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A student collects a dirt sample as part of a Pentagon-sponsored STEM education program.

A student collects a dirt sample as part of a Pentagon-sponsored STEM education program.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/Flickr

After Election 2014: STEM EDUCATION

This story is the third in ScienceInsider’s After Election 2014 series. Through Election Day on 4 November, we will periodically examine research issues that will face U.S. lawmakers when they return to Washington, D.C., for a lame-duck session and when a new Congress convenes in January. Click here to see all the stories published so far; click here for a list of published and planned stories.

Today, a look at how states and universities aren’t waiting for Washington to improve science and math education.

The debut of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in a handful of states and a growing awareness among research universities that they must improve undergraduate instruction are arguably the two biggest recent changes in the U.S. science education landscape. They also embody the political adage of thinking globally and acting locally, a timely message as the Obama administration heads into the homestretch and voters prepare to elect a new Congress.

The last 2 years have provided a vivid reminder that improving U.S. science education will depend at least as much on grassroots efforts as on the federal government. The administration’s biggest gambit—a plan to restructure the $3 billion federal investment in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education—went down in flames after lawmakers from both parties and community leaders denounced it as unwise and poorly designed.

Nobody expects the next Congress to pass any bold new STEM education initiatives. But a hiatus in Washington, D.C., hasn’t hindered state-level progress on NGSS and campus efforts to improve undergraduate science courses. 

Taking it slow in the classroom

A dozen states have adopted NGSS since they were unveiled in April 2013. The voluntary national standards for teaching science in elementary and secondary schools, drawn up by a coalition of 26 states, would require students to use their knowledge of scientific phenomena and practices to solve real-world problems.

Now, many state and local education officials are scrambling to provide teachers with the additional training they will need. With help from the National Academies, AAAS (which publishes ScienceInsider), and other professional societies, they are aligning new curricular materials to the standards and revising assessments of student learning. Advocates hope that a gradual rollout of NGSS over several years will help them escape the public controversy that has engulfed the Common Core, a comparable set of standards in English and mathematics adopted en masse in 2010 by 43 states and the District of Columbia. The Common Core has generated rising public opposition, and become an issue in partisan politics, as the standards begin to show up in the classroom.

“The key is to take time to make sure everything is in place,” counsels Lillian Lowery, the state school superintendent for Maryland, which adopted the new science standards in June 2013 but has decided not to implement them until the 2017 to 2018 academic year. “There will always be opposition, but if you get the facts straight and have a cogent message about what the standards are and are not, then I think things will be okay.” As one Maryland elementary school principal quipped when asked if NGSS advocates can learn anything from how the Common Core was introduced: “They’ve already learned the key lesson: Don’t go first.”

Moving quickly on campus

A what’s-the-rush mentality may be good for NGSS, but science educators are hoping that research universities will want to move more quickly to become leaders in reshaping how science is taught on their campuses. The Association of American Universities (AAU) in Washington, D.C., for example, has launched a pilot project at eight of its 62 member institutions to tackle the many changes needed to raise the overall quality of instruction. The list includes dismantling the lecture-based approach for entry-level courses, converting “gatekeeper” courses designed to weed students out of certain fields into “gateway” courses, providing institutional incentives for good teaching, and helping faculty acquire the necessary skills. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has reshuffled its programs on undergraduate education to put more emphasis on such reforms, including targeting community colleges and the transition to 4-year institutions.

Universities are under more pressure from politicians to show that students are getting their money’s worth, notes Tobin Smith, who oversees the AAU initiative, and improving instruction is one way to meet those demands for greater accountability. But that’s not the only reason this issue has moved into prime time, he argues.

“We know what works,” he says, citing “the mounting evidence” that interactive learning practices are better than lectures. The growth of MOOCs (massive open online courses) has focused increased attention on instruction, he adds, as well as leading some faculty members to ask, only half in jest, “Will some MIT professor put me out of business?” (The edX project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University has been aggressively fielding MOOCs.)

The never-ending competition among institutions—for top talent and a reputation for innovation, among other factors—is also fueling the reform campaign. Half of AAU’s member schools pledged their commitment to change in seeking to become a pilot site, Smith says, and some may have been thinking: “We need to do this if institution X is doing it.”

Resistance to reshuffling

Although STEM educators applaud the changes on campus and in the nation’s classrooms, they have spent the past 2 years on Capitol Hill fighting to preserve the status quo after President Barack Obama delivered a bombshell in his 2014 budget request to Congress. The administration’s proposal for a major reshuffling of how the government spends some $3 billion annually in STEM education funds would have given more money to, and elevated the role of, the Department of Education and NSF, while shrinking activities at mission agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), NASA, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

White House officials billed the reshuffling as a way to increase the payoff from the government’s investment in STEM education across a dozen agencies. But the proposal, which caught both legislators and STEM advocates by surprise, never got off the ground. The higher price tag angered conservatives, who favor a streamlining of federal STEM activities at a lower cost to taxpayers. STEM advocates were incensed by the lack of consultation and seemingly arbitrary reallocation of responsibilities for programs, each of which had their own impassioned advocates. In a rare show of bipartisanship, Democrats and Republicans joined together to make the case that, in the absence of a solid rationale for the changes, the current alignment should be maintained.

Shunted to the sidelines during the heated debate was the administration’s new 5-year strategic plan for STEM education. Unveiled a month after the budget bombshell, it promises that federal agencies will work through a coordinating committee called CoSTEM to scale up successful programs and weed out any redundant efforts. In parallel, the administration has enlisted blue-ribbon advisory panels, hosted highly visible events like science fairs and Maker Faires, and heavily promoted what it calls public-private partnerships aimed at tackling such thorny—and expensive—problems as improving the quality of teacher training and increasing the number of STEM graduates.

But with just 2 years left for the Obama administration, the community remains skeptical of its intentions. The sudden departure in June 2012 of Nobelist Carl Wieman, for health reasons, robbed STEM education of its most prominent advocate within the White House. It’s also not clear how much political capital the administration is now willing to spend on these issues.

“The restructuring plan hurt the administration tremendously within the STEM community,” says Martin Storksdieck, director of a new STEM research and learning center at Oregon State University, Corvallis, and the former director of the National Academies’ Board on Science Education. “And the fallout is a pervasive mistrust. CoSTEM is a good idea, but people are worried that the administration will propose more cuts [in its next budget] in an attempt to appease Congress.”

Although Congress rejected the overall plan, it did inflict some collateral damage to STEM education programs at specific agencies. Last year, NIH shuttered its Office of Science Education and paused a program funding science and health museums after agency officials said K–12 and informal science education didn’t belong in NIH’s portfolio. NASA has dropped education programs within its science mission directorate, and NOAA has shrunk several education programs tied to programmatic activities.

Still, education advocates pride themselves on being resilient. “The silver lining is that the controversy has focused more attention on STEM education,” Storksdieck says. “And if people can figure out how to work within the new CoSTEM structure, then maybe something good will come from it.”

ScienceInsider’s After Election 2014 series will look at a range of issues that will be on policymakers’ agenda once the voters have spoken on 4 November. Look for stories on: