Educators Take Aim at STEM Myths

According to some STEM advocates, testing can be a great thing, and lack of diversity may not be that widespread.

Attendees gather in the exhibit area at the U.S. News STEM Solutions National Conference on June 17, 2013, in Austin.

Attendees gather in the exhibit area at the U.S. News STEM Solutions National Conference on June 17, 2013, in Austin.

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According to some STEM advocates, testing can be a great thing, and lack of diversity may not be that widespread.

It's easy to complain about the state of American STEM education, but it goes without saying that fixing the education system's deficiencies in this area is a complex problem. One reason is that there are plenty of misconceptions and generalizations out there about the state of STEM. On a Tuesday panel at the 2013 U.S. News STEM Solutions conference, educators and STEM advocates shot holes in what they consider to be myths about STEM.

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There are massive shortages across all STEM fields.

It's common to hear sweeping generalizations among STEM advocates about the lack of diversity and interest across all STEM fields. One educator took aim at this idea in a Tuesday panel discussion at the U.S. News Stem Solutions 2013 conference.

"Not all STEM fields are created equal," said Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College. "If I look at biology and chemistry classes, they are probably about 60 percent female, and there are a lot of students of color in those classes."

That sounds like a great thing, but Klawe cautioned that there is not job market demand for all of those students once they graduate. "They all think they're going to be doctors and the vast majority of them will not become doctors," she said.

While these students have advanced science skills, they may not command the same salary and employer interest as a computer programmer. Women and students of color are least represented in computer science, electrical engineering, and computer engineering, said Klawe.

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Boosting STEM education is a matter of finding as many teachers as possible.

While churning out masses of STEM-trained teachers may be an improvement over the current state of affairs, it isn't the most efficient way to deal with a lack of math and science instructors, said one STEM advocate. Those who are training teachers need to know where the shortages are, according to Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, one teacher recruiting program.

"Universities aren't doing what they need to do. They're creating an oversupply of elementary school teachers and not enough physics teachers," he said.

Levine also added that teacher shortages are geographical in nature, meaning that focusing efforts on districts most in need can be the best strategy. One area his organization targets is Michigan, and Levine used the state as an example, saying that 120 STEM teachers could fill "every vacancy in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Benton Harbor, and Battle Creek."

"It's careful targeting rather than turning out the largest numbers we can turn out," he added.

Testing can be a great thing.

Standardized testing has always had its proponents and detractors, but its increased status in the education system as a result of George W. Bush's 2001 No Child Left Behind initiative sparked a nationwide debate over how much to rely on testing. Many teachers and educational experts have complained that "teaching the test" is counterproductive to helping students truly learn.

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"I think the whole idea of testing has got to be one that increases the positive incentive of teaching," said Richard Middleton, regional vice president of the southwestern region at the College Board. As a company that administers a variety of standardized tests, the College Board has an interest in promoting testing, but Middleton did acknowledge that testing can be used ineffectively.

If a school with bad test scores is simplistically labeled as a bad school, he said, "you've really perverted the system. You've really taken it into a place where testing becomes now the game."

Middleton and Levine agreed that testing can be used to better direct and incentivize teachers, rather than punishing them.

"Testing ought to be more like your GPS," said Levine, stressing that testing should be about getting fast feedback. "The moment the student's off track, we can provide the intervention" to turn them around, rather than checking in only occasionally, he added.