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Computer Tool Sizes Up Math, Science Policies

By Sean Cavanagh — July 08, 2009 3 min read
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Can a computer simulation help guide the United States toward producing more and better-qualified math and science students?

A team of engineers from the Raytheon Co. thinks so. Today, after three years of work, they join business and education supporters in unveiling a “simulation and modeling” computer tool designed to crunch vast amounts of data about students, teachers, and the workforce, and evaluate various mathematics and science education policies.

Called the “U.S. STEM Education Model,” the tool relies on complex algorithms and allows users to gauge the impact of policies while adjusting for more than 200 individual variables in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or “STEM” education.

Those variables include class size, teacher turnover, gender differences, and teacher salaries, as well as data from scholarly studies that have been put into the system. The tool is free and available for downloading online, though it requires simulation software.

The simulation-and-modeling tool, while complex, is meant to provide scholars, state and federal policymakers, and others with a way to study the effects of past, current, and future policies, said Brian H. Wells, Raytheon’s chief systems engineer, who helped develop the system. Initially, it was meant to focus on how to increase the number of STEM college graduates, though it has clear applications for K-12 and the workforce, too, he noted.

The model is not meant to provide definitive solutions, but rather help policymakers “think through the problem,” Mr. Wells said in an interview. “The model can help you discover unintended consequences.”

For example, a recent test-run of the model examined a popular policy suggestion: that raising teacher salaries will draw more top-notch teacher-candidates to classrooms, as opposed to having them take potentially more lucrative jobs in the private sector. The model found that when businesses began losing well-qualified workers, they adjusted by raising salaries in an attempt to lure them back, which “counteracted” the initial policy, Mr. Wells said. He cautioned that many factors in the model could be adjusted to produce a different result.

Crunch the Data

Raytheon, a major defense contractor headquartered in Waltham, Mass., began developing the model three years ago under the direction of the company’s chairman and chief executive officer, William H. Swanson. The company assigned a team of engineers to work on it.

It released the model to the public at an event here today, at which time Raytheon also officially turned the tool over to the Business-Higher Education Forum, an education advocacy organization based in the nation’s capital that represents business ceos and university and foundation leaders.

As policymakers across the country debate STEM education policy, the modeling tool attempts to nudge the discussion away from anecdotes toward data, said Brian Fitzgerald, the executive director of the Business-Higher Education Forum.

“It takes the politics out of it,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “You can love a program, but this could show that its impact is relatively slight over time.”

The modeling tool already includes data sets that allow for comparisons of the cost effectiveness and the overall impact of diverse policies aimed at encouraging more students to enter and stick with STEM studies and fields, Mr. Fitzgerald said. Those efforts include mentoring and social-networking programs.

Mr. Fitzgerald believes the tool will reveal that many policies for increasing the number of highly qualified K-12 and college students in STEM, and finding a place for them in the job market, are interconnected.

“You need an integrated K-12 and higher-ed. strategy,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “You can’t solve the STEM teacher-workforce problem without solving the STEM-workforce problem.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week as Computer Tool Sizes Up Math, Science Policies

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