Where science and tech meet creativity.

STEM learning starts youngOver the past several weeks I’ve had more than one person ask me, “What is your view on the future of STEM (1) Education?” Sometimes they have gone on to ask further about how I feel about the future of science in general. This much repeated question has been triggered by many things. On one hand, I work in a Center for STEM Research, Outreach and Education, and we’re working to define our vision. On the other hand, the National Science Foundation is working to review its portfolio and perhaps redefine how it spends its money. Then there are random factors, like congress considering what comes after “No Child Left Behind” and my own personal work to try and define what comes next for Astronomy Cast and all my other projects and collaborations.

I’ve procrastinated in answering the question. I have to admit that I’m scared for our future, and that makes it hard to confront. While in general, when professors say “It seems that each year’s students are a little less prepared”, they are basically suffering from a specialized case of the “Back in my day” syndrome, this time that’s not entirely true. Under the “No Child Left Behind” act, test scores in the key fields of math and reading mattered so much that in some cases other subjects – including science – weren’t taught in all grades, but were rather focused on during the years they were tested. This means that where once kids got science every year of grades K-12 – at least in the form of getting to watch caterpillars become butterflies in kindergarten, and growing seedlings in 2nd grade – now kids may only get science every 3 years.(2) Every year since its passage during the Bush administration, a new batch of kids entered grade school and a new batch graduated. With every successive year, the kids graduating have spent more years under “No Child Left Behind”, and every successive year the kids have become less prepared for college in those areas that aren’t tested by the standardized tests.

It is my hope that whatever comes after “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) will be able to change our current slump into poor performance in the STE (and often M) parts of STEM.

To fix things,  a lot of repair work needs to be done. If you’ve ever built something, you know that it is sometimes just easier (and cheaper!) to tear something down and rebuild from scratch than it is to repair what you’ve got. With a kid’s education, however, we don’t have the option of using a sledge hammer to return everything to flat so that we can just start the building process over again. This means that in building a vision for STEM moving into the next decade, we need to include in our vision mechanisms to repair the harm NCLB has done. This means this vision needs to include ways to reignite that flame of science enthusiasm most children have when small – when they go through that dinosaurs and planets loving phase – and then feed that flame with as much inspirational content as possible. We have to both revive a starved curiosity and make up for material never learned in youth. This isn’t easy, but if we want to have a society that supports science it must be done. Put more positively, we have to inspire child-like curiosity while providing rigorous content.

Before I go any further, I have to acknowledge the added challenge of trying to teach science to a post-scientific society. Due to a lack of belief in vaccinations, the US society has lost its herd-immunity to deceases such as mumps, measles, and whopping cough. Recently, a Facebook group that facilitated parents purposely giving their kids chicken poxs instead of simply vaccinating them was in the news. The US hasn’t signed onto to the Kyoto climate protocols in part because the lobbying power of “climate skeptics;” people who turn a blind eye on scientific data showing conclusively that our planet is warming. Evolution is still not consistently taught due to the control of Christian conservatives over school systems (and in some cases just because teachers find it easier to not teach evolution than to deal with the wrath of parents), and Big Bang cosmology is missing from astronomy lessons designed to be as inoffensive as possible to those who may believe the universe is as young as a few thousand years old. I don’t know how our society achieved such an anti-scientific state. It shames me to see how we have culturally gone backwards as multiculturalism has been used as an excuse to label science as a culture and as something one isn’t required to believe in. If we are going to build a society rich in people who understand and support science, those of us who are scientifically literate need to find ways to respectfully say, “you are wrong” to people who choice to believe things not supported by the observational reality of our world and our universe. While one should be as respectful as possible of another’s religious beliefs, beliefs aren’t facts, and believing in something doesn’t make it true. Data, repeatably acquired and confirmed by more than one scientist: that is what makes something true. As a community, scientists need to consistently promote a data driven view of reality, and we need to work to get critical thinking, data analysis, and, well, reality into the classrooms.

This starts to define a picture of what STEM education must look like as we move forward. We have set of required outcomes: Must inspire child-like curiosity, must have a high efficacy in order to transfer a lot of content (and thus make up for lost time), must create people who want to see the data behind statements like “vaccines cause autism,” must demonstrate that we live in an evolving universe that is both physically and biologically changing over time due to a variety of driving forces. These basic science concepts need to be taught within the context of a world that relies on engineering solutions to problems, using technology to communicate, and that has statistics driving everything from medical research to economic models.

I don’t have the silver bullet of an idea that can address all these needs, but I do think the above problems suggest ways to concentrate our efforts and funding as we move forward. To inspire child-like curiosity, we need to expose kids (and adults!) to STEM content that is so amazing that they can’t help but forget their learned inhibitions and they revert to the “Why? How? What?” of a captivated child. This is something that can we done through effective communications of modern research and it may be most effectively done through kids magazines (remember the ones that came with the book order forms in elementary school on the ’80s? Anyone remember what they were called?), through after school and museum / science center focused programs, and through public outreach programs such as movies, TV shows, podcasts, and blogs that work to inspire through communications. To be effective, it is important that each of these mechanisms for inspiration be scaffolded with a system that facilitates questions and answers, and community building (e.g. with classroom discussions, online forums, and other discussion mechanisms).

