Summer 2011 Issue
June 27, 2011

A better equation for student performance

Author: Greg Munno
Source: NYSUT United

For Marcia Burrell, increasing the number and diversity of students who succeed in math and science is about raising expectations, not lowering them. Burrell, associate professor of education at SUNY Oswego, wants to see every student take calculus as part of their high school training.

"We know that students who don't take calculus in high school are going to struggle with college-level math and science," Burrell said. "If a student starts to struggle in math, a teacher needs to diagnosis exactly where that student is having trouble and get him or her over the hump."

A member of the United University Professions chapter at SUNY Oswego, Burrell is one of many NYSUT members who is focused on how to increase students' level of participation and success in the STEM fields. Among females and students of color, the level of achievement in science, technology, engineering and math has lagged.

As the economy increasingly demands workers with exceptional STEM skills, the foundation of our future is at stake without that knowledge, NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira said.

"Job growth, innovation and expansion in STEM fields are important for the economic turnaround of New York state and our country," Neira explained.

"We must expand STEM education and career opportunities for all students, especially under-represented groups such as women, students of color, English language learners and special education students. These noted inequities are a problem because of the predicted huge growth in the number of STEM careers."

Indeed, STEM fields are expected to add 2.7 million jobs by 2018, far outpacing the rest of the economy, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The country needs an "all hands on deck" approach to filling its STEM jobs, something President Obama has recognized in speeches and backed up with Race to the Top funding to states like New York, which received the money in part because of its commitment to STEM education.

The shortage is particularly acute in computer sciences, physics and other "hard" sciences, which also happen to be the fields with the lowest participation rates among women and people of color, according to the National Science Foundation. A report by the National Center for Women and Information Technology concluded "if current trends continue, by 2018 the information technology industry will only be able to fill half of its available jobs."

These statistics help people like Margaret Ashida make what she calls "the business case" for diversifying the STEM disciplines.

Ashida is the executive director of the Empire State STEM Learning Network and was the keynote speaker at the NYSUT-sponsored 2010 Summer STEM Institute. She's a former IBM executive and worked at the company in the 1990s, when then-CEO Lou Gerstner embraced a human resources strategy that emphasized diversity as part of the company's dramatic turnaround.

Ashida said a key to Gerstner's success was that his focus on diversity wasn't about "doing the right thing." Rather, he saw a diverse workforce as a business necessity. He wanted people who could look at problems from a variety of perspectives, and people who could anticipate how a diverse marketplace would use emerging technologies. He wanted a team that could relate to IBM's global clientele. "Gerstner understood how diversity drove prosperity," Ashida said.

Neira, Burrell and Ashida all point to a similar collection of barriers to increasing participation among women and people of color in the STEM fields, including:

  • cultural stereotypes and expectations;
  • class sizes that prevent one-on-one diagnosis and instruction;
  • promotion policies that disadvantage women who start families;
  • the concentration of students of color in under-performing schools;
  • testing requirements that discourage innovative curriculum; and
  • teacher training; education.

Katie Rommel-Esham, an education professor at SUNY Geneseo, is working to add one more to the list: the power of storytelling.

She's part of a team at Geneseo that's using a National Science Foundation grant to investigate whether the narratives surrounding certain fields can impact whether a girl decides to embrace that field of study.

Children start developing an idea of what they are good at, and what they want to do as a career, by middle school, which is where differences in how girls and boys view math and science start to emerge, Rommel-Esham said. Studies have also shown that girls who are interested in science tend to favor the biological and chemical sciences.

Rommel-Esham's team is working to develop compelling narratives about physics and geology, and to integrate the telling of those narratives into the teaching of those disciplines.

"Physics and geology have a profound impact on our planet and human health, which becomes obvious when you start looking at things such as climate change and alternative energy," Rommel-Esham said. "The question we are investigating is: 'If we do a better job of telling that story, will it move the needle in terms of the participation rates of girls in these fields?'"

If Rommel-Esham is right, it reinforces something NYSUT has long advocated: An integrated approach to teaching STEM that focuses on real-world, hands-on problems is a key to getting students of all races and genders to embrace STEM disciplines.

"By sponsoring efforts such as the Summer STEM Institute and SEMI High Tech U," Neira said, "NYSUT is helping give teachers the professional development they need to effectively integrate and teach the STEM disciplines so it appeals to students and gives them the tools they need to succeed in the 21st century workplace."

Greg Munno is a freelance writer from Auburn.