Improving education in science, technology, engineering, and math means weaving those topics into every class in every school at every grade, according to a panel of teachers, policymakers, and engineers at a conference to help mark the 175th anniversary of Framingham State University, the nation’s oldest teacher-training college.
“Every teacher at every level needs to be a STEM teacher,” said Joyce Malyn-Smith, who studies ways of improving the route from school to career for the national nonprofit Education Development Center. “Every teacher at every level needs to understand computer science and build those skills into the kids.”
But the field is vastly more complicated than when Framingham State was opened as the Massachusetts Normal School to train teachers in 1839.
Only 43 percent of American high-school graduates are prepared for college-level math, and 37 percent for college-level science, according to the organization that administers the ACT college-entrance exam. And the United States has fallen to 29th in math and 22nd in science among the 34 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
“The focus for us is not so much to think about what we need to do now for our current students—of course, that’s important too—but we have to start thinking about a world that we don’t really know what it’s going to look like, and how are our future students going to be ready for that world,” said Irene Porro, director of the Christa McAuliffe Center for Education and Teaching Excellence, named for the first teacher in space, who got her undergraduate degree at Framingham State.
“It comes back to how are we going to prepare the people who will train them? How will we prepare the educators?” Porro said. “The root solution is to prepare the teachers.”
That means imparting more than just the content that’s tested by standardized assessments, the experts agreed.
Students need to build “a capacity for abstract thought [about] complex real-world problems that have more than one right answer,” Porro said. “The real world doesn’t have the typical book problem that you keep solving the same way.”
One route to succeeding in this is by bringing in working professionals from technology fields “to open the doors and connect education to what happens afterward,” said Tobie Baker-Wright, senior project manager at the advocacy organization Jobs for the Future—and not just for students, but for teachers.
That can happen through such things as so-called externships, in which teachers work temporarily in technology fields. Those have “opened the eyes of STEM teachers. They go back into the modern workplace and they see what is happening. It contextualizes that textbook they’ve been using,” Baker-Wright said.
And it can help show students—who, after all, spend so much time on apps and in front of screens—how they can create them.
“It’s about moving young people from being consumers of STEM to creators of STEM, whether it’s in computer science or engineering,” Baker-Wright said. “It’s a mindset. Sometimes that mindset is hard to develop for children within a four-walled classroom. And sometimes that mindset is hard to develop for teachers.”
Photo credit: Matt Butler