Pushing Education Full STEAM Ahead

By David Lariviere

The attainment of skills necessary for futures in STEAM-related careers, many of which come from math and science education, is something every American parent would seem to want for their child. The problem is those desires haven’t been translating to positive results for a long time.

Some researchers at ETS aren’t sure that Americans feel the same sense of urgency they did in the ‘60s during the space race.  “It’s not clear to me that people are sufficiently upset. We don’t care enough to make fundamental changes, because, if we cared, we could do it,” says Heather Howell, an Associate Research Scientist in ETS’s Student and Teacher Research Center.

“We’re educating an elite who will fill up the slots in our economy for lawyers, scientists, doctors, engineers and higher-ed faculty.  We’re going to continue to produce that elite, but the argument used to be that a strong democracy relies on an informed citizenry. That’s everyone,” Gary Sykes, a Principal Research Scientist at ETS, states.

ETS’s Director of the Center for Global Assessment Irwin Kirsch, who led the authoring of a 2016 report called “Choosing Our Future: A Story of Opportunity in America,” worries about declining opportunities for those outside of the elite. “The problem is we have the widest gap between top and bottom performers in the world so what it means is we’re leaving way too many kids behind.”

No matter what data you examine, the U.S. compares poorly to the rest of the world, particularly in mathematics. In a 2015 Millennials report, the U.S. scored below 15 of 22 of our closest trading partners in literacy. In numeracy the U.S. was dead last. On the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test for 15-year-olds, one of two major testing programs Kirsch oversees, Canada ranked ninth in math compared to 39th for the U.S. While the U.S.’s exact ranking may vary, the pattern is clear. As Howell puts it, “Do I think it’s ranking us in the 30’s and we’re really No. 2? Not a chance.”

A high school degree used to guarantee you a job in the industrial complex when over 30 percent of jobs were union jobs. Today that percent is in single digits. But there are bigger and better returns for higher levels of education now.

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When Kirsch talks about leaving too many kids behind, that results in harsh economic consequences later in life. The creation of more high-level jobs caused by technology and globalization has been good for some American workers, but not for others, he says. “A high school degree used to guarantee you a job in the industrial complex when over 30 percent of jobs were union jobs. Today that percent is in single digits. But there are bigger and better returns for higher levels of education now.”

The “Opportunity in America” report found that skill levels in terms of reading, writing and numeracy, attained in high school and college, aren’t keeping pace with the demands required. “The level of skills has changed and what employers expect people to be able to do continues to rise,” explains Kirsch. “There’s an almost universal belief that everybody should get a college degree and the attainment rates are going up. Unfortunately, the (level of) skills is not rising with the attainment rate.”

Skills in the so-called STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) disciplines aren’t being integrated in assessment either, ETS’s Leslie Nabors Oláh and Lei Lui discovered despite almost 30 years of the concept being around. “We, as a country, still don’t know how to assess the content knowledge and practices to integrate science, math and engineering,” says Nabors Oláh, who used the building of a bridge as an example of how physics, math, arts and engineering would need to be connected. Without the understanding of how to integrate them, much of the practical value of STEAM instruction is lost, she says.

Howell, a math specialist, and her colleague Jamie Mikeska, a science expert, will tell you the gaps in math and science begin in elementary school and are never really made up because of limited instruction time and the lack of training devoted to math and science at the elementary level. The latter is something they and others at ETS are working hard every day to change. Using the funding of a four-year National Science Foundation grant and in collaboration with partners at Mursion, a virtual reality and simulations company, Howell and Mikeska have developed an online simulated classroom environment and a set of eight performance tasks, four each in math and science, that are designed to support the growth of teacher candidates.

“We decided to narrow our focus on argumentation, a critical practice that cuts across math and science disciplines where students have an opportunity to critique one another’s ideas, and build towards a consensus,” Mikeska explains.

It’s a type of instruction that supports students’ learning but is not broadly used in classrooms today, says Howell. “It sounds crazy but you can go through your whole teacher education and never have witnessed a rich math discussion. If you’ve never seen it, it’s hard to duplicate it.”

The idea is to encourage children, who otherwise might not be STEAM enthusiasts, to understand its value in the real world, not just in school.

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Fellow researcher Tanner Jackson is trying to get underrepresented children engaged in STEAM fields through game-based methods. The idea is to encourage children, who otherwise might not be STEAM enthusiasts, to understand its value in the real world, not just in school.  While successful in engaging students, Jackson and his colleagues now are turning their attention to how knowledge gained in one setting can be applied elsewhere, which is necessary if learning is to have long-lasting effects.

ETS researchers Gabrielle Cayton-Hodges and Madeleine Keehner are studying computer simulations to understand how students run experiments and what they learn through doing scientific inquiry. “One of the goals is to be able to infer student skills by looking at their process,” says Keehner. In addition, according to Cayton-Hodges, they are hoping to develop good systematic practices and the best ways to assess them rather through only content knowledge.  It’s all part of a focus on doing science more than just knowing science.

Mikeska believes “multiple approaches” must be tried at all levels to raise U.S. proficiency in math and science. “If students don’t even have an opportunity in these subject areas, there’s no way to get that needle to move and that takes an effort from local school districts, the states and at the national level,” she says.

Despite the low world rankings, these researchers are optimistic as these challenges become better recognized and understood throughout the country. “I think partnerships are really key for us at ETS.” Mikeska says. “We can’t be just in a R&D bubble. We’ve got to be there with policy makers, districts, states and other nonprofits working together to develop or co-develop tools that can support students and teachers in learning. That’s when you’ll get the best kind of products to help the educational field.”