With a healthy curiosity in place, it is also necessary to engage a healthy skepticism. This many require a fundamental change in how science is taught in some places . There is a temptation when teaching (and I know I’ve fallen prey to it at times) to teach science as a series of facts connected by equations and experiments. What is missing from this paradigm is the story of how we know what we know. When confronted with a new fact or theory, a skeptical thinker should ask, “But how do you know that?” If we expect our students to simply take what we say as gospel, then we are raising them up to see science as a faith-based system, and any “authority” figure can easily step in teach them any crazy idea is true. If we instead teach them science as a series of facts and theories that are derived from data and experiments, and if we can teach them there should be a line of evidence, mathematical proof, or other set of data demonstrating what we teach them, then we train them to expect evidence to back up what people tell them, and people without evidence will have a much harder time tricking them later.

One content area that can be used to convey the “How we know” part of science is the story of the universe itself. From Big Bang cosmology, to the evolution of the earth through plate tectonics and geology, to evolutionary biology itself, we live a universe that is ever changing and that conveniently leave evidence of how it is changing in both this cosmic and terrestrial fossil record. Each of these scientific areas has multiple lines of evidence, and an interesting human story behind the discoveries. They also lead naturally into a discussion of the planet and universe’s future. Part of teaching students not only what we know, but how we know it includes engaging them directly in data, and in these areas, there is often data that students can find intellectually accessible. In fact, many different scientific lines of study have data sets that can be meaningfully analyzed by students.

In the current digital era, many of the sciences possess more data than can be readily analyzed by the professional scientific community. From protein folding simulations to animal behavior videos to astronomical images, data exists in abundance that needs a pair of human eyes to analyze it in a way that computers at this time can’t be programed to do. Many different citizen science projects exist to facilitate everyday people – including students – participating in data analysis, and in many cases curricula exist to help students solve basic problems using the data they look at. This type of an exercise can serve two different purposes: It gets students’ hands dirty doing actual science and it provides a context for learning statistics. Recent motivational work done to try and understand why adults participate in citizen science found that many of them said they always wanted to be a scientist, but then didn’t become one because they didn’t feel they were capable. By providing students an experience being part of the scientific process, confidence in their own competency as a scientist can be instilled at an early age. At the same time, the importance of teaching statistics within a meaningful context can’t be stressed enough.

It is amazingly easy to twist statistics in ways that obscurate reality. From polling results that say “Candidate X has pulled into the lead” when in reality Candidate X is statistically tied with two others, to medical studies that stress how on new medicine A 55 people out of 70 had their symptoms improve after just 3 days without stressing that the same thing happened in 53 out of 70 people not on medicine A, and across so many other examples people get mislead by misused numbers. By teaching statistics in a meaningful context that allows students to understand both a data-driven research study and the statistics used to describe it, statistics can be made more tangible. With a solid understanding of statistics, students will not only ask “How do you know that?” but they will also ask “How many standard deviations above background is that result?” and “What was the margin of error in that result?”(3)

With a strong grounding in science as a process and statistics as a way of understanding significance, it become possible to apply the problem solving methods of science to engineering new solutions to new problems. From devising the experiments (how do you determine how different genes in guppies are linked, and which are dominant?) to devising solutions to problems (how do you use a Lego robot and camera to build a log cabin with 4 different colored walls?) science teaches the problem solving skills needed in engineering and utilizes technology in all of its myriad forms.

Unfortunately, putting these ideas into practice through a complete reworking of the educational system isn’t practical. There may be a backdoor though. Through different science funding strands it is possible to get money for education that is related directly to a research projects. The NASA ROSES programs, HST observing programs, and many NSF grants all offer these educational supplants. This funding can be used to create teacher professional development programs, classroom curricula, and after school programs that work to create the needed materials, and change education one classroom at a time.

The exact amount of money available for education fluctuates over time. With NASA ROSES grants, you can request $10k per year per grant. Many NASA missions spend a couple percent of the mission budget on education and public outreach. NSF is more varied, where money can come in the form of a student intern (an REU student) or an educational supplement) and amounts can vary greatly.

What worries me is the future of this funding. As budgets get tighter, something has to give. In the past, NASA has reduced the budget spent on EPO more than once. I don’t know if NSF has done the same, but in the funding-restricted future, the temptation has got to be there. Both these agencies are STEM funding agencies, not STEM education funding agencies. But in a way, by funding STEM education we are funding future science by creating the people who are prepared to do science in the future. The Department of Education has its hands full with all the other parts of education, and current developments under NCLB make it clear science is not their priority. If we want to protect STEM, it is the people in the STEM fields who need to do that protecting.

I’m listening to my iPod while typing and the song I’m listening to just had the lyric “I wish it were simple but we give up easily, you’re close enough to see that.”(4)  I think everyone reading this is close enough to know that we all wish fixing education was easy, but we do give up easily. We gave up under NCLB, and rather than fighting a harmful piece of educational legislation, we have lived with it and simply complained while trying to help out in small corners, in random classrooms where we could. In this moment, as congress works to define what comes after NCLB, we need to fight for something better. Today, as NSF and other agencies work to fit their programs into narrowing budgets, we need to fight convince them that the money they spend on education is money they should continue to spend on education. We need to find a way to reform education so that graduates in the future are STEM curious problem solvers who are also statistically literate and driven to always ask, “How do you know that?”

Can we work to fund and build that future?


(1) STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics

(2) This is because under NCLB schools only require “science assessments to be administered at least once during grades 3-5; grades 6-9; and grades 10-12.” (http://www2.ed.gov/nclb/accountability/ayp/testing-faq.html)

(3) I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t make since to reduce the amount of geometry and trigonometry taught in school and introduce statistics. While students going into STEM careers need as much calculus as they can get, I’m really not sure who, other than math majors, needs to know how to do a geometric or trigonometric proof, and to perhaps say something scandalous, I’d nix most of the prof writing from both those classes and combine them into one year to make space for a course on statistics.

(4) KT Tunstall “Otherside of the World” from Eye to the Telescope