STEM Pathways

According to the NCSES 2019 report on Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering, there are still significant gaps in representation in science and engineering. How do we broaden STEM opportunities so that all students get access to STEM skills and learn about possible STEM career paths? 

In this Spotlight, Jeff Weld reflects on the importance and power of teaching towards workforce development, laying out key approaches from a new Federal strategic plan. In addition, three DRK-12 projects discuss how they are researching and innovating pathways that allow and encourage all students to pursue continued study or careers in STEM.

In this Spotlight...

The Frontline of Workforce Development: PreK-12 Education

Jeff Weld, Executive Director, Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council
Former Senior Policy Advisor, White House Office of Science & Technology Policy

Jeff Weld

Jamie is a 17 year-old junior at a Midwestern high school serving an average size community anchored by a regional public university and an agricultural equipment manufacturer. Since middle school he did just enough to keep his grades from attracting remedial attention while falling short of competing for scholarships or elite colleges. With a 2.0 grade point average Jamie was adrift, preferring skate boards and video games to algebra and anatomy lessons. Like so many young Americans, he was lost at "C." A new course sequence that matched students and their teachers with local industry professionals in hybrid work-based learning experiences caught his attention, and Jamie started each day of the fall semester on a plant floor alongside engineers designing high pressure pumps for crop irrigation. It turned out that his formidable skills with Minecraft translated to their computer-aided design platform, and his carves and airwalks on the skateboard imbued Jamie with an intuitive grasp of fluid dynamics—velocity, density, viscosity, pressure, temperature and the like. His grades have spiked and the pump company offered to scholarship his higher education in exchange for continued internships toward employment upon degree. Jamie's found his rudder. The Mission Statement of Jamie's school district is "To prepare caring and responsible citizens." Some suggest adding "employable."

For over a century, job-related career education was restricted to the CTE wing of US schools. Despite funding and credentialing hurdles, core discipline teachers from early elementary to secondary schools are adopting work-based strategies to add meaning and context to study. A third grade class in Jamie's district opened a neighborhood coffee shop in partnership with a local vendor, learning the botany of beans, the math of price-pointing, and the business of marketing all the while. The Chemistry class partnered with a local brewery to perfect a root beer recipe as their fermentation unit, earning royalties along with course credits. Such pockets of excellence inspired and informed the development of a new Federal STEM education five-year strategic plan released in late 2018. Charting a Course for the Future: America's Strategy for STEM Education is anchored to over-arching goals toward STEM literacy, diversity and inclusion, and preparing tomorrow's workforce. Thousands of voices throughout the public and private sectors, from employers to educators across State and Federal stakeholder groups were unanimous in advancing a workforce development goal: "A diverse talent pool of Americans with strong STEM knowledge and skills prepared for the jobs of the future is essential to maintaining the national innovation base that supports key sectors of the economy, including agriculture, energy, healthcare, information and communications technologies, manufacturing, transportation, and defense, along with emerging areas like artificial intelligence and quantum information science"(p. 6).

Among the dozen strategic priorities that constitute America's Strategy for STEM are four specific to more purposeful ties between the worlds of work and of education. They derive from the consensus of the STEM education community as recounted on page 44. Each is an invitation for PreK-12 educators to take frontline leadership in developing tomorrow's workforce:

  1. Build Local STEM Ecosystems that unite schools, workplaces, informal learning centers, social service and faith-based entities and others in wrap-around support for learners across the pipeline, classroom to career (p. 10). 
  2. Expand Work-Based Learning for both students and their teachers through Educator-Employer Partnerships (p. 11).
  3. Develop Entrepreneurship Education to drive innovation, invention, and discovery (p. 16).
  4. Elevate Computational Literacy across disciplines as equal to reading and mathematics as foundations to career readiness (p. 23).

The elegance of a teaching-toward-workforce-development mindset is the alignment to learning theory—the content and skills conveyed can't help but be more personal relevant, meaningful, applied and culturally contextual. The authors of the Plan surmised, "Tomorrow’s workers are today’s learners, and the learning experiences provided to them will directly impact how many decide to pursue STEM careers as well as how ready they will be to do so" (p. 6). They recognize, however, that systems need to evolve alongside individual teachers for the vision to spread. Re-imagined policy around the credentialing of instructors and crediting of courses is needed at the local and state levels. Higher education admission expectations, teacher preparation models and research agendas all risk mis-alignment with the new priorities of the STEM education community. School administrators have the awesome responsibility and unprecedented opportunity, likely reinforced by table-mates at Rotary Club or city leaders' meetings, to usher a new era of STEM education woven into the community. Grant agencies and philanthropic organizations now have a "North Star" with which to chart their own courses for investing, thereby amplifying their collective impact.

