STEM Instruction: How Much There Is and Who Gets It

By Sasha Jones — January 08, 2019 4 min read
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Despite a push for greater STEM instruction, students and teachers continue to experience inequitable access to STEM-related classes and resources, according to a new survey of 1,200 schools and 7,600 teachers.

This nationally representative study is the sixth in a series of surveys on K-12 STEM education and college and career readiness dating back to 1977, but the first to put an emphasis on computer science and engineering. The survey, conducted by Horizon Reasearch, Inc. and commissioned by the National Science Foundation, covered a variety of topics relevant to teachers, giving insights into instructional practices, course offerings, resources, and professional development participation in K-12 math, science, and computer science.

“There has been such a huge push towards getting students access to computer science and this is the first time that we’ve been able to get systematic data,” Sean Smith, one of the study’s co-principle investigators and the president of Horizon Research, Inc., said. “What I hope is that with this data we’ll have a better sense on how to move forward.”

Typically, the amount of STEM instruction increases as students age. The survey shows that K-3 students spend an average of 57 minutes a day on math and 18 minutes on science, compared to 89 minutes dedicated to reading/language arts. In grades 4-6, this number increases to 63 minutes on math and 27 minutes on science.

In addition to having less class time dedicated to the subject compared to reading/language arts, science is also taught less frequently, with 17 percent of K-3 classes and 35 percent of classes in grades 4-6 receiving science instruction all or most days, every week of the school year. Other research shows that students who are engaged in STEM by the time they are adolescents are more likely to pursue the field as adults.

Although the majority of high schools offer some sort of biology/life science, chemistry, or physics courses, about 4 in 10 high schools offer AP science courses in biology or physics, the two most commonly offered AP science courses.

Similarly, access to computer science instruction increases as students age. Twenty-six percent of elementary schools offer computer science, while 38 percent of middle schools and 53 percent of high schools do the same.

Additionally, the proportion of students with access to computer science instruction is higher than the proportion of schools offering it, indicating that larger high schools are more likely to offer courses than smaller schools. For example, at the high school level, 70 percent of students have access, while only 53 percent of schools offer instruction.

In science and math classes at the high school level, where such classes are not always required each year, female students are just as likely as male students to enroll. However, in computer science classes, the share of female students decreases to between 25 percent and 30 percent.

The survey also found that schools in the West (44 percent) and Northeast (43 percent) are more likely to offer computer science than schools in the Midwest (30 percent) and the South (24 percent).

For students, STEM education is often marketed as a gateway to higher-paying jobs by researchers, government officials, business groups, and educators. Stephen Sawchuk explored this idea— and its nuances—in a recent report on STEM education.

In examining the teaching force, the report found that the STEM teachers with the least experience are concentrated in high-poverty schools. Science teachers with five or fewer years of experience and computer science teachers with less than two years of experience are all more likely to teach in high-poverty schools than their more-experienced teaching colleagues.

Elementary school teachers are less likely to have a college or graduate degree in science or math, while over 50 percent of high school teachers teaching the subject do. Only about 1 in 4 high school computer science teachers have a degree in the computer science field.

Nevertheless, most teachers have participated in a professional development program or workshop in their field within the last three years. Other common forms of professional development include working closely with other science teachers from their school (55 percent to 62 percent) or other schools (47 percent to 54 percent), and using textbooks/modules from their classroom to experience lessons as their students would (40 percent to 45 percent). These numbers increase for math and computer science teachers.

Still, across math, science, and computer science, about 20 percent of teachers or fewer have had more than 35 hours of professional development in the last three years.

Science teachers with over 35 hours of professional development are less likely to instruct classes with high proportions of students of color or in small schools. However, the opposite is shown for math teachers.

Additionally, about 30 percent of schools offer no teacher induction programs, while a third of schools have programs that last a year or less.

In applying this research, Eric Banilower, the lead author of the report and vice president of Horizon Research, Inc., encourages policymakers and education leaders to ask “are we putting the supports around teachers to enable them to teach science the way we envision?”

The data will be analyzed in the next month to examine trends and further explore topics surveyed, including equity and the experience of beginner teachers compared to their more-experienced counterparts.

Photo courtesy of Getty

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