Looking back, looking ahead at STEM education

STEM education in NH schools has come a long way in 5 years

Five years ago, STEM and STEAM were still in their nascent stages in New Hampshire schools. While there was some recognition that these were important fields for students to study and necessary for them to make it in an ever-changing world, the concepts had not fully made it into the majority of schools around the state.

In response, Governor Maggie Hassan created a K-12 STEM Task Force in April 2014 made up of experts from the worlds of 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 that, broadly speaking, focused on strengthening STEM foundations, inspiring students and empowering teachers, and doing this early and often in a student’s education.

A second task force convened in 2015 to take action on at least two of the recommendations in 2016 and 2017 — establishing STEM literacy standards that included coding, and adopting three different options, or pathways, for students when it came to taking math courses.

Though the task forces have since disbanded, the work that they did, and the recommendations they made, are in many ways are gaining even more, well, steam.

“STEM education and exciting kids at a young age about these topics has continued and accelerated in the wake of the task force and their report,” said Ross Gittell, chancellor of the Community College System of New Hampshire and member of the task force.

Gittell said since the days of the task force, students are being exposed to these topics earlier and there has been an emphasis in recent years in outreach, especially to young women to interest them in these fields of study. He also said students are learning these subjects from a more applied perspective.

“By doing projects and with hands-on learning they learn about science concepts and math principles, and not always through textbooks and through memorizing,” Gittell said. “It’s done through actual laboratory work, project-based work, observing things. So I think those efforts have continued to gain momentum in K-12 education.”

Laura Nickerson, who runs the STEM Teachers’ Collaborative at University of New Hampshire, said though she wasn’t on the task force, she has seen and been a part of the group’s impact in New Hampshire. Nickerson said she helped get the Next Generation Science Standards passed through state legislation, which includes the mandate that schools offer computer science by 2020, all of which was a direct result of recommendations made by the task force.

She said the standards require hands-on science training and for kids to ask questions and make discoveries to get to the answers.

“It captures kids’ imaginations and allows them to explore their creativity,” Nickerson said. “It’s neat to see that’s part of what the state expects.”

Another item that came out of the task force was the development of the nonprofit STEM NH, which is backed by the Department of Education and whose mission is to help advance the recommendations of the task force, said Nate Greene, with the Department of Education.

Speaking of Greene, one change that was due to the task force was the creation of his job as STEM Consultant for the department. He said that when the task force first began there was just one science position at the DOE, but that the task force pushed to add a STEM position that would look at some of those science subjects outside of the traditional core sciences of physics or chemistry like computer science and robotics.

“That opened up a huge window for us to accomplish here at the department because we had two positions, one that could focus on that core K-12 science and one position that could focus on expanded those STEM subjects like robotics and computer science,” Greene said. “Computer science right now is big. There’s a big push right now for computer science nationally and New Hampshire is one of the leaders in that field.”

Greene said just in the past year they’ve added a new certification for teachers for computer science and adopted computer science standards.

“Now we have a K-12 computer science standard the districts can use to really create a whole K-12 progression for their students in computer science,” he said.

Greene said they are continuing to work on developing a program minimum required when a school is looking at delivering a computer science education.

“Every year there are more and more jobs in computing and in computer science and we don’t have enough graduates nationally to fill all those open positions,” Greene said.

“What we’re trying to do in New Hampshire is really trying to build a solid base… so that more students are interested in going into that field once they do get to college and beyond.”

That’s one of the areas where work is still needed, said Nickerson. Going forward she would like to see more outreach to students that lets them know not only that computer science exists, but also that jobs exist in these fields when they get out of high school.

She also said often kids don’t know that some companies will pay for them to go to college if they plan to pursue computer science.

Gittell agrees there is still work that needs to be done. For example, Gittell said, work is still needed in math, not only at K-12 but in higher education as well when it comes to preparing young people for college and career.

“We find that you know a majority of the students that come to us need some learning support in the math area. They’re not ready to take a college-level math course and oftentimes it’s because they don’t take math every semester, every year in high school and so they don’t learn all of the concepts that are necessary for college math or that a significant number of our students are older students,” Gittell said.

“We are doing quite a bit at the statewide level to address mathematics, both as a core content area and as it relates to the M in STEM,” Greene said.  In his role he is working to integrate mathematics instruction with science and technology education. He said that in many ways math is the language of science, so it is a natural fit. 

 “We are also doing some fantastic work right now in building a course that will teach Algebra I competencies through robotics.  This would provide an avenue for students to explore core Algebra concepts by learning through hands-on, robotics-based projects,” Greene said.

This work is being funded through a Department of Education grant.   

Melanie Plenda is a longtime contributor to ParentingNH.

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