It's a laudable mission statement for a school district "To prepare caring and responsible citizens." But "To prepare caring, responsible, and employable citizens" sets learners and their communities as well as our nation up for economic success.

Featured Projects

iSTEM LogoiSTEM: A Multi-State Longitudinal Study of the Effectiveness of Inclusive STEM High Schools (NSF #1817513)

PI: Barbara Means | Co-PI: Viki Young 
Grades: 9-12
STEM Disciplines: All
Target Populations: General, but with focus on low-income, underrepresented minority and female students.

Description: Researchers from Digital Promise, SRI and George Washington University have been conducting a large-scale, longitudinal study of the effectiveness of inclusive STEM high schools in Texas, North Carolina, and Ohio. These schools seek to broaden STEM opportunities by enrolling interested students from diverse backgrounds without imposing aptitude or prior achievement requirements and giving all their students STEM course and real-world experiences to inspire and prepare them for entry into a STEM college major.

Approach to Addressing STEM Pathways: The study's focus is on the extent to which inclusive STEM high schools (ISHSs) enhance students’ secondary and postsecondary STEM academic outcomes, interest in STEM careers, and expectations for advanced study. Using state datasets, we matched ISHSs to non-STEM schools based on demographic variables and achievement levels of their incoming students. These schools were then recruited for study participation, which involved student and principal surveys at two points in time. Student-level data from iSTEM surveys and from state data systems enable us to develop propensity score weights for multi-level models comparing student outcomes between matched ISHS and comparison students, adjusting for demographic variables and academic achievement and STEM interest before high school entry. The research team also engages in implementation research to examine the elements of the STEM schools' design and implementation and other contextual factors, including state policies, associated with superior outcomes. STEM schools continue to be an important policy area and test bed for showing what STEM education can accomplish in student-centered environments where STEM is the focus of students' learning experiences.

Early Findings: ISHS attendance increased the odds of completing key STEM courses (including calculus or precalculus) in high school and of being very interested in one or more STEM careers. These positive impacts were found for low-income, under-represented minority, and female students as well as for students overall. ISHS attendance appeared to have a small positive impact on science test scores but no discernible impact on mathematics scores. Analysis of postsecondary records for the Texas ISHS and comparison samples found that the ISHS graduates were significantly more likely to be in a STEM bachelor’s degree program two years after high school graduation.

Products: Publications

STEP UP LogoSTEP UP (NSF #s 1720810, 1720869, 1720917, 1721021)

PIs: Mark HannumZahra Hazari, Theodore HodappRobynne Lock | Co-PIs: Beth Cunningham, Renee Michelle Goertzen, Anne Kornahrens, Laird Kramer, Geoffrey Potvin, Kathryne Woodle
Grades: 9-12
STEM Discipline: Physics
Target Populations: Girls

Description: STEP UP is a national community of physics teachers, researchers and professional societies. We design high school physics lessons to empower teachers, create cultural change, and inspire young women to pursue physics in college.

Approach to Addressing STEM Pathways:  STEP UP is highly targeted toward a particular gap in STEM pathways: the dropoff between young women’s enrollment in physics between high school and college. The lessons build a counternarrative in the classroom, dismantling the commonly-held stereotypes of what physics is and who physicists are, which opens possibilities in students’ minds for pursuing physics in college. In one lesson, students consider their own values and what they want in a career, and based on this they are matched with a profile of someone with a bachelor's degree in physics working in a career students might not expect: writers, film producers, skateboarders and actuaries. Students then make their own career profile envisioning themselves in the future with a physics degree and detailing how physics helped them in their career path. The other lesson discusses representation of women and other minorities in physics and the underlying potential causes, allowing students to brainstorm ways to counteract biases. STEP UP’s innovation comes both from the counternarrative created from the lessons and from the shift in the classroom culture resulting long afterwards. This shift is aided by the STEP UP Everyday Action Guidelines, which provides day-to-day actions that can promote inclusivity in the classroom.

Early Findings: In our pilot study with 10 teachers across 8 states, 312 female students were asked, before and after the lessons, the likelihood of their applying to an undergraduate program in physics. Their likelihood of applying to a physics undergraduate program experienced a significant gain after the lesson (p<0.001). On average, this gain translated to 2-3 additional female students per teacher reporting a high likelihood of their applying to a physics undergraduate program. These results suggest that the lessons will genuinely help high school physics teachers in leading this historic movement!

Theoretical Framework: The primary framework utilized in the STEP UP research is science identity, particularly physics identity. Science identity has proven to be a salient framework for studying persistence; in terms of disciplinary identity, research has found that students who develop such identities are significantly more likely to plan careers in those disciplines (Hazari et al., 2010; 2013). The theorized framework for physics identity that STEP UP employs includes dimensions of physics performance beliefs, competence beliefs, interest, and recognition. The framework employing these theorized dimensions has broadly been used both qualitatively and quantitatively (e.g. Carlone & Johnson, 2007; Godwin et al., 2016; Hazari et al., 2015). Physics identity measures used in these studies have been found to be reliable and valid and are strong predictors of students’ physics-related career choices. In addition to physics identity, we used theoretical insights from Goal Congruity, Values Affirmation, Growth Mindset, and Figured Worlds Theory in the development of the approaches/strategies.

