The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

STEM education
David Drew (photo by Nick Pandolfo)

David Drew, a professor and former dean at Claremont Graduate University who has studied science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education for decades, recently wrote the book Stem the Tide: Reforming Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Education in America. STEM has been a central focus of education reform by President Barack Obama. The Hechinger Report sat down with Drew to hear how those reforms are progressing and what he learned while researching his book.

There were two reports released in September 2010 about how to improve STEM education, one by the National Science Board, which said that the United States does a poor job of identifying potential STEM success students and should cast a wider net earlier on, and another by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which said we should be focusing on developing master STEM teachers, rewarding them, and opening 1,000 new STEM-focused schools over the next decade. Which of these would you say is more likely to be the answer? Or what are they perhaps missing?

I totally agree with the first one. I believe what they’re saying is there are many people who could succeed who get discouraged from STEM or never encouraged, which is the main thrust of my book. I feel that often that happens because teachers and counselors—and sometimes even parents—believe that a girl can’t do math, believe that a student of color can’t master math and science, that a white student from poverty cannot become a scientist. All of these are false beliefs. That’s all garbage. The whole thrust of my book is that in the emerging high-tech global economy, we switch from the manufacturing era to the information era, and pretty much everybody should be learning at least some of this in high school and many people could go into STEM as a career. We have to get away from a model from the industrial age that says: a) we only need a few people in this area and those will be the geeks; and b) only a few people can succeed in this area. Those are false. So my whole book is about broadening participation, and I feel the achievement gap is based on false factors and can easily be eliminated.

So how can we broaden access to STEM education?

I list four factors in the book and talk about a number of programs that have done this. One, recruiting into STEM, which maybe isn’t the best verb because it sounds like marketing. It’s making young people aware that college is an option for them and STEM is an option for them. Two, mentoring is critical. Three, in high school and in college, finding ways to create study groups and peer support groups that are focused on academic excellence. The main thing is not to discourage kids and to encourage them to study STEM. Some of the key decisions occur in middle school because they’re heading into algebra. I used to work with Carl Sagan and one of the things we struggled with is that kindergarten students and first-grade students have a natural interest in science and they’ll ask questions about it and get involved, but then if you look as they get older, their interest declines. Where it becomes critical is in middle school because there students are making choices about what they will take in high school and that affects whether they will go to college and where they will go to college. A lot of the avoidance of STEM by teachers, counselors, parents—steering students away from STEM, or avoidance by the students themselves—has to do with anxiety about math. What you have to do is get beyond psychological barriers to broaden participation.

President Obama has made advancing STEM education one of the centerpieces of his education reform vision. From your perspective as someone who has studied it extensively for decades, have the changes he has begun to implement been making a difference? Are they changing things on the ground?

Yes, but I don’t think it’s enough. I understand that there are constraints. I also think that there are some myths that everybody buys into when talking about reforming education. There are four. Here’s something you’ll hear high officials in government saying: ‘American high-school students perform dismally in international assessments.’ Which is true. ‘This shows how much American education has declined. We have to take steps to restore American secondary and elementary education to its former glory and here’s how I think we should do it.’ That’s false. There was no period of former glory. We always were at the bottom. Now it’s become much more important, and we’re more aware of it now. Another myth is that the way to fix this is to spend a lot on curriculum. I don’t think so. Curriculum reform is fine, but we’ve spent huge sums—for example, the new math after Sputnik. Given the choice, I’d rather have my child taught by an exciting, creative, involved teacher using a science curriculum from the 1950s, as contrasted with a hostile, critical, boring teacher using the latest curriculum. I think it’s all about the teacher. Another myth is that the key is we’ve got to recruit more young people into teaching. That’s good, but it’s not the key in my opinion. The problem isn’t getting young people into teaching; it’s keeping them in teaching. But it’s all about the teacher.

