Published in 2011, STEM the Tide: Reforming Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education in America by David E. Drew may not be a great book, but it could still become an important one, and I hope that it does. The book is a compendium of STEM education success indicators and promising programs that, if embraced, could set the United States on a better course for the future. Essentially, Drew provides a crash course in STEM education, in what we know and should be able to do to improve this essential 21st century capacity… if we have the vision, the sense of urgency, and the political and social will to do so.
Drew begins by setting the context, laying out the present state of STEM education in snippets from books and research studies, creating a meta-review for the general reader. Some of this you’ve probably already seen in newspaper articles or heard in political speeches. The United States is badly trailing other developed nations in educating STEM professionals, and we are thereby risking our standing in the world and our future prosperity. Drew quotes Thomas Friedman, Malcolm Gladwell, and Peter Drucker. If you’ve read them, you’ll be familiar with much of the book’s initial terrain (Introduction, Chapters 1-3). But the author’s research analysis provides a few surprises. For example, after analyzing all of the international assessments from the 1960s through the 1990s, Drew concludes that
“At no time was the performance of U.S. students excellent, or even average. American students have always performed at or near the bottom in international assessments.”
“In contrast with the conventional wisdom that U.S. performance has declined in recent decades, performance has actually improved. The hard work of American teachers, students, and parents has started to pay off.”
“The findings are mixed over a 40-year period, but there is some evidence that American students have done well on items that measure advanced analytical reasoning.”
Reason for hope? Perhaps. But much work will need to be done. And Chapters 3 – 9 outline what Drew believes that work ought to entail.
David E. Drew is the Platt Professor of Education, Management, and Mathematics at the Claremont (CA) Graduate University, so it’s probably no wonder that the primary focus of those chapters is higher education and what can be done to stem the alarming trends of few STEM majors to begin with and the high attrition among university students in STEM subjects, students who drop out after their first few courses, particularly students who come from poverty, are female, or are students of color. He reports on successful university level programs that have addressed these trends and closed the achievement gap between these students and white and Asian males.
Drew’s scope widens from advocating purely for an education in the STEM subjects to advocating more broadly for a university education in general, including a standard liberal arts education, which improves the quality of life its recipients enjoy. And he illustrates what it takes to implement the conviction that underserved students deserve access to a quality higher education by recounting the history of the recent (1999) establishment of Nevada State College in Henderson, Nevada, a suburb of Las Vegas. It’s a fascinating case study, detailing the practical, logistical, and economic hurdles of undertaking such an enterprise, the local and national aspirations behind doing so, and the nitty gritty of creating a program of academic study from scratch that will best serve the needs of the future, while addressing the politicization, conservative vs. liberal, that has taken place in this country around what ought to be studied. In the end, the bustling new college is going a long way toward creating a skilled labor pool for the Las Vegas area, a magnet for business relocation or start-up. Drew concludes, “It would not be an exaggeration to argue that the best move Nevada has made to protect its future economy is the establishment of Nevada State College at Henderson.” By extension, we might well ask, “how can we improve opportunities for those same underrepresented groups regardless of geographic location?”
The final chapter of the book is a call for support for university research and not just to the top-tier universities. “The concentration of federal science funds at top-tier institutions limits the productivity of brilliant junior STEM professors at second- and third-tier universities. Furthermore, scientists at lower-prestige schools may subsequently be unable to demonstrate to undergraduates what the research process looks like. And, of course they may be unable to engage undergraduates directly as participants in that research process,” another waste of potential that the current system encourages.
In fact, where this book is strongest, from my perspective, is in Drew’s fundamental conviction that we are wasting too much talent in this country, talent that resides in groups underrepresented in STEM, in children who are female, or who are born into poverty, and in children of color. In the Conclusion, Drew returns to the cri de coeur of his Introduction. It’s worth quoting some of his most powerful statements from each.
“The have-nots in American society – the poor, the disadvantaged, and people of color – are severely underrepresented in classrooms where mathematics and science are taught. Science education is vital for a technologically advanced society, but it is also a vehicle through which the inequalities of our society are perpetuated and exacerbated. If current trends continue, the proficiency gap in the sciences will widen between the haves and the have-nots, and this will damage our economy. In fact, the research reported in this volume strongly suggests that mathematics in particular is the crucial filter determining access to many prestigious, respected, and lucrative careers. Mathematics can be the catalyst for the social mobility of individuals and groups who have traditionally be outside the mainstream of the American economy. These individuals and groups represent a reservoir of hidden talent.”
His solution very strongly resides in the quality of America’s teachers of STEM, whether in our elementary schools, high schools, or universities.
“I believe good teachers are more important than good curricula. I’m hopeful that in the future, we will have both. However, I would rather see a young person taught by an exciting, engaged, supportive teacher working with an outdated 1950s curriculum than by a boring, hostile, condescending teacher working with the latest curriculum and standards. Students with good teachers tend to be better educated, more interested in math and science, and more successful in their careers.
Current mathematics and science education programs are not doing a good job of educating students and preparing them for a global economy, but we can turn this situation around. By providing incentives to recruit outstanding young people into teaching, encouraging professional development, and raising expectations, we can substantially improve America’s teaching force.”
That’s a powerful mission and one Golden Apple has been committed to for twenty-eight years.
More importantly, “teachers must realize that virtually every student – regardless of gender, ethnicity, or economic status – can master mathematics and science. Parents must realize this. Most importantly, students themselves must understand this.”
Drew makes it clear that talent resides in unexpected places and that we ignore this fact to our detriment as a nation and as a member of the global community. His book, STEM the Tide, provides a blueprint for transforming American STEM education, a blueprint that policy makers, business leaders, and concerned citizens would do well to embrace.
In the coming weeks, I’ll lay out some new year’s resolutions for Golden Apple STEM Institute’s work in helping build the STEM pipeline and show how excellent teachers are rising to the challenge of preparing new generations of STEM professionals and STEM literate citizens. As David E. Drew concludes, “We can create an environment in which our citizens are active participants in the high-tech economy of the 21st century. We have the knowledge and the power to transform American education.”
Happy New Year!
Yours in the work,
You can read more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.