School Barriers To The Best STEM Teaching

a locked fence around a school
Barriers to STEM Education close doors to us all. Joseph Ray/EyeM via Getty Images

Science Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) subjects have been receiving tremendous attention from school reformers, policymakers and parents.  The general idea is that the US needs to shore up and strengthen its teaching of STEM-related subjects so our children can have good jobs and the US can remain competitive in the global marketplace.

Good reasons to make some changes.  But big changes rarely come easy.

 There are several barriers - or pitfalls along the road to STEM education reform that parents need to be aware of.

 1 Parent Attitudes About STEM subjects  

Many of today's adults grew up in a time when many people mistakenly believed that boys were just naturally better than girls in math and science.  Add to this the frustration many parents feel when the hear the word "fractions" and you are already a long way down the road to parents giving their children the impressions that STEM subjects are hard.  Then try adding to this other notions or stereotypes like computer programmers don't have social skills or only geniuses can study physics or chemistry in school and know we have a whole slew of today's parents infilicting their own STEM psychodrama fears on their children.  

Instead, try watching your attitude about STEM, especially around your children. Rather than saying that Physics is hard, say that you didn't have some of the math skills that were needed to take Physics, or that in the past schools simply didn't have as many opportunities to study STEM subjects.

Use the changes in the educational climate and the shifting attitudes about STEM to encourage your child learn about STEM topics.

2 Getting Enough Qualified STEM Teachers

Science and Math teachers are some of the most in-demand teachers in the nation. In the past science and math were viewed by many people as being impossible rather than challenging.

 In addition to this, STEM specific careers have better than average pay.  Teachers get paid the same whether they teach elementary school, science or English.  While teaching may offer a stable career for someone who studies Music in college, the college math or science major can probably earn far more working in STEM instead of education.  Some areas of the nation are experiencing greater shortages of qualified STEM teachers than others.

To help encourage people to become qualified STEM teachers and take jobs in underserved areas, the federal government has created teacher loan forgiveness programs for qualified teachers who work in high-need areas for a number of years.  There are also scholarship programs to encourage people from a variety of backgrounds to become science teachers

3 New Teaching Methods

To improve our science teaching the emphasis has gone from memorizing facts to understanding concepts.  Veteran teachers need to change what they have been doing and how they have been doing it to provide a better experience that will help all students gain solid STEM skills.

 Along with the new methods, districts nationwide are looking to update their standards to align with or adopt the Next Generation Science Standards.

4 Getting Teacher Professional Development

With new methods and new standards comes the need for training for teachers to be able to keep up with the new STEM teaching.  Programs need to be developed and then made available to teachers, in way that teachers can afford, for teachers to really learn how to most effectively teach STEM in with its new emphasis on interrelated concepts and cortical thinking.

5 Bringing The Real World Into The Classroom

Relating STEM to real life is a key component of the science education overhaul.  Teachers need community support in order to be able to bring the real life issues and STEM of the local community. This is an area that requires creativity and talent from the teacher - some of the same skills we hope they will impart to their students!  

Relating problems to real life for students means that a teacher is aware of what is meaningful and challenging to their students- and the local community.  Teachers need to have the freedom, resources and training to effectively identify problems and local resources that connect directly to the standards they are teaching.  This type of ongoing lesson development can be especially difficult for teachers with a large number of students and little preparation time.

The Naysayers Who Point Out Not Everyone Will Have a STEM Career

With STEM teachers needing additional training, freedom, preparation time, appropriate class sizes and an incentive teach in the first place, the challenging of convincing people that STEM is important for every single student is one more hurdle in the public policy arena.  Without strong public support, STEM teachers won't get what they need to be successful.

7 Getting Enough Funding To Make All of The Changes

All of this support takes money.  Money to pay for materials, new textbooks that are aligned to NGSS and CCS standards, money for hands-on projects and field trips, money to pay for teacher training and workshops.  Many communities are facing serious school budget crises which make paying for updating STEM in their districts a challenge, while fueling the debate over the importance of STEM for all students.

8 Quality Education at the K-8 Grade Levels

Changing the way STEM subjects are taught, the amount of time spent on them in the school day, and ensuring that teachers have a strong background in STEM topics in the elementary level are the factors playing into this particular challenge.  The NGSS standards are designed to develop a strong foundation in these early grades - the young ages at which kids are still curious but were intimidated by STEM subjects in past.  The new focus on real life problems, collaborations and problem solving are all much more child-friendly for learning than the memorization of the past.  Still, for teachers to be effective they need to have the conceptual and interrelated STEM knowledge in order to teach it to their students.  They also need to have the time to prepare and teach the lessons.  

The new standards and emphasis on problem-solving skills are great improvements for science education in the US.  Much like the Common Core State Standards, time and how the new standards are implemented are the practical realities that will make this reform a success or a botched effort.

Continue Reading