Special Report
Science

Unlocking STEM Pathways for All Students

By Stephen Sawchuk — May 22, 2018 4 min read
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What do you think of when you hear the word “gateway?” Is it a promising image, perhaps an invitation to a lush garden? Is it a forboding one, conjuring up the image of a heavy lock on a rusting door?

That’s the double-edged nature of gateways, and in this special report, Education Week aims to explore both facets as they relate to students’ progression through science, technology, engineering, and math in K-12 schools and into their futures.

Gateways can swing open, giving students opportunities to master the ability to think logically, reason, model solutions to problems, and troubleshoot, all of which are in demand among employers both in STEM fields and, increasingly in non-STEM ones.

Or gateways can shut and lock, cutting off the ability to acquire those skills and putting students at a disadvantage, perhaps for the rest of their lives.

Despite its reputation as a field flush with opportunity, even STEM can pose dead ends for students, such as the traps of remedial math education or course sequences that don’t lead to high-paying, satisfying careers.

In one sense, the problem with defining high-quality, flexible STEM pathways in K-12 education begins with the looseness of the term STEM itself. Too many advocates use it glibly, implicitly giving it the suggestion of limitless promise and opportunity. But a close look at labor-market data suggests it’s not as simple as that.

Not even federal agencies, for instance, agree on what counts as a STEM job, which makes it that much more challenging to settle on the preparation students need and the steps that K-12 educators should take to backmap the courses and experiences that fill in the gaps.

And outside of the core STEM jobs, exemplified by mathematicians and engineers, there’s a wider range of required skills, training, and compensation in the fields. Take, for instance, the fastest-growing job in America, that of a solar-panel installer, which paid a median wage of $39,490 in 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Does that gig require working knowledge of applied math and science? Sure. Is it what the experts touting STEM jobs have in mind as a high-paying, high-opportunity job? That’s a tougher question.

Long before the jobs conversation ever comes up, K-12 educators have struggled to define how they can improve students’ chances of success in STEM fields. There’s solid agreement, for example, that students’ early experiences with science and math in school are crucial. But the elementary teachers who are most likely to provide those experiences report feeling shakier in teaching them.

That’s why one Alabama school has made STEM the centerpiece of its K-2 programming. Leaders there provide on-the-job training for teachers of the youngest children—and asks them to gradually take on more responsibility as they grow more knowledgeable and confident in their skills.

Sometimes, the work of opening up STEM gateways takes partnerships. For example, automation may have hollowed out the supply of old-school manufacturing jobs, but now there’s a resurgence in advanced manufacturing jobs that pay good wages—and demand higher skills, such as the ability to oversee complex machines and processes.

To make sure the next generation of workers has those skills, local industries and K-12 leaders are working together to introduce the technologies in middle school.

New Debates, New Solutions

Perhaps inevitably, high school is home to some of the most ferocious debates about STEM preparation, particularly about how to structure the required sequences of courses that will ultimately funnel students to those fields.

At the zenith of most sequences stands calculus, long reserved for the elite and virtually a requirement for entry into a top-tier university. It’s also one of the courses in which disparities between wealthy and disadvantaged students, as well as between white students and students of color, are rampant. And yet research suggests it’s not a terribly good signal of future STEM success.

So now, some researchers ask, is there an opportunity to build a new pathway that doesn’t replicate those problems? In today’s data-rich world, they suggest, maybe the new gateway class should be statistics: being able to understand and interpret the numbers underpinning algorithms, surveys, and research in economics and many other fields.

It’s not as outlandish an idea as it may seem: In a report released last month, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics also points to statistics as a topic that students should explore in far greater depth by the time they complete high school. And it, too, calls for more varied, but equally rigorous, pathways for all high school students.

Perhaps the most challenging puzzle of all are those young people for whom STEM has become a seemingly insurmountable barrier to future success. Unable to complete degree requirements, they struggle in the “black hole” of remedial high school or college math, trying again and again to master algebra.

Now, for those students, there’s new hope: A set of classes that teach how to think of math as a specific kind of logic, a model for understanding the world. Increasingly, such approaches are influencing the way high schools think about accelerating students with weaker skills.

The gateways we’ve identified in this report are hardly the only ones that exist in the vast and nuanced landscape of STEM. But the challenges they pose to access to, and persistence in, STEM are real. We hope this special report gives you some ideas about where to find solutions.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2018 edition of Education Week as Unlocking STEM Pathways For All Students

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