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Barriers in STEM Education

Fremont, CA

Barriers in STEM Education, STEM, education, STEM education, science, scientific illiteracy, STEAM, students, school, science in school, test scores, Rural STEM Act, Computer Science Act, American education, underprivileged students
STEM education lags behind modern needs.

The science and technology industry is one of the fastest-growing industries in the 21st century United States, with eight million new jobs predicted to become available in the next four years. Advances in science in the past few decades have been momentous, from the invention of the revolutionary molecular biology tool CRISPR-Cas9 to the release of the first fully FDA approved mRNA vaccine to treat COVID-19. Despite this, less than half of US students performed proficiently on science standardized exams in 2019.

Looking at this issue on the surface, it is easy to blame teachers and students for these inadequacies; not studying hard enough, or not teaching the correct material. But such a widespread issue cannot be blamed on individuals, and reflects issues within the science education system itself. The United States, unlike other countries, does not have nationwide education standards. Hence, the topics covered can vary widely depending on state and school district. However, one thing is clear: inadequate curriculum is the root of this issue.

The first issue is the way in which science itself is taught. Educators and curricula approach it like a history class; focusing on rote memorization of facts. While there is no doubt that a good repertoire of facts, whether historical or scientific, is vital to success in either field, science is more than just a collection of past findings. It is a philosophy, a practice, a process, and one that is largely overlooked in schools today. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 50% of high school seniors and 30% of 4th grade students participate in lab or inquiry-based science activities less than twice per year. So while the scientists of tomorrow might have impressive knowledge of the Krebs Cycle or the Periodic Table, they don’t understand how to apply this to designing a study or interpreting experimental results. Even for non-scientists, this leaves many unable to understand how scientific conclusions are reached, and how they can change as new information becomes available.

Another issue is an insufficient amount of math and science classes required in high school. While four years of English and three years of social studies are often the norm, it is typical for schools to require only two years of math and science for graduation. Given that there are three core sciences; physics, chemistry, and biology, this means that many students will not have taken all three by the time they graduate. Even students who take these classes still have major gaps in their scientific understanding of the world. For example, while Earth and environmental science are vital to understanding the modern issue of climate change, they are not considered important enough to be core classes on their own in many schools, and their integration into physics, chemistry, and biology curricula have been mediocre at best.

Both of these issues come down to the same root cause: a lack of funding. Education in general, but STEM education in particular, is not a priority on the political stage. While bills such as the Rural STEM Act of 2020 and the Computer Science for All Act of 2021 would have provided millions of funding to increase the quality of STEM education in underfunded areas, efforts to pass them have proved fruitless: the Rural STEM Act, despite bipartisan support, died in the 116th Congress, while the Computer Science for All Act is not projected to pass. Without such funding, all students, but specifically those in impoverished areas, are deprived of resources vital to a quality education: up-to-date textbooks, working computers, and most of all, access to hands-on lab activities.

So what can be done about this? Obviously, it will take far more than the actions of individuals to improve the landscape of modern American science education. However, there are several ways that students, concerned citizens, and STEM professionals can help those most affected in their communities.

One simple way to get involved is through tutoring. Due to inadequate instruction during the COVID 19 pandemic and the broad use of distance learning, more students than ever are struggling in their classes; they did not receive adequate instruction through online platforms because teachers were not prepared for distance learning. But as individualized online tutoring becomes more prevalent, support has become more accessible than ever to struggling students. Through these platforms, or in person, STEM students and professionals can act as low or no cost tutors to help underprivileged students overcome these struggles and succeed in STEM classes. Furthermore, they can act as mentors for groups that are underrepresented in STEM, as studies have found that youth who see themselves represented in a field are more likely to pursue it as a career in the future.

On a larger scale, though, political action is necessary to achieve lasting change in American science education. It is vital for citizens to stay up-to-date on current elections, and vote for candidates that are most supportive in improving science education standards in the US. Additionally, writing to one’s senator or representative is a great way to express one’s support for the advancement of STEM education and urging them to do the same. After all, the Rural STEM Act, though revised, is back in Congress this year. Who knows, maybe it will have better luck this time around.

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