Products: Project Website | Lesson Materials | Guidelines for Conduct During Discussion | Publications  

SAMSS LogoStereotypes About Math and Spatial Skills (NSF #1920732)

PI: Sara Cordes
Grades: PreK-4
STEM Discipline: Mathematics
Target Populations: Not Applicable

Description: This project characterizes the developmental emergence, mechanisms, and consequences of spatial and math gender stereotypes in childhood. We aim to uncover when and how children acquire these gender stereotypes, the underlying assumptions driving these stereotypes (Do children believe boys are inherently better at, or simply prefer, math and/or spatial tasks?), and the implications for these stereotypes on STEM participation and performance.

Approach to Addressing STEM Pathways: The majority of past research aimed at understanding female underrepresentation in STEM has focused on potential gender differences in cognitive abilities that may give males an advantage in STEM. However, there is an increasing amount of evidence suggesting that attitudinal factors lead females to pursue STEM at lower rates than males. This project is unique in that it investigates the acquisition of gender stereotypes as they pertain to two distinction domains relevant to STEM achievement – math and spatial skills. The results of the project will be pivotal in characterizing how the gender gap in STEM observed in adulthood may already be reflected in young boys’ and girls’ attitudes towards domains critical for STEM professions. Further, results will provide key insights into pathways to attenuate and/or eliminate the perpetuation of these stereotypes in children, long before they can have greater impacts downstream the academic and professional STEM pipeline.

Early Findings: We have found that relations between parent and child attitudes about math such as math-male implicit stereotypes and math anxiety are only observed between parents and daughters but not parents and sons. In another study with college students, we have found an interaction between gender, working memory, and math, spatial, or control primes such that girls with higher working memory show improved performance with math and spatial primes whereas boys show the opposite effect. Females improved most in spatial conditions suggesting attitudes about space may be more malleable, or less consequential than attitudes about math which we have proposed in our theoretical model to be explored in this grant.

SAMSS Figure 1

Theoretical Framework: We propose an integrated theoretical model of the relations between gender, gender stereotypes (parent and child), other attitudes (anxiety, motivational frameworks, and perceptions of ability), and abilities in the domains of math and space, which ultimately impact gender differences in STEM achievement (Figure 1). That is, there are established relations between gender, gender stereotypes, other attitudes, and abilities for the math domain but most of these relations are not currently understood as they relate to the spatial domain. Further, it is not understood how most of these relations compare across domains and whether domain specific relations have different consequences for STEM participation and achievement. We propose that attitudes across domains will be similar but that attitudes about space are more malleable and thus a better target for intervention. Through our proposed studies, we will evaluate the validity of our model in determining how math and spatial gender stereotypes relate to math and spatial affect and achievement. Further, we will look at gender as a moderating factor in these relations, a critical feature in understanding the overarching relation between gender and STEM outcomes.

Methodology: We are using quantitative methodologies across the eight studies. These include questionnaires, computerized implicit association tasks, rating scales, and cognitive assessments of ability. In two of our studies, we will also video-tape parent child interaction and code types of language related to spatial attitudes as well as spatial skill.

Key Challenge: A key challenge of the studies, as is the case with most psychological research, will be the generalizability of findings. Conducting research in an urban, predominately white, middle-upper class area makes it difficult to understand what the implications of findings would be for a more diverse population. However, to increase the diversity of our sample, we are recruiting schools that serve more heterogeneous populations rather than relying on the homogeneous sample that typically comes into research labs.

Products: Publications | Presentations 

Additional Resources

Charting a Course for Success: America's Strategy for STEM Education
This document presents the Federal Government’s five-year strategic plan for STEM education, based on a vision for a future where all Americans will have lifelong access to high-quality STEM education and the United States will be the global leader in STEM literacy, innovation, and employment.

STEM Learning and Resource Center (STELAR)
NSF's ITEST program supports projects that engage students in technology-rich experiences that: (1) increase awareness and interest of STEM and ICT occupations; (2) motivate students to pursue appropriate education pathways to those occupations; and (3) develop STEM-specific disciplinary content knowledge and practices that promote critical thinking, reasoning, and communication skills needed for entering the STEM and ICT workforce of the future. As the resource network for NSF's ITEST program, STELAR builds capacity and magnifies the results of ITEST projects to deepen the impact of the ITEST program.

Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering
This 2019 report from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) provides statistical information about the participation of these three groups in science and engineering education and employment.