Science, Technology, Engineering & Math | Features

Educators Look for Resources, New Programs Amid STEM Push

Districts, schools, and individual educators are struggling to keep up with new emphases on science, technology, engineering, and math education. Resources and partnerships are available to those who know where to look.

Educators are facing mounting pressure to improve the quality of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) instruction across the country. While numerous studies suggest that students need to learn science through hands-on inquiry, classroom teachers are often unable to generate effective lessons because of their own lack of background in science. Worse, teachers are increasingly lacking the time or tools to do the job as school districts face greater financing challenges and mandated initiatives.

Recent developments, such as President Obama's push to prepare 100,000 new STEM educators over the next 10 years, the effort by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) to have science standards included in the Common Core State Standards, and the adoption of STEM initiatives in nearly a dozen states, have added to the pressure. But with a little digging, educators can find resources to engage their students in STEM topics without breaking the budget.

Teaching Science: Lacking the Time and Resources
In the July 2011 report "Successful K-12 STEM Education: Identifying Effective Approaches in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics," the National Research Council called for a new framework for K-12 science curriculum. The council suggested educators rethink their approach of simple memorization of facts and instead focus on concepts that cut across disciplines, such as teaching cause and effect and the process of gathering and analyzing data.

A new report released in October 2011 by the University of California, Berkeley--"High Hopes--Few Opportunities: The Status of Elementary Science Education in California"--revealed the results of a survey of educators in California, as well as an analysis of case studies in selected school districts. The researchers found that teachers had little time to teach science owing to intense pressure to meet mathematics and English accountability goals. Commissioned by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning and conducted by UC Berkeley and SRI International as part of their Strengthening Science Education in California Initiative, the study also found that teachers and schools did not have the support and tools needed to provide quality science teaching opportunities.  

According to the report, 40 percent of elementary teachers who responded said they spend 60 minutes or less teaching science each week, and 85 percent said they had not received any professional development in science teaching during the last three years. While nine out of 10 principals who responded said science education was "very important," only 44 percent said it was likely that a student would receive high-quality science education at their school.

Researchers also found that support and resources needed for quality science education were scarce at school districts, with only 20 percent providing professional development for elementary teachers and more than 60 percent lacking any staff dedicated to science. Teachers cited limited funds for equipment and supplies as a challenge to teaching science with more than half saying they lacked access to necessary facilities.

"California's elementary schools have very little of the infrastructure support needed to provide and strengthen science education," said Patrick Shields, director of SRI's Center for Education Policy.

But the outlook for STEM education may not be so bleak. Today, students can use computers to practice what is normally found in workbooks while teachers have access to a variety of multimedia technology such as CD-ROMs and DVDs to present colorful and stimulating lectures.

Other digital learning tools, such as lightweight mobile computers, touch-screen technology, digital cameras, and microscopes that connect to computer screens, 3D animation, robotics, and interactive Web sites have added new ways to engage students in science.

Seattle's IslandWood Outdoor Learning Center, for example, has found ways to infuse some of the simpler computer technology into teaching the center's environmental programs. One is the use of inexpensive digital Web cameras to allow students to capture and manipulate a variety of digital images from microscopes and telescopes hooked up to computer video screens. This allows students to see what they should be looking for before they look into their own microscope or telescope. Students also use technology to slow down or speed up video images, creating time-lapse movies of such things as a caterpillar metamorphosing into a butterfly.

Pocket STEM Devices
Multifunctional handheld devices such as smartphones and tablet computers can be used as multimedia reference tools on field trips, in classroom assignments (for accessing STEM challenges, for example), or on activities like scavenger hunts, where students have a chance to get outside the classroom to gather data.

Pasco produces the Spark Science Learning System, a sensor-based handheld computer that includes more than 60 pre-installed Sparklabs. The labs integrate all the necessary background material, data collection, and analysis and cover topics in biology, chemistry, Earth science, and physics.

CyberTracker makes it possible for students to design their own electronic field guides with custom species identification filters specific to their location. The guides show pictures and text and can also play the vocalizations of local birds to help students identify what species they've seen on field trips. CyberTracker is available for a variety of operating systems including Windows 2000, XP, 2003, Vista, Windows 7, Windows Mobile, and Pocket PC. The non-profit organization that makes CyberTracker is also currently seeking donations to help create an Android version.

The SpaceMath@NASA Web site has had more than 3 million visitors since it was launched in 2004. This free NASA education resource has offered hundreds of unique math problems, often developed to coincide with breaking NASA news, for teachers to interest students in mathematics. The program was developed by astronomer Sten Odenwald at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "The math problems cover everything from black holes and space weather to the search for life on other planets," said Odenwald.

Another free NASA resource follows the current Swift Explorer Mission, giving real-time details of all the latest discoveries from the Swift observatory. The Swift app, for iOS devices, features an interactive map of the Earth showing Swift's current orbit, a map showing recently discovered gamma-ray bursts with optical images and data, and a gallery of images obtained by the Swift with full descriptions.

Teacher Associations' Resource Recommendations
For educators who don't have the time to track down and evaluate resources on their own, some teachers associations regularly review and recommend multimedia science teaching materials. According to the NSTA's Web site, some of the current top-rated resources include DVD and CD-ROMs.

