The concern about the United States’ lack of STEM literacy has awakened state governments and prompted action from legislators. As a result of the relatively low percentage of American students who study STEM subjects in undergrad and graduate college programs, states are considering a variety of policies, including raising graduation requirements in math or science and enhancing the use of technology in school buildings—according to the NCSL (National Conference of State Legislators).
Part of these policies also include the development of engineering academic standards in K-12 science curriculum. While standards have been developed for the other three STEM disciplines (science, technology and math), engineering had not been included in the discussion until recently. In 2009, Minnesota was one of the first states to address this issue. Now, Minnesota and several other states are integrating engineering into science academic standards rather than creating stand-alone engineering academic standards.
Why Have STEM Standards?
Mandating a STEM-integrated approach like Minnesota and other states have done reaches students not previously engaged. In the past, many schools used engineering subjects as extracurricular activities and were not integrated into the classroom. Take an established program like Lego-Robotics After School Enrichment—it’s great for students who can afford it and have time to participate, but it’s a limited population of K-12 students that get involved. And as educators seek to increase the number of minorities and women in the STEM fields, these fee-based after-school activities often fail to attract diverse populations.
Now that states are beginning to integrate engineering into classroom lessons, we’re studying how schools and teachers are implementing engineering concepts when required by state standards. The STEM Education Center at the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development has been able to tackle this through the Engineering through STEM Integration Project, which we developed through an award from the National Science Foundation (NSF). We hope to better understand the current state of STEM in K-12 classrooms so we can improve STEM education in the U.S. During a five year period, we’ll go state-by-state to analyze state standards in math, science and engineering (when possible) to provide a longitudinal look at what’s going on. We’re on state #15 now.
Answering How to Become a STEM School
A common question we’re asked by teachers and administrators is “how do we become a STEM school?” Well, there isn’t just one right way of doing this. Some methods seem to work best in only large school districts or inner cities or charter schools, and that’s OK. That’s why our NSF-funded research project is so interesting! It will provide critical data to assess STEM curriculum, professional development and how students best learn content. Since there’s no “STEM textbook” we can hand to teachers, we’ll share good STEM education models with schools that might be struggling with new education mandates.
As many educators already realize, we really can’t teach engineering separately from math and science—engineering is essentially the glue that holds these two concepts together. It stimulates student interest by providing the rich context where students can use math and science in meaningful ways. The NSF funded this study because it believes that as more states integrate engineering into K-12 content and standards, a new level of literacy around the subject will be achieved. We’ll keep you posted on our progress.
—Tamara Mooreand Gillian Roehrig, STEM Education Center Co-Directors
See how engineering is integrated into middle school classrooms
After the devastating Haiti earthquake in January 2010, students at Central Middle School in Columbia Heights, Minnesota, were presented with a challenge: design a prosthetic leg for earthquake victims using everyday items. The results were amazing! See for yourself.
Discover more about state education mandates by tracking ongoing education legislation with the NCSL.