There is a vast array of difficulties facing STEM education in the US today. That a problem exists has been the subject of numerous reports, articles, television news programs, idle chatter around the workplace lounge, it seems there is no shortage of commentary on the issue. Stop people on the streets and ask them if the state of education related to these four fields is in a positive place and you will not be given an affirmative answer. I have had people tell me, people from outside the educational world and inside it as well, that the troubles have reached epidemic proportions. From children who can’t multiply single digits together, to Harvard graduates who believe that the reason we have summer is that the earth is closer to the sun during those months than it is in the winter; these sorts of anecdotes come to mind and everyone seems to have a couple in their pocket ready to regale you with at a party or brunch. Few people have, however taken the time to seriously and methodically analyze what might be the solvable/fixable issues in STEM education system. This may in fact be a major problem in STEM education, too little hard thinking, thoughtfully analytic, honest criticism of the system by those who are most well positioned to make decisions.
I would like to concentrate on one bit of evidence of my premise, accountability in the schools. Those in the governmental offices charged with and positioned to, influence the direction school curricula take, have given the K-12 schools programs of assessment that are largely based on snapshot test scores (mostly multiple choice items) to determine Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) toward goals of achievement on those tests. Funding for various programming is tied toward these AYP scores. School Districts, and individual schools make the sane decision to focus efforts in the areas that are tested and further give great amounts of instructional time to the task of test preparations. In his Kappa Delta Pi article from 2009, Dr. David Berliner made a play on words rephrasing the No Child Left Behind legislation (NCLB) into the Much Curriculum Left Behind syndrome (MCLB). He further goes on to call this a calamity in the making (Berliner, 2009). Through thoughtful analysis using respected methods, Dr. Berliner concludes that the emphasis on Reading, and Mathematics in High Stakes testing has diminished greatly the opportunities children have to interact with other curricular areas. When teachers in elementary schools are reporting that they do not have time to teach science or art (which plays an important role in the learning of design tightly woven into the Engineering piece of STEM) because they must focus on test preparations or the teaching of the two core subjects; the result is children with too little experience in the other curricular areas that are within the field.
Politicians and the average citizens believe that focusing on these two subjects is a proper thing to do to assist those in poorer areas and the schools they attend. However, this results in those students falling further behind their same-aged cohort from more advantaged situations; those children have from advantaged parents who can and will work to fill in the curricular gaps will unwittingly be a part of the extension of the achievement gap. The needs in poorer schools are for more and broader curricular experiences, not fewer and narrower.
STEM education as a whole will suffer as more and more emphasis is placed on fewer and fewer areas. Future contributors to the field may not find the stimulation needed at the most important of times in their developmental history. We cannot any longer allow those in the places of influence to be misguided into making decisions to narrow down what is taught so that students can achieve higher test scores.
It is time also to recognize that despite our now long history of middling performance on international assessments the US has been able to drive a very strong and resilient economy based on invention and entrepreneurialism. These things are the core of our past strength not our ability to answer 100 questions on a multiple-choice exam. Invention takes a creative mind in a creative space not a narrowed mind in a tunnel. The time has come to de-emphasize mindless regurgitation of facts on these exams, no longer use them as the single yard sticks to measure schools by, and open up the curriculum to encourage engagement and stop the stifling effects of over testing.