High Schools : An Equation That Works
As secondary students continue to show little interest in the four STEM subjects, combiningtechnology use with engaging instructional practices may be the only way to reach them.
I GREW UP HATING SCIENCE. I just didn't see itsrelevance to everyday life. But first as a teacher and then as aparent, I developed a completely new understanding of whatscience is, and how it is all around us. I was startled to discoverthat, in fact, I loved science, and regretted that my lacklusterformal science education may have completely deterred mefrom pursuing a science career.
The same inadequate science education seems to have survived a generation. My own children explore, experiment, and discover at home, but at school their science instruction happens intermittently-- in a tradeoff with social studies-- and only rarely with an interactive component. I don't blame their teachers, but rather I wonder if our focus on high-stakes testing and our related content choices haven't nullified what we know about good teaching and what our students need from STEM (science, technology, engineering, andmath) education.
The lack of US students entering the science, technology, engineering, and math fields is one of our primary educational woes. Surveys show that the small percentage of US college students who choose to major in a math or science field gets even smaller by the end of students' freshman year. Indeed, STEM has such minimal appeal that it has come to be thought of as a "special" education for our nation's brightest students. While STEM teaching should absolutely be used to prepare students to become leaders in the global economy, it is critical for all students, can transform education for all learning types, and should be available in every high school, not simply the magnet schools that serve the cream of the crop.
While the responsibility of STEM education falls to all grade levels, it's in the high schools where we most need to deliver it in a way that interests and motivates students-- which means not via the teacher-centered model common to math and science instruction. That alone would help reduce our disturbing high school dropout rate. Nearly 7,000 students drop out of US high schools each day. Somewhere along the way, due to their lack of achievement or our lack of relevance or failure to provide support over the course of their schooling, we lose them. That we have them initially creates both a responsibility and an opportunity to make their education useful, engaging, and suited to their learning styles. Compelling STEM instruction can give these disengaged students-- those 7,000 who drop out each day-- a reason to be interested in school.
Teach Kids First
I was recently reminded of the popular axiom within education circles that elementary school teachers teach kids, while secondary school teachers teach a subject. No matter what age or what the subject matter, we are always teaching kids first, and this change in mindset may be an important key to keeping them engaged and achieving. This is not to say that high school teachers do not need in-depth content knowledge as a foundation, but it cannot come at the sacrifice of strong instructional practices.
Especially in the teaching of high school STEM content, good instructional practices can be joined with technology to engage students. Manipulating molecules on an interactive whiteboard to understand reactions; graphing and modeling formulas through Excel to learn algorithms; visually mapping out problems and solutions-- these are all ways technology use can contribute to students' acquisition of STEM skills and their participation in 21st-century learning.
Bailey Mitchell, chief technology officer of Forsyth County Schools (GA), has worked with other officials in his district to implement technology tools and resources supported by ongoing professional development to produce compelling STEM instruction. Teachers in Forsyth have embraced the rich collection of digital content provided by ExploreLearning, a catalog of modular, interactive simulations in math and science that the company calls Gizmos.
"The results have been promising, with students developing a deep and lasting understanding of key concepts in math and science through inquiry and exploration," Mitchell says.
He explains that using technology compels students to draw on higher-level thinking skills and makes the basic ability to recall information secondary. "As students create their learning communities using Web 2.0 tools, being able to recall factual information becomes less important than being able to evaluate and synthesize information. These students are achieving on state tests, but are also learning critical 21st-century skills."
Technology is also being used to benefit STEM education in Alabama, where the ACCESS (Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, and Students Statewide) initiative provides students with web-based courses in STEM subjects. The program is currently offering 10 advanced placement courses; many of the enrollments come from rural schools that had never offered an AP course before. Fannie Major-McKenzie, the superintendent of Dallas County Schools in Selma, AL, says ACCESS has allowed her district to make courses available to its students even when it is unable to either find or pay for a qualified teacher.
