subject is taught to purposefully "weed out" students who may actually have the skills to do well in the discipline. This weeding out process supports kids who are quiet, take notes, and memorize well, and alienate those who think deeply, question, and are creative. In both of these cases, we are not likely to create excellent scientists. Rather, we are sending potential scientists to other disciplines, and supporting the others with skills that actually won't help them in a STEM career. In response, it is imperative that the inquisitive and artistic nature of science is shared with all students.
When your child consistently comes home with science homework that is mostly comprised of info to memorize, or definitions to write down, remember that this is completely against the way science truly is. When this happens, find out how science is being taught in the school. Make a demand for hands on science, and most importantly, conduct mini-experiments and models at home. There are free resources online that can teach you how to do this.
3) Science has lost the "cool factor" and kids have no "science heroes."
One major way to get young people to like a subject is to make it appealing. For children, it is much more about seeing something as exotic, approachable, and just as cool as anything else.
Unfortunately, we have failed in this department. Consequently, a great number of students are turned off to science. GQ magazine attempted to address the cool factor in science a few years ago by having scientists pose with rock stars. This was actually a decent first step, and is one that requires a more long-term focus. Unfortunately, black and white pictures of our "great science minds" that are very rarely women or people of color do not have the cool factor of the more modern heroes that other disciplines promote.
For the parent, it is possible to create science heroes in your home. An Internet search of scientists that are like your child (race, gender, background) and presenting them as heroes goes a long way. Buy a book the scientist has authored. Take a picture with them at a book talk. Make a collage or poster of the scientist and display it in your home. Redefine what the heroes are, and who is cool, and reverse the bleak future of a STEM specialist.
4) We don't focus on current issues in the discipline.
In an age where scientific discoveries abound, where ideas are shifting rapidly, kids have no idea what is going on in the world of science. There is a general misconception that everything that there is to know has already been discovered. Consequently, youth see science as old, and not relevant. In response, I suggest that both teachers and parents have to focus on science as it is happening now. Use natural disasters, the energy crisis, and other topics that may seem more in the realm of social studies directly into science at home.
5) Good grades in science will not make you a scientist.
For many readers, the title of this piece seems upsetting, or not relevant to their child/student. Many believe that their child is doing well, is learning, and getting great grades. Unfortunately in too many cases, those children who are "doing well" are memorizing, not thinking critically and end up being successful with grades, but unprepared for college level science. The statistics of students who go into college and then leave the discipline over the course of their four years in college is staggering. In too many of these cases, high grades, and science awards in high school do not prepare them for the reality of what it takes to do well in STEM.
Being a scientist, and having success in STEM requires passion, resilience, curiosity, analytical skills, creativity, collaboration, and very often those can be fostered at home as well as in school, but are rarely reflected by merely a good grade in a science class.