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Science Board Urges Steps to Nurture ‘STEM Innovators’

By Erik W. Robelen — September 15, 2010 3 min read
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The National Science Board issued a report today that promotes ways to better identify and develop the next generation of “STEM innovators” in the United States, including a call to “cast a wide net” to seize on all types of talent and reach underrepresented minorities and students from low-income families.

Among the many policy recommendations the board sets forth are increasing K-12 access to accelerated coursework and enrichment programs; expanding opportunities for conducting “above-level tests” to identify gifted STEM students, especially in economically disadvantaged urban and rural areas; and holding schools—"and perhaps districts and states"—accountable for the performance of the very top students at each grade level.

“Currently, far too many of America’s best and brightest young men and women go unrecognized and underdeveloped, and, thus fail to reach their full potential,” says the report by the board, which sets policy for the National Science Foundation and serves as an advisory body to the White House and Congress. “This represents a loss for both the individual and society.”

The report continues: “The nation needs ‘STEM innovators'—those individuals who have developed the expertise to become leading STEM professionals and perhaps the creators of significant breakthroughs or advances in scientific and technological understanding.”

In an interview yesterday, Camilla P. Benbow, a National Science Board member who led the ad hoc task force on STEM innovators, said that what sets this report apart from so many others on education in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—is its emphasis on high achievers.

“Most previous [STEM education] reports and most of the work being thought about is to really raise the average level of performance, and that’s a really important task,” said Benbow, the dean of the Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. But she said it’s critical both to raise the average levels and lift the top levels of achievement.

She also said the board is deeply concerned with “leveling the playing field” to find and nurture talent from demographic groups in which it too often is never tapped. “We want kids from all backgrounds, from all groups, to be high achievers,” she said.

The National Science Board report offers recommendations covering three key areas: providing opportunities for excellence, casting a wide net to identify all types of talent from all demographic groups, and fostering a “supportive ecosystem that nurtures and celebrates excellence and innovative thinking.”

Here’s a quick sampling of the ideas it’s advancing:

• Increase access to and the quality of college-level, dual enrollment, and other accelerated coursework, as well as high-quality enrichment programs.

• Create NSF programs that offer portable, merit-based scholarships for talented middle and high school students to participate in challenging enrichment activities.

• Expand existing talent-assessment tests and -identification strategies to the three primary abilities (quantitative/mathematical, verbal, and spatial) so that spatial talent is not neglected.

• Increase access to appropriate above-level tests and student-identification mechanisms, especially in economically disadvantaged rural and urban areas.

• Launch a national campaign aimed at increasing the appreciation of academic excellence and transforming negative stereotypes toward potential STEM innovators.

The report wades into what might be some particularly touchy territory in suggesting a new realm for school accountability, on top of the demands already imposed on schools through state accountability systems and the federal No Child Left Behind Act. It says that progress should be monitored for the top 10 percent and top 1 percent of students in all public schools. Schools and districts that demonstrate progress in increasing student achievement and closing achievement gaps should be rewarded. “Conversely, sanctions should apply if these students are not making progress consistent with their talents and potential, just as it applies to other subgroups of students,” the report says.

Stepping back, the report declares: “The board firmly believes that a coherent, proactive, and sustained effort to identify and develop our nation’s STEM innovators will help drive future economic prosperity and improve the quality of life for all.”

The report also outlines a research agenda to more fully understand “the role of the learning-support ecosystem and its relationship to future innovation.”

Speaking of reports on STEM education, yesterday I provided a sneak preview of another one that is forthcoming from the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.