There’s a program that started here in New York that I think is an excellent model for how to fix [STEM education]. In complex systems, you look for a leverage point where a little investment of energy or money can make a difference. This is my idea of the key leverage point for STEM education. A man named James Simons made a couple billion on Wall Street, and he decided that he wanted to do something about the weakness of math education in the U.S. So he started a program called Math for America in New York City initially. He said, we’re going to pick out outstanding graduates from undergraduate programs who majored in math. If they will commit to at least six years teaching in an under-served school, we will do the following: we’ll pay for their master’s degree in education so they get instruction on how to teach [and] for the first six years that they’re teaching, we’ll give them a salary bonus of $20,000 a year. It can be transformative. And this was done with private funds. He put in $50 to $100 million of his own money. I think this is the way to go … What if we established a program in math—there are about 250,000 math teachers across the country—what if we said we were going to reward the top 100,000? Setting aside for a moment the issue of exactly how that would be measured, with $20,000 a year extra. And what if that money came from the federal government or a government/corporate combination? Then you’d have people trying to be better and better. That’s a big incentive. And given that part of the background of this is that teaching is not rewarded, nor is it respected enough in this country compared to other countries where the students outperform ours. I’d like to elevate the whole profession.

The general conversation about STEM seems to be that America is falling behind, and it’s repeated over and over again that ‘we’re in a knowledge economy and in order to compete with other countries in twenty-first century jobs, we need more people studying STEM and going into STEM careers.’ That’s the common conversation today, and most people buy into that. You’ve compiled all the latest research in your book, so I wonder: 1) if that’s true; and 2) are there things in your book that might surprise people and change that conversation? Or is that the right conversation to be having?

That is the right conversation to be having. There are things that would surprise people. I think the fundamental barrier is that people are worried about erroneous beliefs that some students may not be up to it. And I feel that virtually any student can master these subjects, at least at the high-school level, and many in college. As far as surprises, many students can benefit from technical training—community college technical training. There are many STEM jobs that don’t require a college degree. I am not saying that some students are not smart enough to go to college—my whole bid is that everyone can learn this—but some students don’t want to go to college. Some want to go to work right now. So take STEM courses in high school and some community-college courses, and there are jobs that are in demand now such as underwater welders, all kinds of jobs where you can get excellent training. I also don’t think enough attention is paid when discussing STEM [in relation] to reading. I haven’t ever met an outstanding mathematician that can’t read. I think there are still a lot of uninformed ideas and prejudices that certain people can’t do this. And that’s just wrong. When you have the president of Harvard saying that women maybe don’t have the intellectual fire power to succeed in STEM, that’s pretty serious. It’s a battle that I feel is the central battle, and I think we’re in an era now with respect to women in STEM, with respect to underrepresented minorities in STEM, with respect to white students from poverty in STEM, that’s kind of like a previous era with respect to civil rights where the rhetoric was one thing but the reality was different.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

16 Letters

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

  1. Good start on the STEM conversation but I believe we continue to leave out the crucial factor affecting STEM engagement and performance: How we teach STEM subjects. Science, technology, and engineering are inherently student-focused, question-oriented, project based subjects. We will not get better at STEM until project based methods are more widespread and accepted. The bottom line: Better STEM education and educational reform are both elements of one conversation.

  2. Many excellent points are made by Prof. Drew. The problems he cites are real. The point about past American glory has merit in this discussion. In the 1950s, other countries were recovering from devastating war while we had a booming can-do culture. If, as he may be suggesting, our education system stood still, it stands to reason that the others would eventually surpass us given that many of those cultures respect education more than we.

    This business about paying the best math teachers an additional $20,000 per year just doesn’t make sense. We should be elevating teaching as an entire profession (and shouldn’t leave out science teachers either). Because our people seem only to respect those who are wealthy (not entirely but mostly), one way to improve respect for teachers is to pay them more. IMO, we should offer to trade the foolish tenure system for better pay. However, it’s done, we should raise teachers’ salaries, not because they particularly deserve it (though many do), but because by so doing we’ll transform our education system. Pay more, ask for more. Pay more, give more respect. Raise taxes to improve our country.

