How to Create a Culture That Values Both Academic and Athletic Heroes

Portraying science and math as fringe areas for "freaks of nature" hinders STEM education progress, panelists said.

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Do other countries outperform America on international math and science assessments because they put a stronger emphasis on academic achievement? Experts in math and science education gathered Wednesday to discuss the issue at the "Culture Shock: Valuing Academic Achievement" session of the U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference, questioning whether society's portrayal of researchers and research deters students from pursuing those paths. 

While there are some exceptional programs and schools in which students are excited about and engaged in science, there still exist large gender and racial gaps in the STEM fields, said Jeff Goldstein, director of the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education. Much of that problem comes from the image of STEM professionals that American society perpetuates. It can be seen in television shows, where researchers are portrayed as "freaks of nature" and fringe individuals who can't socially interact. 

[SPECIAL REPORT: The U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index]

"If 

we portray science like that, what do we as society expect in terms of how researchers and research are going to be embraced by the public, at a time when it's so important to embrace them for the future of the nation?" Goldstein asked. 

Overall, the panelists -- who also included Evan Glazer, principal of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, and Glen Whitney, executive director and founder of the National Museum of Mathematics -- said that there's still a mindset that if certain academic fields aren't seen as entertaining, they might not be worth pursuing. 


Here are some proposed changes the panel discussed and education models they said could be more widespread to increase STEM engagement among all students, particularly young women and minorities: 
  • Goldstein said there should be a change in the way teachers teach in classrooms, to encourage students to have ownership in their learning. But giving students the power to do inquiry-based learning could be problematic at the younger grades that are most critical to catalyze STEM engagement, Goldstein said, because many elementary school teachers are generalists. 
  • Aside from preparatory problems blocking the path to more widespread engagement in STEM, Glazer said there is also a cultural problem. He said that while many other countries, particularly those in east Asia, have a strong commitment solely to academic achievement, the American education system values well-rounded students, almost to the point where students spend more time in after-school activities than homework. "As a result, we have to ask ourselves do we need to change, or are we happy with who we are?" Glazer asked.
  • On the issue of increasing diversity in STEM education, the panelists agreed that a key component is providing strong role models and mentorship opportunities for young women and minority students who might not otherwise pursue a STEM pathway. At Thomas Jefferson High School, Glazer said teachers and administrators will personally reach out to high-performing female students and encourage them to pursue fields they've shown great potential for. Whitney added that having the flexibility to offer programs to families regardless of their financial situation helps break down barriers to access. 
  • Goldstein said that presenting science and math in informal settings could also help engagement, because the students participating would be there because they want to, not because they're required to be there. Additionally, presenting helping students realize that part of their human nature and inquisitiveness connects to research makes the topic not seem so foreign. "We’re born curious. We're born to explore and to ask questions," Goldstein said. "If we could introduce a new paradigm for how science is done so it authentically represents how researchers work, our nation would be far better off."