Next generation education in the Granite State

What’s the big deal about STEM and how is it changing NH schools?



STEM is the integrated study of science, technology, engineering  and math. Similarly, a relatively new term — STEAM — includes all of the above and also integrates the arts. But these acronyms just scratch the surface of what’s beneath.

STEM and STEAM are about building battling robots and exploring, myth-busting and sleuthing, cracking once-secret codes and bringing imaginary worlds to life. It means using your hands, your brain, and your imagination to turn the never-could-happen into the how-did-we-live-without-this.

To accomplish this in New Hampshire, it has meant transforming the way students learn the basics like science, math and the arts. Where once students learned these as discrete topics drilled into their brains through memorization and repetition, they are now learning the ways these areas work together. Where once the emphasis might have been on worksheets and a lab experiment, students are now taking the concepts and using them in real-life (or close to it) hands-on projects.

Why STEM?

While all of that sounds fun, it was put in motion in New Hampshire to solve a serious problem.

“We are seeing gaps in the workforce,” said Matt Cookson, executive director of the High Tech Council, an organization with a focus on advancing innovation throughout New Hampshire.

“We are seeing really good jobs go unfilled right now in STEM-related fields; good high-paying jobs, that offer a lot of growth opportunity. It would be great to fill more of those with kids coming out of our New Hampshire schools.”

The push for STEM education grew out of several reports in the early 2000s showing there was a desperate need to improve proficiency and, necessarily, education in the STEM fields.

These reports indicated that students in the United States were falling behind students from other countries. Furthermore, if we didn’t do something, we were going to be left behind and would not have the workforce qualified to do the jobs our technologically-saturated future might require. Our children would lack the skills necessary to cope and flourish in this new reality.

 In 2009, President Barack Obama announced a new initiative — Educate to Innovate — which was intended to put U.S. students on top in science and math by 2019, and prepare 100,000 new STEM teachers by 2021 through an increase in federal investment.

A new moon shot of sorts was launched into classrooms across the country.

Another big change was headed for education: Common Core Standards. Common Core State Standards are a uniform set of K-12 academic standards that created a framework for the academic knowledge and skills students need to have in core subjects. It is not a curriculum. Curriculum, in New Hampshire and most states, is determined by local school districts. Instead they were goals for each state that adopted them. In 2010, New Hampshire rolled out the first of these standards for the state in math and language arts.

The aim of the standards dovetailed with the STEM push because the idea behind Common Core was to get kids better prepared for college and careers and to do that in a way that was clearer and more in-depth than before. This meant favoring teamwork and project-based learning that integrated multiple subject areas over rote desk learning.

Skills gap

Meanwhile, business and government officials in New Hampshire were starting to take notice of a pronounced and unnerving skills gap emerging in the state. There were jobs that went unfilled because candidates didn’t have the skills necessary to do them and, at the time, there was no pipeline in New Hampshire’s educational system for creating them.

“New Hampshire outranks many states in educational achievement measures, but the state’s STEM talent pipeline narrows early and relentlessly,” according to a 2014 report by the NH Charitable Foundation, Smarter Pathways: Strengthening New Hampshire’s STEM Pipeline.

The study showed that New Hampshire’s K-12 science and math achievement was not strong enough to supply the future workforce demand and concluded that “it becomes essential to strengthen STEM achievement for all students to broaden the K-12 pipeline.”

In April 2014, then-Gov. Maggie Hassan created a K-12 STEM Task Force made up of stakeholders in education, business and policy, as well as K-12 parents. The goal of the task force was to develop recommendations that would modernize STEM education in New Hampshire schools and prepare students for STEM careers.

The task force generated eight core recommendations, which, broadly speaking, focused on strengthening STEM foundations, inspiring students and empowering teachers. It also advocated doing this early and often in a student’s education.

“It’s important to provide information at an early age because a lot of kids may close the door at a young age just
because they might feel like it might be too challenging or they don’t get it,” Cookson said. “A lot of the studies show that if people don’t get an interest in some of the STEM-related or engineering-related programs at a young age, they tend not to go in that direction.”

Taking action

Of the broader recommendations, a second task force convened in 2015 to take action on at least two in 2016 and 2017: Establishing STEM literacy standards that included coding, and adopting three different options, or pathways, for students when it comes to taking math courses.

Achieving the first priority meant adding STEM literacy to the existing language arts and math Common Core standards that allowed students to be exposed to these concepts early in their educations, on a daily basis and in a variety of ways.

“Schools should support students to follow their natural curiosity and to be creative as they pursue STEM research, applied projects and studies,” the Task Force report said. “Encouragement and mentorship will be important for all students but particularly for students in rural areas and for girls and other groups who have not been traditionally encouraged in STEM fields.”

Further, according to the report, math education needed to move away from abstract or general concepts to “applied” math that included examples of engineering along with the physical and biological sciences. They also recommended integrating coding, the ability to interpret data, including visualization, and statistics into the math curriculum.

