The United States’ ability to be not just a global leader but even a competitive participant in technology will depend largely on a massive infusion of women and underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. Indeed, according to the National Science Foundation, there is evidence that even the nation’s top students are forgoing science and engineering careers, resulting in a 25 percent and 19 percent drop in engineering and mathematics, respectively.
The National Science Board released on Wednesday a long-awaited report titled “Preparing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators: Identifying and Developing Our Nation’s Human Capital,” which offers both recommendations and policy solutions to help close the widening gap between American and foreign-born talent as well as a research agenda for each item. It focuses on three key areas: providing opportunities for excellence, casting a wide net, and fostering a supportive ecosystem. The report’s findings were discussed at a press conference held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
“These research findings will inform policy-making in critical areas, such as how to nurture early interest in STEM, best practices for developing STEM-related abilities, and means for improving teaching effectiveness,” explained NSB member Camilla Benbow, who led the STEM Innovators Project.
The report recommends that schools and districts be given more administrative flexibility to allow elementary school students to learn at a pace that matches each child’s ability and interests. Benbow says that this will ensure that they’re being challenged and getting an opportunity to learn something new each day.
“Boredom can quickly extinguish motivation and the creative spark,” she said. The same concept applies to older students, and Benbow called for increased access to college level, dual enrollment, and other advanced coursework, such as AP classes, for secondary school students, which the Obama administration called for in its ESEA blueprint. (Today, the president plans to announce an expansion of his “Educate to Innovate” initiative to improve STEM education.)
Increasing opportunities for student excellence requires that teachers have the knowledge and the skills necessary to teach STEM coursework, and the report calls for “world-class” STEM content preparation for instructors. It recommends professional development for teachers, principals, and counselors in the area of STEM talent identification.
“Teachers often act as gatekeepers to gifted programs and other opportunities for high-achieving kids. However, data shows that African-American and Hispanic students are referred into these interventions at a much lower rate than White and Asian students. Teacher professional development in this area will help correct these inequities,” Benbow asserts.
Similarly, educators should look beyond the obvious to unlock potential talent. There is a strong inclination to shower attention and opportunities onto the students who indicate the most interest, but what of the students who, for a variety of reasons, have not been able to articulate the link between their individual interests and STEM activities?
“Potential STEM innovators may not always be the best behaved students in the class or even obtain the highest grades,” Benbow counseled. “In fact, you might find these students in a shop class where they can work with their hands in three dimensions. The ability to work and think in three dimensions, or mechanical ability, is critical for future achievement in STEM, yet is often overlooked.”
Another recommendation calls for increased technological capacity and cyber-infrastructure to connect students with their likeminded peers, industry experts, and other resources. The board strongly supports expanded federal support for programs that have demonstrated a proven ability to motivate and inspire students into STEM fields, particularly in the areas of robotics and invention competitions, hands-on laboratory work with STEM experts and mentoring opportunities, according to Benbow.
Improvements must be made to assessment systems so that students’ progress is tracked correctly and should be done so during the entire course of their education so that the appropriate interventions can be made, the report found. In addition to tracking adequate yearly progress, the board recommends that high-performing students’ progress should be monitored as well via above-level tests, which will both challenge them and show what they’re capable of achieving.
“A distinguishing feature of the report is its accent on innovation. It’s an accent and emphasis that’s distinctive for our nation,” said Dr. Cora Marrett, acting director of the National Science Foundation. “Innovation requires capital or assets for yielding returns. This report highlights the indispensability of human capital for transforming the landscape. It points out that it’s through our human capital that inventiveness and creativity occur.” She added that the report also recognizes that demographic diversity is a strength in sparking innovation and underscores the importance of creating an environment that celebrates and enhances STEM education.