"Without ACCESS, students at my high schools would not have been able to participate in courses such as Advanced Placement Calculus, Latin, or Shakespeare," she says. "Additionally, almost 5,000 students have received remediation and supplemental resources, and more than 14,000 half-credits have been awarded. With high-quality courses that are engaging students through the utilization of 21st-century skills, Alabama is addressing its immediate need to decrease school dropout rates, increase high school graduation rates, and prepare its students to be competitive on a global scale."
The Floydada Independent School District in Texas is accomplishing these same goals through its implementation of the Technology Immersion Project, which in its own words "completely envelopes participants in technology and professional development." The initiative provides the district's high school educators with the resources they need to get the most out of using technology to teach STEM and other subject areas. Teachers participate in ongoing and sustainable professional development, which leads to project-based learning opportunities that challenge students to apply science and math concepts to real-life contexts. Floydada educators credit the project with the dramatic increases in math and science achievement in the district. Tenth-grade math scores on the state's high-stakes assessment went up 36 percentage points from the 2005-06 school year to 2006-07, and 10th-grade science scores rose 34 points.
Effective teaching and learning does not just happen-- it takes high-quality and sustainable professional development. Technology now provides teachers access to abundant professional development opportunities through online courses, professional learning communities, and education portals stocked with resources and lesson plans. This is particularly critical in rural and inner-city areas, where these opportunities are often limited due to barriers of location or funding.
In Louisiana, the state offers online courses that train teachers in practices to engage students in math. Twelve modules cover topics from "Concept of a Variable" to "Measures of Central Tendency." Each module focuses on specific algebraic content and includes elements of instructional strategies and lesson planning. Modules also include online reading and resources, interactive activities, online discussion prompts, and optional enrichment activities.
Delaware provides its teachers with online courses through e-Learning Delaware, the state's implementation of the federally funded professional development initiative e-Learning for Educators. The program gives teachers access to several clusters of courses, including the Secondary Math cluster, which focuses in part on the development of strategies to encourage and promote the formation of algebraic thought processes in students. Other STEM-oriented courses include Transforming the Classroom With Project-Based Learning and Approaches, and Tools for Developing Web-Enhanced lessons.
In a recent Department of Commerce report,education ranked 55th out of 55industries in use of technology.
Wayne Hartschuh is project director of e-Learning Delaware in addition to being the executive director of the Delaware Center for Educational Technology. A former high school math teacher, he says that the online secondary math courses not only address content, but more importantly teach instructional strategies and the use of technology to deliver content.
"The Virtual Manipulatives course is an excellent example of combining pedagogy, content, and technology that culminates in a total instructional package for the teachers to take directly into their classrooms," Hartschuh says.
Shari Galgano, a course facilitator in the Secondary Math cluster and the technology resource teacher for the Caesar Rodney School District in Kent County, DE, says that the collaborative nature of the online professional development experience has benefited her own teaching.
"As a facilitator, I'm able to learn more about what is going on in the classrooms across the state," she says. "I learn from the teachers' discussions and sharing. I've also realized that districts across the state struggle with similar issues that we face in our district."
A Long Way to Go
The work done in Georgia, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, and Delaware offers great examples of how STEM education can be transformed in high schools through technology integration and accompanying professional development, but we have a long way to go before this is the norm in all school districts. In a recent Department of Commerce report, education ranked 55th out of 55 industries in use of technology. The education community needs to invest in technology and embrace its uses just as the business community has done in modernizing its practices over the past 20 years.
It can't be said enough: The use of technology in education will only be maximized when it is applied toward practical solutions such as individualizing instruction, engaging students, and providing access to rigorous and dynamic academic content. We cannot afford to miss the opportunity technology provides to do all those things.
Many kids, as was the case with meas a child, have not been shown whatscience, engineering, and math canmean for their futures. By engagingthem in these areas, we can ultimatelyimprove our students' STEM skills sothat they are prepared for the educationaland occupational demands of the21st century.
Mary Ann Wolf is the executive directorof SETDA.
This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.