What Does Good STEM Education Look Like?

Most Americans aren’t too thrilled with the quality of K-12 STEM education in the U.S.

That’s according to an article in the Hechinger Report that scrutinizes results from a poll done by the Pew Research Center.

They aren’t encouraging. Of Americans polled last summer,

  • Only 25% think our K-12 STEM education is the best in the world or above average compared with that of other countries
  • 55% think teachers spend too much time meeting state standards instead of stressing practical applications
  • 59% said that students aren’t willing to work hard

It’s unclear why those polled would bifurcate meeting state standards and learning about practical applications—the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Students’ unwillingness to work hard, though, could be an indictment against the STEM program. Most excellent learning programs engage students and reinforce their interest, so students’ unwillingness to exert themselves could indict a school’s STEM program and not just the students.


STEM Excellence

What makes a STEM program excellent?

I spoke with Eric Iversen, vice president for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering, which promotes STEM education in grades K-12, by email to learn what an excellent STEM program looks like.

Iversen says STEM is tricky in an institutional setting, but the best programs put resources into the following areas:

  • Culture
  • Methods
  • Teachers

“Culture—from the superintendent or principal through the teachers and paraprofessionals and staff, people are invested in the methods and interactions central to STEM—that means problem- or inquiry-based learning as the foundation of classroom practices, collaboration, learning from failure, involving students in designing problems and topics of study. Culture is a publicly visible, consciously discussed, and nurtured aspect of school life,” he adds.

Iversen says that the best STEM programs extend inquiry-based practices to the assessment of student learning.

“Problem- or inquiry-based learning is also the foundation of assessment practices. STEM assessment is often best disaggregated—teachers assess students, students assess students, students assess teachers—this cycle of continuous feedback and improvement gives everyone a voice in how the learning is constructed and propagated.”

If the U.S. wants to improve its STEM education, its teachers will need more time and support, which Iversen says the best programs provide.

“Teachers get the time and support they need to prepare and coordinate the cross-cutting, collaborative projects students carry out. These projects draw on the various disciplines in each teacher’s purview, but to really leverage the multi-disciplinary learning potential of STEM, the teachers have to be focusing on related questions in each other’s classes, timing things properly with other classes, and reflecting among themselves and with students on how the learning is or is not going.”

To learn more about Start Engineering, visit its website.

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