Best of Science, from Exemplars, is a DVD set containing approximately 150 scientific activities for students in grades K-5 on one disc and about 70 for grades 6-8 on another. The activities cover topics in Earth, physical, and life sciences and are aligned to state and national standards. The activities are indexed by grade level, topic, and unifying concepts. The activities are designed for teachers without a great deal of science background and "can be easily integrated with some of the most popular science teaching kits," according to information released by the company.

BioBlast, from the Center for Educational Technologies, is a multimedia software program with activities based on NASA research. As a supplement to a high school biology curriculum, BioBlast "incorporates basic biology with supporting sciences such as chemistry, physics, mathematics, nutrition, astronomy, and statistics to engage students in lunar research," according to an NSTA recommendation. Videos and virtual reality panoramas introduce the NASA researchers and their specialties, and a teacher's guide offers information on goals, materials, and other resources. One space science problem students are challenged to plan and test is a feasible life support system for a space crew of six.

The Starry Night series of multimedia astronomy software packages has also been recommended by the NSTA. There are separate editions designed for elementary, middle, and high school classes, including accompanying curriculum materials. The Starry Night software offers graphs and tools, including some activities that require high school-level math. The centerpiece is a desktop planetarium that provides a flexible interactive tour of the night sky that allows students to find celestial objects--including man-made satellites--from anywhere on Earth at any time. The package also includes DVDs containing movies with segments that can be viewed independently or watched in their entirety.

The National Earth Science Teachers Association's (NESTA) recommendations include Web-based tools such as:

  • Resources for Earth Sciences and Geography Instruction, a Web site NESTA recommends bookmarking "as a place to start your search for web-based instructional resources." This site was created by Central Michigan University and includes links to resources covering Earth and environmental sciences, as well as lesson plans and teaching tips;
  • The National Science Digital Library, created by the National Science Foundation, is another site that provides access to resources and tools that support teaching at all levels of science, technology, and engineering; and
  • The Digital Library for Earth Science Education (DLESE) is a group effort involving educators, students, and scientists working to "improve the quality, quantity, and efficiency of teaching and learning about the Earth system at all levels," according to the library's Web site. DLESE allows teachers to search educational resources by "grade level, resource type, standard, or collection."

Simulations and Virtual Labs
Two other kinds of tools that science teachers can use to get their students interacting with STEM concepts are computer simulations and virtual labs that give users remote control of real-world lab equipment.

One example is Model-It, a visual modeling and simulation tool for use on desktop computers. The program allows students to build, test, and evaluate qualitative models that represent their own theories about the scientific phenomena they have studied in class. They can then run their own simulations in order to test their models and describe what they think is taking place scientifically.

The PhET Independent Simulations project, an initiative of the University of Colorado at Boulder, began in 2004 and hosts more than 100 free simulations covering physics, chemistry, biology, and calculus. Example simulations include the ability to observe how light refracts through glass, water, and other substances; run mock nuclear-fission reactions; manipulate gravitational relationships between the planets and sun; or induce genetic mutations in rabbits by disrupting their natural habitat.

Northwestern University's iLabCentral program is for high school students and links to scientific labs from around the world. The program's activities, known as iLabs, can be browsed by subject, grade level, or scientific device. In one iLab, students remotely operate a Geiger counter to measure how the intensity of radiation changes with distance.

e-Missions, a distance learning program created by the Challenger Learning Center at Wheeling Jesuit University, offers 11 missions ranging from weather disasters to space exploration. Each mission ends in a live videoconferenced event where students make decisions based on changing information sent to their classroom via satelite. eMissions include "teacher training and support, online lesson plans and materials aligned with standards, and technical support," according to information released by the center.

New Partnerships and Programs
Some school districts have also partnered with universities and other research institutions to develop STEM-related curricula, while others have launched dedicated science academies.

For example, Tennessee's Knox County Schools recently launched the Knoxville STEM Academy where classroom learning will be supplemented with outside expertise and internships with neighboring Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee. South Carolina's Horry County Schools has unveiled an initiative offering concentrated coursework in each of the individual STEM subjects, and South Range Middle School in Ohio is implementing rotating classes, including a robotics club, to expose students to the different STEM fields.

Another example is the University of Arizona, Tucson (UA). This summer, 24 Arizona high school students gained hands-on experience in scientific research during the fifth annual KEYS (Keep Engaging Youth in Science) six-week internship program at the university.

UA also went public October with plans to launch a new STEM center to "promote stronger connections on and off campus, strengthening efforts in STEM education, outreach, and research," according to information released by the school.

"We have an incredible number of things happening across campus with regard for STEM education, as we have for years, but sometimes we don't know what other people are doing," said Bruce Johnson, who heads the teaching, learning, and sociocultural studies department in UA's College of Education and is interim co-director of the STEM Learning Center. "It is also important because people want access, whether it be a school, an informal education program, or a member of the public. But people do not always know where to go. This will lead people."

The use of multimedia tools, online media repositories, and mobile phone applications that allow students to easily record and transmit scientific data from the field can all have an impact on the science classroom. And while not all schools can go to the same lengths to immerse their students in pricey high-tech virtual labs, many of these tools are free or of minimal cost, and that may generate more STEM curriculum and professional development opportunities for all school districts.