U.S. Kids Are Behind in STEM — How Can We Get Them Back on Track?

Nov 29, 2018 by

For over half a century, innovations based on science and engineering have powered the U.S. economy, creating good jobs, a high standard of living, and international economic leadership. Today, however, our nation is not producing enough STEM professionals and lags behind dozens of nations in our performance on international science assessments. I am convinced that a leading cause of this deficit is our lackluster approach to K-12 science and engineering education.

At Success Academy, we want our scholars to fall in love with science — and to be great at it! — which is why we have an early and sustained commitment to discovery-oriented science. Starting in kindergarten, our scholars have science every day and conduct more than 100 experiments each year — examining cricket behavior, using models of DNA to determine heritability, programming robots, designing bridges, and building circuit breakers to learn about electricity. In middle school, scholars have science daily for 75 minutes. Our science program rests on two core pillars: mastery of scientific knowledge and an inquiry-based approach to instruction, which teaches scholars that knowledge doesn’t spontaneously materialize, but is built by posing questions about the world around us, gathering data, and using evidence to draw conclusions.

The middle school Science Exploratorium — our take on the traditional science fair — showcases the power of this approach.

Exploratorium, a four-week unit each fall in which all our middle schoolers carry out independent research and present it at a culminating exhibition, is designed to teach scholars that struggle and failure are integral to the pursuit of scientific knowledge and can generate important insights. During Exploratorium, we set concrete guidelines for scholars’ learning — they must articulate how their experiment design addresses the research question, record all data and observations, and present on what and how they learned. To ensure they experience a true scientific process, they are expected to generate ideas and work through challenges on their own.

During the month-long process, teachers don’t swoop in to fix things that go off course. Rather, our goal is for scholars to experience productive struggle so they can gain a deeper understanding of the concepts they are exploring. If, for example, scholars test a theory and it turns out to be wrong or unproductive, the teacher uses questioning to guide them toward a new line of inquiry that can shed light on the phenomenon they are investigating.

The experience of one of our fifth-grade Exploratorium teams demonstrates how this approach plays out. The team was interested in space and rockets, so they decided on a project centered on bottle rockets. First, they had to come up with an experimental question and, drawing on their study of aerodynamics in second and third grades, settled on the following: Will wing design impact how far a bottle rocket travels? Then they had to work out a procedure for testing. They decided to try out six different designs: three, five, and six wings made with either cardboard or tin foil.

Using an explosion resulting from combining Mentos and Coca Cola to launch the rocket, they tested each wing design. But the results were disappointing. The bottle rocket barely moved, and the different wing designs made no difference. At this point, the teacher’s job was not to tell them what to do next, but to ask them to consider the following questions: What other factors might make a difference in moving the bottle rocket? And how could they test those factors using the same materials?

The scholars headed back to their computers for further research, and soon encountered the pivotal principle that differences in air pressure cause air motion, and that the greater the difference, the faster the movement. This led them to a second experimental question: Would greater air pressure within the bottle impact how far the rocket travelled? They learned that greater quantities of Mentos created larger explosions and thus greater air pressure within the bottle, and they proceeded to test whether this correlated with distance travelled. Sure enough, the largest explosion propelled the rocket furthest.

The inquiry-based approach to teaching science is not easy — it requires deeper content mastery and planning time than lessons devoted to lectures and worksheets. At Success, our teachers and leaders meet regularly before and during Exploratorium to dig into student projects and anticipate struggles that can serve as key learning opportunities. They strategize on how and when to teach procedural skills and knowledge, such as what makes a good control variable, and they brainstorm questions that will guide students toward their own “aha!” moments.

This extra effort is worth it because it gives students a much more visceral and lasting understanding of key concepts. The bottle rocket team, for example, was able to quickly grasp how differences in air pressure caused wind when they learned about it during a later fifth-grade science unit, and were able to confidently explain the phenomenon to their classmates. Perhaps even more importantly, this kind of inquiry-based learning allows students to experience the true excitement and creativity of STEM careers. Real scientists and engineers ask questions they don’t know the answer to, and they deepen their knowledge by pursuing answers and solutions.

Ultimately, I believe this approach is the best way to equip and inspire children to take on the many unanswered questions of the 21st century — and to develop habits of mind, such as curiosity, critical thinking, and intellectual grit, that will serve them in any field. 

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