STEM foundational thinking is important for integrating content areas in a transdisciplinary approach to public education. The foundational thinking skills that students learn through STEM education will help them throughout their education careers and beyond. Specifically in the Elementary grade levels, Elementary-school students are most likely to gain STEM foundational thinking when they have opportunities to engage in in-depth investigations of phenomena around them worthy of their knowledge and understanding (Katz & Chard, 2000). These are needed in order to be successful in society. For example, with such an emphasis on improving test scores, many students are graduating school lacking the critical thinking skills necessary to succeed in higher education or in the workplace (Szymanski, 2013). Current research on critical thinking indicates that by having a more in-depth focus on enhancing critical thinking skills in schools, it can increase academic rigor and the scores on the standardized assessments (VanTassel-Baska, Bracken, Feng, & Brown, 2009; McCollister & Sayler, 2010; Snodgrass, 2011; Tsai, Chen, Chang, & Chang, 2013). Likewise, scientific inquiry, as one facet of STEM foundational thinking, is important because it give students the skills necessary to look for, investigate, and apply their content knowledge to real-world problems.
Why Reform STEM Education
In his 2011 book on reforming Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education in America, STEM the Tide, David Drew outlines the current research of eight changes needed in order to improve STEM education: (a) leadership; (b) evaluation; (c) better teachers; (d) high expectations; (e) committed mentors and role models; (f) value of a college education; (g) closing the achievement gap; and (h) revitalizing university research. Each of these elements are supported by research on effective leverage points in public education. However, closing the achievement gap dominates his discussion of reforming STEM education. One reason for this is that because students of color are denied opportunities to master STEM, their underrepresentation in STEM fields puts the field at a disadvantage.
Diversity leads to better decision outcomes, enhanced task performance, and greater innovation and creativity. The pervasiveness of unconscious bias and stereotyping having to do with gender and ethnic composition of our technical talent limits the possibility of technological innovation around the world. (Klawe, Whitney, & Simard, 2009, p. 69)
Drew (2011) does describe various examples of how mentor teachers with high expectations have closed the achievement gap at a variety of institutions. For example, the calculus workshop programs at California State Polytechnic Institute have successfully demonstrated how to encourage students of color in higher mathematics courses. These courses were inspired and patterned after Uri Treisman’s 1985 doctoral dissertation research on the “efficacy of individualized tutoring, self-paced instruction, and short course aimed at the development of study skills” (Drew, 2011, p. 113) with students at the University of California, Berkeley. This case study, as well as other examples from The Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) in Louisiana and Texas, illustrate Drew’s point about the importance of mentoring students of color and creating a supportive peer culture in closing the STEM achievement gap.
Challenges to STEM Education Reform
Underrepresented minority groups (URM) face a myriad of systemic barriers to accessing a highly rigorous education. For example, when just looking at socioeconomic status, in 2013, “one of five children lived below the poverty line. Fewer than 10% of White and Asian children lived below the poverty level. 38% of Black children and 30% of Hispanic children lived in poverty” (Bozeman & Gaughan, 2015, p. 30). Poverty matters. As Bozeman & Gaughan (2015) ask, “How, exactly, is the nation supposed to produce scientists from hungry children who cannot read when they get to school, and who then attend a failing school with other hungry children living in dangerous places” (p. 30)?
Obviously, it is a rhetorical question. Even more obvious is the fact that “STEM-related education should be accessible for everyone” (Findley, 2014, p. 19). Unfortunately, marginalized groups are underrepresented in STEM-related fields and STEM curricular courses in school. In the next twenty years, STEM-related jobs will increase faster than any other field. In fact, “between 2014 and 2024, the number of STEM jobs will grow by 17%, as compared to 12% for non-STEM jobs” (Rosen, 2015). African Americans’ and Latinos’ populations have grown substantially, but they are less likely to pursue a career in engineering, computer science, or advanced manufacturing than in 2001. Furthermore, “dually disadvantaged” people (both underrepresented minorities who are also poor, working poor, or working class) “collectively comprise the largest group left out of the expanding roster of people working in or training for careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics” (Bozeman & Gaughan, 2015, p. 27). Thus, race and economic status together can create an even more formidable barrier to obtaining an equal education.
There is much research surrounding race and STEM education. However, very little has been done to synthesize neuroscience and educational research with race and STEM education. With multiple attempts and failures at education reform, STEM education provides the first real opportunity for sustained culturally responsive, educational reform.