Roadblock: calculus

The task force was also of the opinion that one of the things that prevented students from pursuing STEM fields through high school and beyond was the requirement that they complete high school calculus. The task force thought students should be presented with alternate pathways to those STEM fields.

One such pathway suggested by the task force was providing, “the solid grounding in the mathematical foundations” required to get into STEM-related certificate and degree programs offered at the state’s two- and four-year colleges and universities.

This was the hope. So what do we have to show for it so far?

“We’ve made some progress,” said Palligarnai T. Vasudevan, Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs at the University of New Hampshire, who was on both task forces. “But not a whole lot of progress.”

On one hand, it has only been a few years since the task force made its recommendations. With the onus often on local school districts to not only create the curriculum—albeit with support from the state—as well as find a way to staff it and pay for it, change can be a challenge, even change that is welcome.

But Vasudevan said that chief among the changes that needs to happen sooner rather than later is the implementation of the math recommendations.

Getting math squared away admittedly has been slow-going, said David Benedetto, state director of STEM and computer science education at the New Hampshire Department of Education, partially because the state switched up the assessments used for math in the last couple of years.

But the other issue is that the calculus recommendation has been a sticky wicket for some who believe high school calculus is necessary. Others, like Vasudevan, see it differently.

“Everybody thinks calculus is hard and that somebody who doesn’t do calculus in high school …can’t do anything in science,” Vasudevan said. “My opinion is that is hogwash.”

“Some of the students don’t do calculus in high school and that is perfectly fine. The important thing is that they get a solid grounding in algebra and trigonometry. And if they get a solid grounding in trigonometry, they can always learn calculus in the university.”

That’s exactly what goes on with a lot of those students. He said he sees students who’ve scored well on the AP Calculus exam still have to retake calculus once they get into college. He said they are better off getting their calculus training at the university level to begin with.

“There can be an algebra pathway and a calculus pathway,” he said, echoing the recommendations of the task force. “We don’t want to get rid of the calculus pathway; we want to have three pathways and students who go into any of these pathways can still do engineering. It doesn’t mean that the gates are shut. But that hasn’t been implemented and that was a very key recommendation of the report.”

Aside from the calculus issue, Benedetto said at the state level they are still tweaking the math standards. But even without the finalized standards, many of the task force recommendations can be aligned to the learning outcomes in the existing math standards, “so students can learn a lot of the core math while being engaged in immersive STEM learning,” he said.

Computer science

The recommendation that state and local districts seem to be pursuing at hyper speed, however, is adding computer science programs to schools around the state.

Computer science is not computer literacy or information technology. Rather, it is the study of computers and the foundations of all computing.

“That’s coding, that’s statistics and data analysis and that sort of stuff that is preparing students for the digital age,” Benedetto said. “People think engineering and computer science are kind of these high-end things that you don’t get until high school and college, but we’re trying to change that perception …a lot of schools are adopting a lot of things, and there are really fun, engaging things that they can do.”

Benedetto said the state is also including robotics in the computer science guidelines, because that study is a great blend of math, engineering and computer science.

“There’s the hands-on engineering component, and then you have the coding, and you can get data from your robots and you can analyze that data and graph that data,” he said. “It’s very engaging for students.”

In September, the state also finalized a plan for K-12 computer science education and has started implementing it. To get people engaged in the process, state officials created CS4NH, a partnership with the NH Department of Education, NH High Tech Council (NHTC), NH Charitable Foundation, members of the University System of NH and Community College System of NH, and others.

The purpose of CS4NH is to connect educators, the New Hampshire business community, policy makers, and others to promote and support K-12 computer science.

“CS4NH is an effort to actually integrate the computer sciences into the curriculum,” said Cookson. “It’s moving forward and it’s going to be a reality in the next few years.”

The state also has a draft of its computer science standards complete and expects to roll them out next year. Officials have begun the process of certifying teachers, and finding funding sources for interested districts to implement computer science programs.

Among those funding options is the Student Support and Academic Enrichment program, which provides funding for robotics, computer science and engineering; and the NH Pre-Engineering and Technology Grant Program, which supports the development and implementation of computer science programs.

The computer science program is not yet mandatory, Benedetto said, but the hope is that districts will be able to use the tools, resources and standards for guidance to help get the programs up and running anyway.

As for science, Benedetto said many districts have begun adopting the recommendations in the classroom and in extracurricular clubs and special events. Moreover, earlier this year the state formally adopted the Next Generation Science Standards created by a consortium of states and the National Research Council (NRC), National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and others.

The standards include, among other things, incorporating engineering principles as well as artistic concepts such as design and development, Benedetto said.

 “A survey was conducted and what we found was that many, many districts across the state had already moved forward and were already using the next-generation science standards to inform their teaching,” Benedetto said. “This is one instance in which the schools were actually ahead of the policy on this, so we were playing catch up on the policy.”

“This is a multi-year process. And schools are at various points along that process. And, I think, it’s a continuous process.”

Melanie Plenda is a full-time freelance journalist and mother living in Keene.

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