Innovations in STEM Education: A Conversation With PCAST's Jim Gates

As a physicist at the University of Maryland, College Park, S. James Gates Jr. knows that innovation helps advance the scientific frontier. But he says that those who want to improve precollege math and science education are often much less willing to try new things. An upcoming report on the subject from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) will attempt to correct that problem, he says. Its recommendations could include a grants program to train teachers to meet higher standards, a new federal agency to fund "market-based" solutions for raising student achievement, and scaling up programs that let students do science themselves.

Gates is co-chair, with Eric Lander, of a PCAST working group on science, math, engineering, and technology (STEM) education that will be finishing its task shortly. In a conversation last week with ScienceInsider, Gates discussed some of the issues that the panel has been wrestling with and his own thoughts on what needs to be done.

Q: Why another report on STEM education? And what are the key issues?

J.G.: There have been at least many tens of reports, and we don't want to produce just another report.

I think the nation is looking at a third STEM crisis. The first one was the Second World War. This nation won that war because it out-innovated every other country that was a contender. And emblematic of that innovation was the invention of nuclear weapons of mass destruction. As someone who looks at policy, there's another story that's often overlooked. And that was the creation of the National Science Foundation. As recognized by Vannevar Bush, out of the war a unique resource [basic research] had been created that would serve the country for many years, and it needed to be preserved.

The second crisis occurs with the launch of Sputnik. Suddenly, the nation realized that there was another country that was capable of technical innovation that was threatening. The public emblem of that was the space race and landing men on the moon. And the policy story had two aspects.

One was the National Defense Education Act, in which the government for the first time supported substantial numbers of young people who would go into physical sciences to provide the manpower to support the increased technical needs of the nation. The second policy tool was the creation of DARPA [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency]. It has been an amazing organization at leveraging serendipity for the nation's defense needs.

I'm an amateur historian. But I'm also a scientist, and in physics, we don't survive without the ability to innovate. And last summer, I began to think about the innovation culture I know as a committed educator and someone who has taught every year since 1972. When I teach, my laptop goes with me, and I can see the wedge of innovation as it flows into university teaching. And finally, I'm a member of the Maryland Board of Education. That has given me a chance to see how state education systems interact with school districts and government policies.

So these three prisms were useful when I started to think about the educational system, K through 12. And one thing that struck me is that there's nothing like DARPA in the education system. So one of my theories is that something like that—it won't be exactly the same—needs to be directed at education. There's no structure like that now.

Q: What about the Institute of Education Sciences at the Department of Education and NSF's educational research programs .

J.G.: Right, there are lots of structures out there. But none of them act like DARPA. Just look at its name. It's called the Advanced Research Projects agency. In other words, it's not just research. It's directed at the development of projects, with a legacy of tools and procedures. And I don't see anything like that in education. This was one of my first theories, that there is a missing piece that the government might be able to take advantage of.

Another feature is that there's something like 28,000 school districts in the country. Although there are state education departments, local districts have a large degree of autonomy. It's a legacy of our history of local control. But when you have this sort of fractured system, one of its downsides is that, when you're trying to achieve innovation, the market is not optimally structured to take advantage of any innovation. So if you want market-based solutions, you have a hard time figuring out how to do that.

So another thing the government might do would be to find ways to jump-start market-based solutions. Even though people think of the mighty federal government, there are an extreme paucity of tools for the government to use. One possible tool is to create incentives for public-private partnerships, or consortia with many states.

Q: People have said that DARPA works because it has only one customer. How can you apply that model to a system with 28,000 customers, or more?

J.G.: Whatever this entity is, the circumstances will be different because there's not a single customer. But there's a change taking place in the education system. Some 46 governors have agreed to sign onto a common core of standards, in what is beginning to look like a unitary thesis that will drive what happens in the schools. With continued actions like this, one can hope that the chaotic nature of the current system will begin to decrease.

Q: Should the federal government try to push that along? Even the common standards are voluntary, and some states have opted out, and even those who are in have a lot of leeway. Why not be more directive?

J.G.: The government is highly limited in what it can do. For example, the government cannot create a national curriculum, by law.

Q: But laws can change .

J.G.: Ahhh. Yes, but ... you have to understand that this is part of the cultural wars that have been fought in this country for the past 40 years. So if one suggests that the government should get involved in setting up curriculum, then some people will wonder if that includes intelligent design. So what you're talking about is a political battle on a scale that far exceeds anything I can imagine. ...

I think it's likely that part of the report will talk about these issues and how the current system is not the optimal configuration for achieving reform in STEM education. On the other hand, the report goes to the president, and if the White House decides it wants to fight that battle, that's certainly their option.

Q: In the interim, what levers can the government operate that it's not using now, or what opportunities exist that should be seized?

J.G.: Yes, we believe such levers exist, and that will be the bulk of what is in the report.

Q: Can you give us an example?

J.G.: Let me talk about one issue that we spent a lot of time on. This common core looks like it's coming along, and perhaps it will help narrow the customer base in terms of what sort of products that are out there. So what do we do about teacher preparation? On average, the standards are going to be higher. So what do you do about getting the current teacher workforce better prepared. This comes down to what's called professional development.

So does it make sense for the government to put in place programs that would support this enhanced level of support? This might be a grants program, to which states can apply, to obtain the additional resources. That's one example.

Q: Have you also tackled the issue of lab-based science?

J.G.: Absolutely. And we believe that we have identified at least one approach that is very promising, in line with what is called a constructivist, inquiry-based approach. The government doesn't get involved in curriculum development, but it has for some time provided infrastructure support for new technology. So this is not a departure.

Q: What's the time frame for the report?

J.G.: We are pushing very hard to have the report to the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and then ultimately to the president. Certainly no later than June.

Q: Then what?

J.G.: At the beginning, it was decided that we would only look at K through 12 STEM education. But that obviously means there's another piece of the STEM enterprise that needs to be analyzed just as strenuously, and that's university and postgraduate education. And that's likely to be the next effort.