Education Department Outlines Six Focus Areas for STEM Ed over Next Decade

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Publication date: 
31 October 2016

The Department of Education released a report that outlines six focus areas that comprise an aspirational vision for U.S. STEM education over the next decade. Meanwhile, a national report card from the department shows science assessment scores for 4th and 8th graders are gradually improving while science achievement gaps between minority and non-minority students are narrowing.


STEM 2026 report


(Image credit: Department of Education)

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A recently released Department of Education report titled “STEM 2026” offers an aspirational vision in which the U.S. provides “high-quality, culturally relevant STEM learning experiences for every child and young person.” The report is based on recommendations of 30 national experts and thought leaders in STEM education, who convened in 2015 for a multi-day workshop. DOEd’s Office of STEM Initiatives, led by Russell Shilling, worked with the American Institutes of Research, a non-profit research and evaluation organization, to convene the workshop and write the report.

The report does not prescribe DOEd policy. Instead, it sets out six focus areas to guide the nation over the next decade and to build on the Obama Administration’s STEM education focus and the many national STEM education initiatives the administration has launched over the last eight years.

The Obama Administration established the Office of STEM Initiatives at DOEd as a part of its goal to ensure that all students have equitable access to STEM education. The future of the small coordinating office is uncertain as the current administration reaches its final months and the STEM education policies of the next administration may be unknown for some time.

Other White House STEM initiatives include the Educate to Innovate campaign and the Five-Year Federal STEM Education Strategic Plan developed by the National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on STEM Education.  Most recently, as a part its STEM for All initiative, the White House announced a national “active learning day.”

Six focus areas push innovative approaches to STEM education

The six focus areas, or “interconnected components,” of “STEM 2026” are:

  • Engaged and networked communities of practice;
  • Accessible learning activities that invite intentional play and risk;
  • Education experiences that include interdisciplinary approaches to solving ‘grand challenges’;
  • Flexible and inclusive learning spaces;
  • Innovation and accessible measures of learning; and
  • Societal and cultural images and environments that promote diversity and opportunity in STEM.

The heart of the report elaborates on each of these six focus areas and is followed by a section on how policymakers, researchers, educators, industry leaders, and the public might work to achieve this vision.

In a blog post, the report’s lead author Courtney Tanenbaum wrote,

STEM 2026 is grounded…in research and data that show that the process of learning and practicing STEM disciplines can develop such lifelong learning skills as teamwork, a passion for inquiry and discovery, persistence, and the application of gained knowledge to new situations.

Tanenbaum noted that DOEd statistics indicate that STEM opportunities are not equally available to all students and that disparities based on race persist. According to DOEd, between 10 and 25 percent of U.S. high schools do not currently offer a core set of math and science courses, and 37 percent do not offer physics.

National K-12 ‘report card’ shows gradual improvements in science comprehension

Despite unequal access to STEM education among the nation’s K-12 students, new data shows that the nation’s elementary and secondary school students are gradually making progress toward improving science comprehension. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” is a congressionally authorized program administered by DOEd. Last week, it released the results of its 2015 science assessments for the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades.  

According the report card, average assessment scores nationwide for both 4th and 8th graders have risen by four points since 2009, from 150 to 154 on a scale of 300.  Assessment scores for 12th graders held steady at 150 points on the same scale.

Gaps between minority and non-minority students are narrowing, with black and Hispanic students showing the largest improvements in all grades between 2009 and 2015. However, wide disparities persist in average test scores between white, black, and Hispanic students.

Another finding from the national report card is that the number of 12th graders taking a science course has increased from 53 to 57 percent since 2009, and the number who have taken biology, chemistry, and physics courses since 8th grade has increased from 34 to 41 percent.

On Oct. 27, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking member of the House Science Committee, weighed in on the NAEP results, saying they show how far the nation still has to go in meeting goals in STEM education:

The most recent Nation’s Report Card shows that we are still making only limited progress with students. Furthermore, the achievement gap between white and minority and between poor and affluent students continues to be a problem. We need to recognize that investing in children’s education is a crucial investment in the country’s long term economic growth and competitiveness. We should be focusing on the advancement of science, technology, engineering, and math courses in schools, professional development for teachers, and teacher training for advanced placement courses.

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