Improving STEM Education

Obama’s STEM Initiatives

     Earlier this week, President Obama hosted the second annual White House Science Fair where 100 students were invited to present their research and inventions. The President used the opportunity to speak with students such as Samantha Garvey, who garnered much attention earlier this year after being named a semifinalist in the Intel Science Talent Search, shortly after her family was evicted on New Year’s Eve. Her research focused on predator-prey interactions between an invasive species of Asian shore crab and the ribbed mussel (Geukensia demissa), which is native to Long Island Sound. In her study, she compared the shells of mussels raised in tanks in the absence of crabs and in the presence of crabs that were separated by cages. She found that the mussels that were raised in the presence of the crabs had thicker shells suggesting that the mussels were able to sense the presence of predators and in response produced a thicker shell for defense. President Obama also tested out a marshmallow cannon designed by with Joey Hudy (defense contractors take note!):


President Obama also used the Science Fair as an occasion to highlight his STEM (science, technology, education, and math) education initiatives:

  • A priority on undergraduate STEM education reform in the President’s upcoming budget, including a $100 million investment by the National Science Foundation to improve undergraduate STEM education practices.
  • A new K-16 education initiative jointly administered by Department of Education and the National Science Foundation to improve math education
  • Commitments from private sector groups and coalitions to do more to get students excited about STEM-related
  • New policies to recruit, support, retain and reward excellent STEM teachers, along with an $80 million investment in the President’s upcoming budget tohelp prepare effective STEM teachers.
  • A new $22 million investment from the philanthropic and private sector to complement the Administration’s teacher preparation efforts. (http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2012/02/07/president-obama-hosts-white-house-science-fair)

PISA score results indicate: American 15 year olds are “meh” at science and math

     In an CNN Opinion article published today, former secretary of Education William Bennett writes “Two indicators are particularly worrisome, especially as this country experiences greater global competition and high unemployment. American students score 23rd in math and 31st in science when compared with 65 other top industrial countries. In math, we are beaten by countries from Lichtenstein and Slovakia to the Netherlands and Singapore. In science, we are beaten by countries from New Zealand and Estonia to Finland and Hungary.” Damn those Lichensteinians! The results Bennett cite are from the 2009 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). Conducted by the Paris-based  Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), PISA is a standardized-test that measures literacy in reading, science, and math. Started in 2000, the test is administered worldwide every three years. There are currently 65 member countries.

     The PISA, although well-respected, is not without its critics. Mel Riddile, Associate Director for High School Services of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), has argued that PISA ignores a significant indicator of educational performance: poverty. When Riddile adjusts the scores to take into account poverty levels, students from areas with low povery score very high on the PISA while students from areas with high poverty score fairly low on the PISA. However, Riddile compared “the scores of American schools with comparable poverty rates to those of other countries.” By doing so, Riddile assumes that the poverty rates in other countries is uniform, which is clearly not the case for the US. (Read more about poverty and education.)

Improving STEM education

     In addition to President Obama’s initiatives, William Bennett proposes five ways in which to improve STEM education–the main theme being integration at all levels. Math and science should be integrated earlier in the curriculum. The methods of science and math instruction should also be adopted in other classes to reinforce scientific ways of analysis. He argues that this integration should be carried out at a physical level too, in that science and math classes should not be segregated from the school building and should not be spun off into specialized, magnet/charter schools. Furthermore, students who excel at math and science should remain integrated with the rest of the student body to avoid being seen as different or other associated stigmas. Lastly, Bennett calls for the proper amount of (continuing) training for educators to implement these changes.

Luckily, his proposals did not include performing demonstrations that can go horribly wrong

Read the follow up blog post here.

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