Friday, April 19, 2013

Round and Round and Beyond: A Journey in Science Education

            Two years ago I got word of my acceptance to a fellowship experience few have had. Not quite a Fellowship of the Rings, but definitely one filled with adventures, high and low. I began this adventure into the workings of STEM education at the federal level a lowly hobbit knowing only one thing: if I were asked to attribute whatever success I had as a science educator to one specific strategy it would be my purposeful pursuit of appropriately meaningful relationships with my students. Now, nearing the end of this wild journey, I’m only more convinced of that.
            I had a marvelous experience working with some really smart folk on a document that attempted to summarize some of the research on noncognitive factors that contribute to persistence in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In other words, we tried to summarize what makes people—young students in particular—decide to study science or math or engineering. What gets young people committed to STEM fields and what factors contribute to their choosing to pursue a STEM career? No silver bullet exists in response, but existing research does provide direction.
            People make decisions to pursue careers in STEM because of interest (Duh!). But what influences interest? In middle school I had a dynamic civics teacher. She taught me almost everything I knew about government before I came to DC. (That says a lot). Yet, I did not choose to pursue political science, history, or economics as a major. The career decision-making process is a long one filled with a ton of inputs that span a lifetime. Because it is a complex process, one program just won’t do it.
            A child’s interest in STEM is influenced by a variety of things. First of all, they need to be exposed to STEM early. If they don’t know cool science exists they won’t develop interest. Sadly, at the elementary level, it is not uncommon to hear teachers put off science lessons until the end of the day, and even then, children might just get a few minutes of subpar curriculum. The fault does not necessarily lie solely on the educator. These often amazing teachers take a variety of preparatory courses on early childhood development and teaching strategies, not to mention learning about all the subjects they teach. The way the system is currently set up, one cannot expect elementary teachers to be experts in all of STEM.
            Self-efficacy also influences interest. Self-efficacy refers to someone’s perceived ability to accomplish something. The emphasis is on “perceived.” A person of high skill and ability in a particular area may have low confidence about being successful on a task related to that area. The higher your self-efficacy in STEM, the more likely you are to develop interest and therefore make goals and decisions that lead you towards a STEM career. But self-efficacy is a complex beast, which develops from a variety of sources.
            The lessons educators provide their student must be challenging but achievable in order to contribute positively to a child’s self-efficacy. Overly challenging assignments or ridiculously easy tasks don’t help children develop self-efficacy in STEM. And what one student may find easy, another may find challenging—in other words, teachers must develop personalized learning pathways. Furthermore, students develop self-efficacy (or lack of self-efficacy) based on how they perceive others like them succeeding in STEM fields.  For example, if a child associates herself with a particular minority group and encounters others from that group succeeding in a STEM field, she may develop the confidence that she, too, can be successful: “If she/he can do it, then so can I!” In addition, verbal encouragement can do a lot to motivate children and boost their confidence in their abilities.
            Only meaningful relationships with students allow educators to traverse these behavioral labyrinths that positively impact the children they’re responsible for. How can educators design personalized learning experiences if little time is spent sitting with students one-on-one to gauge children’s unique thought processes and academic skills? How can educators who haven’t spent time talking to students know what groups they associate themselves with in order to recruit successful representatives from those groups to present positive role modeling? How do educators provide proper verbal encouragement in a young person’s life unless they walk alongside young people?
            These questions seem to place great burdens on the educator. Granted, none of these tasks are accomplished easily. But the education system can be tweaked and worked to relieve the burden and make more room for teachers to be successful: smaller classes, more time for preparation and analysis, significant and relevant professional development, better networks with informal educators and professors from higher education institutions, a positive culture of STEM and STEM careers. Is this asking for a lot? Is it realistic?
            So my current journey comes to a close, but a new one begins. STEM education will also be a central part of it. A variety of complex factors led me on this path, some of which I’ve discussed earlier, but there are many more (e.g. peer influence, parental guidance, perceived barriers…the list goes on). The fact that no easy trick exists to get kids excited and pursuing STEM pleases me. It means that children could never be treated as mindless robots forced through a system that assumes participation will yield definite results. Let me correct that…perhaps students may be dealt with that way, but widespread results will not follow. Results will follow when there are dedicated people committed to doing whatever it takes to set children on a positive trajectory, be it STEM or not.

* I must add that many of the factors referred to in this post are a result of good research by a variety of people including Bandura, Dweck, Gibbs, Lent, Piaget, Tai and many others. For a full list of references feel free to make contact. 

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