Is STEM Critical To The Future Of Education?

Innovators, builders, inventors and great leaders see something that is broken as an opportunity to create. Rather than attempt to fix a problem or plug up the holes, they envision something completely new. They imagine the results or qualities that would exist in an ideal world, then design a product, process or complete social system that delivers on that ideal.

When Samuel Morse wanted to send a message farther and faster, he did not just buy a faster horse. He invented the electrical telegraph. When Henry Ford needed to keep up with the growing demand for cars, he did not go bust hiring more workers. He imagined, then implemented, the assembly line.

That is what the Colorado Legacy Foundation (CLF) is working to do for the future of education. A lot of people have their favorite fix for the country’s public education system – more choice, more money, more professional development, more robust assessments, higher standards through the Common Core, improved access to and use of technology. They have a can-do attitude that says, “If it’s broken, let’s fix it.”

stem future of educaitonThe CLF as well as a growing cadre of business and community leaders are elevating the thinking to say, “If it’s broken, let’s start by defining what a successful education looks like, then create that.”

During more than a year of delving into “fixes” like project-based learning, extended school days, blended learning and more, the CLF has simultaneously been collaborating with, and learning from, business and community leaders to define what a successful graduate and future contributor to Colorado businesses and neighborhoods looks like.

Very early in this process, businesses have expressed a growing concern that despite a predicted 18.6 percent growth in statewide jobs related to science, technology and engineering over the next decade (much higher than the national rate), Colorado students are not graduating with the 21st century skills required to succeed in those jobs.

Added to science, technology, engineering and math skills, also known as STEM, stakeholders have identified as critical to a successful graduate the ability to effectively manage time and risk, as well as social-emotional competencies that include perseverance and a sense of whether or not they identify as being “good” at math or as a scientist. Some students do not self-identify as having strong STEM skills. So they opt out early. By targeting math and science teachers for professional development in project-based learning and other approaches to engaging a diverse set of students, the CLF and others hope to reverse that trend.

According to the CLF team and their partners in this collaboration, communities are depending on this next generation of adults to also have strong academic, professional and entrepreneurial competencies before they graduate from school. Yet most schools are only addressing the first of these. Seeking schools poised to be successful in this regard keeps leading to STEM programs.

Why?

Quality STEM schools, according to the CLF, have already tied their vision of teaching and learning to developing critical thinking and preparing students for a 21st century economy and community. They provide students with labs and internships that give students real-world experiences. Such opportunities also encourage students to take risks or practice trial and error in a safe setting, helping them build confidence and the willingness to persevere through failure as they innovate, invent, create. The STEM environment therefore enables educators to test out some of the approaches and fixes for Next Generation Learning in tangible and measurable ways before adopting them into a more robust and holistic strategy.

Fortunately, Colorado benefits from some high-quality STEM schools. But according to the CLF, there are no current guidelines or quality qualifications needed for a school to claim STEM status. CLF also shared that not every STEM school needs to look the same. In fact, each school should address local context and leverage local resources, while also demonstrating how they are being effective. That means that the rapidly growing demand for STEM programming is not correlated to a real picture of what a quality STEM education looks like. And that poses a huge risk to students and their families, as well as the future employers of these students, who see “STEM” and assume there is a shared high level of performance in that curriculum, when there is not.

To solve that, the CLF is engaged in a three-year project that is bringing STEM educators into the larger collaboration with business and community leaders to help create their vision of the successful Next Generation graduate and build a STEM assessment guide that serves that vision. In developing the Colorado STEM Education Roadmap and Action Plan, partners including the Office of Governor John Hickenlooper, the Colorado Department of Education, the Colorado Workforce Development Council and others plan to raise the bar.

STEM educators are highly involved in the planning. For example, the Denver Children’s Museum, a recent CLF grant recipient, is working to enhance STEM education with programs that encourage a love for science. They are now part of the conversation. DSST Schools, listed first by one-fifth of Colorado students participating in the school choice lottery system (Smithsonian Magazine, April 2013), are also at the table. In fact, according to the Denver Post, DSST CEO Bill Kurtz recently testified before a U.S. House of Representatives education subcommittee on the factors contributing to DSST schools’ high performance.

But the task at hand is not easy.

Fixing a brake and plugging a few holes is a lot easier than inventing a new way of thinking about education and defining success. Taking the Henry Ford approach, the CLF knows it will take some convincing of teachers, parents and students. Systematic change feels uncomfortable, and to succeed, parents and community leaders and potential employers will need to get engaged, get their hands dirty and stay involved in a Next Generation education.

So even as they slug through the initial coalescing of thought and bring together some of the great minds and contributors from Colorado communities, the CLF is doing some teaching of its own. It is building a coalition of parents, teachers, businesses and students who are beginning to envision this path to a stronger, highly contributing Next Generation work force.

Many Colorado employers already get it. They do not want to have to go outside the State to recruit the Next Generation of employees with the skills to fill their jobs.