The State of STEM

U.S. News STEM Solutions summit gets underway as demand for skilled tech workers far exceeds supply.

Team testing in high schools mimics workplace problem solving, and studies show it can also boost student engagement.
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Meanwhile, many states are pushing forward with implementation and testing on the Common Core State Standards for reading and mathematics, fully adopted in 2010 and 2011 by 45 states and the District of Columbia and designed to be a consistent set of guidelines to better prepare students for college and careers.

[Some States Pull Back From Common Core Standards]

Tests and textbooks are being designed and redesigned, while teachers and administrators are working to understand and apply the standards with the goal of putting them in place in the coming years. Kentucky was the first state to adopt them, and in November, when it released data from its first round of tests aligned to the Common Core, Bluegrass State officials saw high school proficiency scores in reading and math drop significantly, but the percentage of graduates deemed ready for college or careers climb.

Still, the Common Core has come under fire from a number of critics, and several states have pulled back. Last month, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a bill that paused implementation and calls for public hearings and a cost analysis. In the last several weeks, Michigan lawmakers passed a budget that effectively stalls the Common Core by blocking the state's department of education from spending money on implementation.

However the process and politics play out, experts say the future of STEM education requires better trained teachers – and far more of them. A December report from the American Federation of Teachers called for more rigorous teacher training and establishing something like a bar exam for incoming educators. A number of groups are working to draft STEM professionals to become teachers and bring their firsthand industry know-how and mentoring to students. Last July, President Obama called for creating a master teaching corps of exceptional STEM educators, following up on an earlier goal of recruiting 100,000 STEM teachers during this decade. Specialized STEM schools continue to crop up across the country. Teachers are flipping classrooms, building vast and real-time ways to collect and analyze data on what students are learning, and trying out other novel pedagogical techniques to see what works best in teaching and learning.

In the higher ed space, there has been an explosion of massive open online courses and what seems like an almost daily deluge of new offerings, university partnerships, and debate about which online courses should or shouldn't earn students credit. Coursera, currently the largest MOOC provider, has swelled to include more than 350 courses from 81 institutions around the world, reaching millions of people.

A number of proponents see MOOCs as especially suited to bolster STEM education – eliminating the need for the large-auditorium Chemistry 101 courses, for instance, or helping intrepid computer programmers forge ahead with advanced courses at their own pace. Indeed, in early February, the American Council on Education endorsed only five particular Coursera MOOCs for credit to its 1,800-plus college members: genetics and evolution, bioelectricity, pre-calculus, algebra and calculus.

At the same time, educators and college officials are looking inward at what's working to effectively recruit and retain more students in STEM. Fewer science lecture courses, more applied research and internship opportunities, interdisciplinary and student-mentor teaching, and STEM-themed living-learning communities are just some of the best practices already emerging and being refined at universities across the country. Experts say the first two years are especially critical for attracting STEM students and keeping those already interested engaged.

According to a 2012 PCAST report, the number of STEM graduates must rise by at least one-third annually over the next decade in order to meet workforce needs. To that end, many educators are spreading the word to students to show them that those who major in these fields typically earn more and have brighter job prospects. Community colleges are playing an increasingly important role, too, in developing those new workers and plugging them into real jobs, as well as retraining current professionals in emerging technologies and the skills the industry needs.