Growing the Science Branch of STEM


If the subject is education or workforce development, one of the more popular acronyms is STEM. But the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics are not treated equally, according to a new report.

Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that the report was sponsored by the National Science Foundation (although other nonprofit research entities were also involved). And although elevating science is one of the lead concepts, there are a number of suggestions for policymakers in the effort to improve all STEM disciplines.

A few of the highlights:

“A growing number of jobs — not just those in professional science — require knowledge of STEM fields,” said Adam Gamoran, chair of the committee that wrote the report and professor of sociology and educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  “The goal isn’t only to have a capable and competitive work force.  We need to help all students become scientifically literate because citizens are increasingly facing decisions related to science and technology — whether it’s understanding a medical diagnosis or weighing competing claims about the environment.” 

The report identifies key elements of high-quality STEM education to which policymakers could target improvements:

  • A coherent set of standards and curriculum. States and districts should have rigorous K-12 STEM standards and curricula that are focused on the most important topics in each discipline and presented as a sequence of content and practices that build knowledge over time.

  • Teachers with high capacity to teach in their discipline. Good teachers need to know both STEM content and how to teach it; many teachers are currently underprepared to teach STEM-related courses.

  • A supportive system of assessment and accountability. Current assessments limit educators’ ability to teach in ways that promote learning the content and understanding the practices of science and mathematics.

  • Adequate instructional time. The average amount of time spent on science instruction in elementary classrooms has decreased in recent years even as the time on mathematics instruction has increased. This is likely due to the focus on math and English language arts in the No Child Left Behind Act. 

The report suggests that one way to elevate science to the same level of importance as mathematics and reading is to assess science subjects as frequently as is done for reading and math, using an assessment system that supports learning and understanding.  However, such a system is not yet available for science subjects, the report notes. States and national organizations need to develop assessments that are aligned with the next generation of science standards — which will be based on a framework to be released soon by the Research Council — and that emphasize science practices rather than mere factual recall.  

National and state policymakers also should invest in helping educators in STEM fields teach more effectively, said the committee. For example, teachers should be able to pursue professional development through peer collaboration and professional learning communities, among other approaches. Schools and school districts should devote adequate instructional time and resources to science in grades K-5 to lay a foundation for further study, the report notes, as research suggests that interest in science careers may develop in the elementary school years.  

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