    Increasing pay is only one piece of improving our education system as a whole and for science (and STEM). It doesn’t matter whether our educational past had glory. It does matter that we’re falling behind in a global race to educate our citizens. It does matter that teaching is not a highly respected profession. It does matter that few of our citizens understand science, let alone are literate in science.

    Science, math, and engineering each have specific modes of thought attached to them. Carl Sagan wrote, in The Demon-Haunted World,” that scientists have, as a matter of course from their training, a “baloney detection kit.” Scientific thinking should be learned by every student starting at middle school or sooner. All students can learn it and enjoy its exercise. By just doing this one thing, we’ll attract more people to science. I won’t belabor this point by explaining the modes of thought for math and engineering.

    I’ve been to numerous science classes over the last dozen years as I worked to perfect a new way to learn science (real science, not just content). I’m a Caltech and Columbia University-trained scientist who was even once the chair of the Northeastern Section of the American Chemical Society. Few science teachers understand science. So, most are unable to teach it well. My solution includes helping teachers understand science. It’s cloud-computing and fits all of the standards put forth by the AAAS and others. It’s the only online solution to meet all of the definitions and goals of “America’s Lab Report.” Better science education in middle and high school will improve reading and math and will pave the way to learning engineering discipline.

    We can fix things. We can improve science education right now by using prerecorded real experiments with interactive data collection to replace cookbook labs in classrooms and save money at the same time. The same technology can train science teachers. We can do it. Search for “prerecorded real experiments” to find out more.

  3. I agree that it’s not just WHAT kind of STEM we teach, but HOW we teach it.

    Consider this conversation I recently overheard, between two seventh grade girls:
    “Do you think the dendrites on your eyelashes die in the shower? I mean, does the shampoo kill them? If they live through that, do they get washed down the drain? Can they live if they leave my eyelashes?”
    “Oh my God. And what about mascara? Does it smother them? Are we killing the dendrites on our eyelashes just to look pretty?”
    When I interrupted the girls and asked if they like science, they quickly responded:
    “No! Ugh!”
    “Science is boring!”

    Science, technology, engineering and math are inquiry based subjects, yet our educators are apparently taught to remove all of the inquiry from the classroom. Textbooks are handed out. Experiments are conducted with strict instructions on subjects with predetermined conclusions. Students are taught not to ask “inappropriate” questions. Teachers believe they don’t have time to connect the subject matter to the real world; they’re too busy preparing kids to take “the test” (whether it’s the AP test, or the state standards test).

    Meanwhile, corporate, governmental and educational leaders talk of “recruiting” students into STEM fields. I have all too often heard about the “STEM pipeline,” which not only suggests that our children are commodities being pushed through a manufacturing process, but also suggests that it’s logical and ethical to push our children into whatever direction suits us. Is it?

    As the producer of an educational webzine, I feel it is my job, not to recruit, but rather to open the doors to the wide world of opportunities available via STEM studies. The fact is, science, tech, engineering and math are inherent in every single facet of our lives. (Refer to the dendrite conversation above.) To study a STEM field is to enhance one’s understanding of the universe. Once kids (and adults) realize that, math, chemistry, biology, engineering, forensics, technology, physics, earth sciences, psychology, et al, suddenly seem interesting. No recruiting required.

  4. All important points, but the one Prof. Drew makes at the end – that underwater welding could be considered a STEM career – is even more important. What are STEM jobs? Kids (and teachers) have such a limited view of what these jobs entail, visualizing lab coats and test-tubes and computers and PhD programs and that’s it. Sometimes science isn’t hands-on and engaging, and at those points, kids need to know what they’re doing this for …

  5. STEM, as it is developed is an unscientific top down focus. There are two scientific educational aspects that need to be understood. One is that intellectual develop starts at age of 2 1/2 to 3 and not at the age of 6 or 5. The other scientific need is the natural scientific understanding of the difference between human intellectual human development of children’s internally motivated unavoidable learn as apposed to the unscientific external education belief. It is the scientific understanding of the bottom up natural human intellectual development.

