[STEM] schools would have been just
as likely to pursue a STEM major or
related career . . . if they had attended
another type of school” (p. 8).
It’s What Happens
Inside That Matters
A shortcoming of many of these
studies is that they do little to describe
what may or may not be going on
inside STEM schools. To peer into this
black box, the previously referenced
survey of 1,250 students also looked
at which forms of instruction in STEM
schools were most strongly tied to
students pursuing STEM majors in
college. The most significant predictor
of students’ continued interest in
STEM, the study found, was whether
students had rich research experiences in high school, such as original
scientific investigations or engineering
design projects. Such experiences
made students, on average, 1. 77
times more likely to pursue STEM
majors and careers (Subotnik, Tai, &
The National Research Council’s
2011 synthesis of research and commissioned papers on STEM schools
concluded that to spark student
interest in STEM, instruction must
help students grapple with big ideas
and fundamental questions about the
natural world and experience real-world applications of their knowledge.
“However,” the report observed, “this
type of STEM instruction remains the
exception in U.S. schools” (p. 19).
According to the study, the most
significant obstacle to providing students with the kinds of rich STEM
learning experiences that enhance
interest in STEM may be our current
assessment and accountability
schemes. Many statewide tests rely
heavily on multiple-choice items that
limit the “content and complexity of
what [states] test” (National Research
Council, 2011, p. 21).
In many cases, schools have
responded to accountability pressures
by doubling down on rote learning
and test prep. For example, a study of
51 STEM academies in Texas, which
were ostensibly created to promote
project-based learning, found that
many of them were employing a traditional pedagogy that included explicit
preparation for statewide tests (Young,
House, Wang, Singleton, & Klopfenstein, 2011). These schools were
operating in a compliance mind-set
and employing uninspired approaches
to teaching and learning, said the
Interest in STEM
The insipid teaching approaches
employed by some STEM schools
contrast sharply with the energy and
excitement of the Monterey underwater robotics competition, which
provided exactly the kind of authentic
learning that research links to student
interest in pursuing STEM careers.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of
the competition, though, was that it
occurred on a Saturday and was not
part of any regular school curriculum,
which raises the question: Was this
kind of learning possible precisely
because it occurred outside the regular
school day, away from the pressures of
content coverage, test preparation, and
If so, then perhaps we need to step
outside these constraints and
reconceive STEM learning from a
starting point of providing stimulating
experiences that spark student interest
in these disciplines. That may be a tall
order. But if our students are clever
enough to figure out how to build
robots and navigate them through
underwater trials, surely we can figure
out how to put the joy of discovery
and invention into STEM learning. EL
Hansen, M. (2014). Characteristics of
schools successful in STEM: Evidence
from two states’ longitudinal data.
Journal of Educational Research, 107( 5),
Judson, E. (2014). Effects of transferring
to STEM-focused charter and magnet
schools on student achievement.
Journal of Educational Research, 107( 4),
National Research Council. (2011).
Successful K– 12 STEM education: Identifying effective approaches in science,
technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Washington, DC: National Academies
National Science Board. (2012). Science
and engineering indicators 2012.
Arlington, VA: Author. Retrieved from
Subotnik, R. F., Tai, R. H., & Almarode, J.
(2011, May 10–12). Study of the impact
of selective SMT high schools: Reflec-
tions on learners gifted and motivated in
science and mathematics. Paper prepared
for the workshop of the Committee on
Highly Successful Schools or Programs
for K– 12 STEM Education, National
Research Council, Washington, DC.
Wiswall, M., Stiefel, L., Schwartz, A. E.,
& Boccardo, J. (2014, June). Does
attending a STEM high school improve
student performance? Evidence from
New York City. Economics of Education
Review, 40, 93–105.
Young, V. M., House, A., Wang, H., Singleton, C., & Klopfenstein, K. (2011).
Inclusive STEM schools: Early promise in
Texas and unanswered questions. Washington, DC: National Research Council.
Bryan Goodwin ( firstname.lastname@example.org)
is president and CEO of McREL, Denver,
Colorado. He is the author of The 12
Touchstones of Good Teaching: A
Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day
(ASCD, 2013). Heather Hein (hhein@
mcrel.org) is a communications consultant at McREL.
Was this kind of
precisely because it
occurred outside the
regular school day?