Changing STEM Outcomes Requires Making Substantial Changes to STEM Education

For all the hand-wringing over the need to attract kids to STEM fields there is still a general reluctance to make major changes to the availability of K-12 STEM opportunities. Sure, there has been promising movement toward more inquiry-based learning, but for the most part students are still required to learn whatever content their grade-level is designated to learn in whatever manner they’re supposed to learn it. If the idea that big changes can be induced by preserving the status quo weren’t maddening enough, two new studies from the Journal of Educational Psychology demonstrate the kinds of simple but substantial changes that can lead to better STEM outcomes.

The first study, which was led by Vanderbilt’s Gregory Park, involved a 40-year longitudinal examination of the outcomes of mathematically talented students who skipped a grade. Compared to similar students who were not skipped ahead, the grade skippers were more likely to pursue advanced STEM degrees, earn those degrees, and author publications (although the results were weaker for females.)

The second study, which was led by Colorado State’s Paul R. Hernandez, looked at undergraduate Latinos and African Americans in STEM fields over a three year period. The researchers found that engaging in undergraduate research was the only factor that successfully prevented an increase in detrimental performance-avoidance goals (i.e. attempting to show you’re not incompetent by avoiding poor outcomes rather than striving for great outcomes.)

While neither study specifically deals with the standard K-12 student, they both suggest that providing a wider variety of opportunities can have positive effects. Allowing middle and high school students to work in a research lab gives them a realistic look at what it means to be a STEM scientist. Logistically, it’s not hard to give students credit for their work in a lab (although legally/politically it might be more difficult), and middle and high school students are certainly capable of performing the data entry tasks that make up the majority of undergraduate research duties. Time in a STEM lab should enhance motivation and instill a mastery goal orientation, but even in a worst-case-scenario where it has the opposite effect it’s never a bad idea to give kids a more accurate portrayal of what a future in a particular field is like. As for the students who benefitted from being skipped ahead, I think the simple takeaway is that relaxing the relatively strict grade and subject boundaries can accelerate penetration into a STEM fields and mitigate the “there’s a giant steep mountain to climb” realization that strikes anybody vying to become an expert in a particular discipline.

There are a number of ways to nudge our education system to a place where students have more STEM options. School districts can do their part by making it easier for students to earn credit outside of school, and local legislatures or bureaucrats can work to create a more fragmented and experimental public school system by allowing more STEM-focused charter schools. However we decide to address our STEM problem, what’s important is that those who are serious about changing STEM outcomes become more serious about making real changes to the availability of STEM opportunities.
Park, G., Lubinski, D., & Benbow, C.P. (2012). When Less Is More: Effects of Grade Skipping on Adult STEM Productivity Among Mathematically Precocious Adolescents Journal of Educational Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0029481

Hernandez, P.R., Schultz, P.W., Estrada, M., Woodcock, A., & Chance, R.C. (2012). Sustaining Optimal Motivation: A Longitudinal Analysis of Interventions to Broaden Participation of Underrepresented Students in STEM. Journal of Educational Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0029691

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