  6. I’m a firm believer in a project based approach to curriculum in all subjects arease, especially math and science. Too much fragmentation causes our students to view knowledge as separate, discreet and unconnected which results in a fragmented, concrete and forgettable knowlege core. Making natural connections across disciplines with involved and complex projects allows our students to learn more indepth, critical and applicable knowledge. You have to pose questions in project based learning. The questions are answered for you in preset curriculums. If we want our students to think critically, like scientists and mathematicians, we should allow for indepth questioning and research based projects. Unfortunately, this takes time and patience. Increasingly we have a limitied amount of time in our classrooms to seriously adopt this approach.

  7. As Dr. Drew suggested, it is all about the teacher. We must maintain qualified, experienced teachers in the classroom in order to effectively teach young people. We are losing half of our teaching force within 5 years of them starting and this needs to stop. Mentoring, relationships and school community must be nutured in order to keep them teaching or STEM improvement will never succeed.

  8. To Jim Mac Shane’s point:
    Consider the 3-year-old who peeps under a rock, and to his or her delight, discovers worms, mud and bugs. Now consider the parent, or pre-school teacher, or child care provider, who tells the 3-year-old child “No! Put that down. That’s dirty/icky/gross/dangerous.”

    The child is engaging in a simple scientific experiment. He or she is studying biology and ecology. The adult is responding to his or her needs to:
    a. keep the child clean
    b. protect the child from potential harm caused by icky bugs

    This is, of course, an exaggeration, but I believe it illustrates a very real issue connected with STEM education: the desire to sanitize it, control it and spoon feed it to our children. Since science, tech, engineering and math tend to be messy, the sanitization of these studies makes them irrelevant and uninteresting. Hence the question so often posed by our kids: “But when am I ever going to use [math, science, …] in the real world???”

  9. Great discussion going on here. For far too long we have been having students read about science, rather than inquire, wonder, and seek new knowledge, by “doing science”. Kids today are ready to take on bigger challenges than we can even imagine. They just need the encouragement and prodding questions of an excellent teacher. We need to foster that inquisitve mind that comes to us as a preschooler/kindergartener.

    It is not about teaching students knowledge anymore. It is about teaching students how to work through challenges and apply the knowledge they are learning to real world challenges. Working as engineers, designing something better than what we currently have, and meeting criteria and constraints to work through those challenges, is what kids today are begging for the opportunity to do. We just need to open the doors and give them a chance!!

  10. I see the importance of STEM and agree that teaching is not a highly respected profession and that teachers are undervalued and underpaid. I agree with Harry Keller’s comments above that paying only certain teachers, whether math or science, bonuses or higher salaries does not help our flawed education system – it only perpetuates the problem and creates greater heirarchy. Why are we trying to produce better math and science students? Should we not be trying to produce better students in all content areas? This country and its leaders need to make education a priority. They need to set aside party differences about education and focus on creating an educational system like no other in the world. How do you do that? You raise the teaching requirements and the salaries. If all teachers were required to have a master’s degree in education and an internship in their chosen content area – 6-8 years training – and paid salaries similiar to physicians, this country would surpass any in educating its young people. Teaching would become a highly respected profession. We need to start emphasizing the importance of educating all children in all content areas, not just math and science. That means raising the standards and expectations on who is teaching our young people. It means raising the salaries and changing the stigma that teachers are not highly valued.

  11. I’ve enjoyed reading this discussion and the responses that follow. I am nodding my head as points about inquiry, student engagement, hands-on and relevant, real-world learning are brought up. We seem to understand the gap between our current education system and how students should be prepared to learn and the kinds of environments it takes to grow STEM literacy and enthusiasm. But I wonder what are the right leverage points to change the system. Sure, we could offer to pay educators more for their time and willingness to teach STEM subjects, but how do we engage the decision makers to be open to this change? In an education system that is politically charged, that runs on adoption or election cycles, how do we create change that is lasting? I don’t have an answer but would be curious to see that addressed in order for us all to see the future we so clearly articulate in this comment stream.

  12. In response to Emily’s question above about how do we create change that is lasting: it starts with conversation wherever people gather about what’s working and not working with our current educational system and what can be done to make it better. It starts with people, not just teachers, speaking up when someone belittles our profession. It starts with each one of us telling our elected government officials and political candidates that we want education to become a priority in this country and we want change. Yes, our country is falling behind, but what’s more discerning to me is that a majority of our future leaders and contributors to society are falling behind and being educated in a system that emphasizes standardized test scores, grades, competition, math and science, and teaching with little regard to individual strengths and interests. What if we eliminated standardized tests? What if we eliminated grading students? What if we didn’t label students by grade levels and taught them on a continum where they’re at regardless of their age or when they started school? Instead of telling students what they got wrong and moving on, what if we re-taught them until they truly comprehended it – no matter how long it took? I believe we do need to create change that is lasting and it starts here, with you and me. It starts with you and me spreading the word that we need leaders who believe education is crucial to getting our country back on track, who are not afraid to take risks, who are willing to stand up for what our young people truly need – to know that they have talents and strengths and together, we’ll find out what they are so they can lead productive lives and contribute to the greater good of their communities, our country, and the world. What if?

  13. The comment that fascinates me most is the idea that “in high school and in college, finding ways to create study groups and peer support groups that are focused on academic excellence” is a way of broadening access to STEM education. I couldn’t agree more! Kids today are so social – they carry hundreds of friends around with them on their cell phones – and to get them together to talk about and study STEM – the wonders and magic these fields of study produce for society – this is the way to spread STEM energy and enthusiasm.

  14. I’m attempting to help create a museum that will encourage youths to enter STEM careers, so this discussion is of considerable interest to me. I liked Rebekah’s comment: “To study a STEM field is to enhance one’s understanding of the universe.” What other motivation do you need! I recommend as must reads the writings of Brian Swimme (The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos) and Marcelo Gleiser (The Dancing Universe), and there are many others I’m sure

  15. Thank you for this concise, calm treatise. We work with hundreds of Latina girls in the outreach component of the first digital magazine made for and by young Latinas, doing technology-based digital media projects from ages 8-23 in public schools, libraries and other realms in Central and West Texas and these and these girls and teens ABSOLUTELY love technology, but get limited access to it do to cost and sometimes language barriers. Create the systems, support and the yes attitude that girls, Latinas, other minorities are made for these kinds of academic and professional realms and they will cleave to those initiatives. They do it with us and create new technology ideas themselves that mainstream business and media have not even thought about because they still struggle to acknowledge, represent and provide forums for Latina youth and other minorities in the U.S. Acknowledge these new creatives and you will see new great technologies and other STEM output.

  16. “I’d rather have my child taught by an exciting, creative, involved teacher using a science curriculum from the 1950s, as contrasted with a hostile, critical, boring teacher using the latest curriculum”

    I partly agree.

    But it’s not quite as simple as “it’s all about the teacher” if you look at it in a vacuum. It’s the combination of two things: how the teacher’s environment and work conditions are, and how that teacher is.

    Let’s try:

    “”[Curriculum reform is fine but] I’d rather have my child taught by an exciting, creative, involved teacher using a science curriculum from the 1950s, as contrasted with an over-worked, constantly micro-managed (NCLB), stressed out teacher whose teachers aid budget was cut and whose class size has been made much larger thanks to cuts”

    Give teachers better salaries and respect, yes, and give them high quality training and their peers can keep them accountable to pass those qualifications…but give them small classes (or small enough) and teachers aids as appropriate, and give them TIME (in Japan they have half the day for collaboration…here in the US, math teachers would love love love even one hour per day away from teaching which is theirs for professional development, lesson study, collaboration, etc), and for God’ sake stop the (deliberate?) sabotage and micromanagement which acts as sabotage, by NCLB politicians who have never taught a day in their lives.

    Very simple, but very rarely metnioned:

    Class size

    Enough support staff

    Enough time

    “Enough already” (end of) micro-management and NCLB bureaucratic red tape.

Submit a letter

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *