Tuesday, August 28, 2012

STEM's New Reputation

STEM's New Reputation

by Alyssa Guarino, Jr. Project Manager & Editorial Assistant

When I was in fourth grade, I struggled with simple long division. So, I got a tutor: my second-grade brother, Mike. The most important thing that he taught me was that good communication is the key to breaking down any challenging concept. This led me to pursue a minor in science along with my writing degree, because I’ve learned that specialists often have difficulty communicating their skills and ideas.
It was no surprise when Mike was accepted to Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) where he currently studies mechanical engineering. After his matriculation, I learned that Mike’s education is considerably advantageous compared to many of his peers’ similar programs. Like Mike, I am interested in science, but I strayed from pursuing a science degree because of an assumption about STEM—that is, science, technology, engineering, and math—held by many of my own peers. STEM has had the reputation that programs in the physical sciences and mathematics are not only memorization driven, but lecture based until at least the third year of college. The rigor of these courses, in conjunction with the lecture style and difficulty, leads to a high attrition rate in most undergraduate programs. It’s no surprise that many STEM majors drop their courses for something more discussion-based and creative, like English or political science.
This is hardly the reputation that college educators and President Obama—who has pushed STEM as a priority in postsecondary education in order to better compete with international engineering efforts—want, because it still strongly deters many prospective undergraduates. However, some schools have recognized that their “sink or swim” style of freshman STEM classes does more harm than good, and others are working hard to combat this with innovative and, frankly, fun STEM courses. Some schools, like Notre Dame and WPI, have taken a more project-based approach and found that not only do their programs get more interest, but students also seem more passionate in their classes. This also has the effect of pulling more women into the field—STEM is dominated by men in all areas but biology—and creating an environment focused on teamwork rather than individual competition. Notre Dame redesigned one of its freshman courses around four projects, which include work on Lego robots and electric circuits, as well as a student-designed project. At WPI, lectures exist for undergraduates, but they are supplemented with project-based courses and extensive lab time, allowing students to put their memorized facts and formulas to use. Additionally, the school has added optional first-year projects, giving students a chance to experience firsthand the work of upperclassmen; at the junior and senior level, students are required to complete social service projects that they must research, design, and execute.
The trend of adding design work is gaining popularity amongst state research universities, and even technical schools are urging students to pursue internships before they graduate. And some schools, like MIT and WPI, have adopted grading policies—like MIT’s freshmen system of only “pass” or “no record” grading—that diffuse pressure on students and encourage them to explore new paths. It’s my hope that more and more schools will pursue these avenues and add the creativity to STEM that it deserves.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Preparing Students for the “Real World”: Minnesota Updates Social Studies Standards

Preparing Students for the “Real World”: Minnesota Updates Social Studies Standards

by Emily Sinclair, Intern Summer 2012

In late 2011, after a year-long process involving careful analysis of national documents, reports and expert reviews, the Minnesota Social Studies Standards (MNSS) committee began to model their social studies curriculum after some of the most exemplary standards from other states. Public commentary was taken into account during this process. What resulted from their work is a new, broadened set of social studies standards with a shift in focus from American citizenship and history to a more global perspective, including skills that students will need in order to be prepared for college and their future careers. The standards feature grade-specific benchmarks from kindergarten through eighth grade, as well as a single band of benchmarks in grades 9–12.

Revision is always a work in progress, and as such, there have been some complaints that the social studies standards committee omitted key parts of American history. These include sections detailing late twentieth- and early twenty-first century politics that had been included in the 2004 standards. However, Minnesota’s review board feels that students need to be more socially prepared for a changing society that includes more and more international relations—in the business sector or elsewhere. The committee’s idea is to create a well-rounded student, an ideal shift that is also reflected in the national Common Core State Standards (CCSS), with its inclusion of history/social studies, science, and technical subjects standards. It is likely that all state standards will continue to expand in a similar fashion, creating students whose education takes on a more worldly perspective.

When comparing the new standards to the 2004 version, it appears that the new curriculum now covers a wider range of historical and social topics, including geotechnology and, in economics, personal finance. Overall, the 2012 standards place a heavy emphasis on global citizenship, college- and career-readiness, and concepts and skills that prepare students for life in an increasingly globally connected world. Throughout the new standards documentation, a colorful logo is placed on key pages, highlighting the chief concerns of the program: inquiry, critical thinking and problem solving. At the center of these ideals is the concept of communication as a means of preparing a young person for college or a future career. The hope is that each student will develop a complex idea of what citizenship is—on a local, national and global scale.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Changing Face of Summer School Programs

By Emily Sinclair, Summer 2012 Intern
Summer school. If there are two words in the English language that can instill dread in a young student, these are certainly strong contenders. Historically, summer school consists of remedial classes for those students who were not able to pass the first time they were enrolled in a particular course or grade level. What kid in their right mind would want to spend any of the warm, homework-free, fun-filled months of summer back in school?
In Minnesota, the Minneapolis School District is doing everything they can to change the perception that summer school is a punishment. Instead, they are changing the focus of their summer school program from one of remediation to one of enrichment; courses are offered not only for students who have failed classes and need to make them up, but also for students who want to get a head start and would like to take accredited elective courses.
The district’s Fast Track Scholars program is offered to any middle-school student who will be entering high school after the summer. Of the 11 classes offered, just three are remedial—algebra, science, and reading and writing—while the remaining eight courses are there for kids who want to earn high school credits in advance. Students are able to earn up to four elective credits during the six-week program. This year, 20% of the students who signed up are taking elective classes alone, while the other 80% are in a remedial course; in addition, most of that majority has chosen to take an elective course as well.
At present, data from the Minneapolis School District shows that 20% of its students fail to graduate from high school. Summer school program coordinator Elizabeth Bortke is hoping that the new approach to summer school will change that number; she believes that the extra credits earned over the summer will put students on track to graduate and help to eliminate feelings of slipping behind or becoming too overwhelmed with their school work. The district has the same hopes as Ms. Bortke, including plans to expand the program to include ninth and tenth grade students if more funding becomes available. 
The Fast Track Scholars program has been in place since 2010 and is seeing growing success—its enrollment rates have tripled to 600 voluntary participants when compared to the old program two years ago. Ideally, the school district hopes to see this number double once more to accommodate all of its students who could gain from the program.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Camping Out During Summer Break

By Jordan Newell, Summer 2012 Intern

veg out (v.) an activity characteristically defined by inactivity, often performed on a couch in front of a television; an activity associated with today’s youth culture, particularly during the summer months between school sessions.
After spending the summer in this state of inactivity, it is often difficult to recall and apply what was learned the previous school year. According to a recent piece on CNN’s Schools of Thought blog, students typically perform worse on standardized tests after summer break than before it. This phenomenon occurs because students often associate summer vacation with fun and relaxation away from school. Come fall, students have forgotten a large quantity of what they learned during the school year; for three months of summer, they are not using or building upon the knowledge gained in class.
But for me, summer break included camp; camps are a great way for students to continue learning between school sessions, and there is a program for just about any interest. A program in Denver, Summer Scholars, combines physical activity, teamwork, strategic thinking, and quick figure math problems while another program in New York, Harlem RBI, combines education and baseball.
Often, the children who attend these camps come from families who can easily afford the fees, equipment, books, and any other materials for their children’s activities.
These days, however, there are many ways that the summer months can be full of fun and learning (and good quality family time!) at little cost. Families can read together and play learning games online at pbs.org or BookAdventure.com. Don’t forget about local public libraries either. The Collaborative Summer Library Program (CSLP) is a group of states that offers reading logs, posters, bookmarks, and certificates. Member libraries can provide low-cost reading activities for schoolchildren of any income level, keeping kids sharp and allowing for an environment that encourages learning. Libraries also have access to all sorts of learning materials, and many have new technologies available such as the Kindle or other e-readers for checkout to use with the e-books available on their websites.
Summer is a great time for both learning and vacation—why not check out the next book on your reading list and take it on the family trip to the beach?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Fighting for a Well-Rounded Education

By Holly Spicer, Summer 2012 Intern

Due to financial constraints last year, the Maryland State Department of Education discontinued their high school government assessment test. Because of emphasis and requirements put on math and reading by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), social studies and science were somewhat forgotten and able to be de-emphasized when budget cuts in the state were required. The consequence of these cuts turned out to be a very low knowledge of social studies topics in primary and secondary education.
Thanks to new Maryland legislation, the state-mandated history and government test requirement will be reinstated starting with 2017 high school graduates. This test will be required for students to graduate from high school. In addition, starting in 2014, the law will require middle school student assessments in core subjects, including social studies. A statewide survey will study how much time high school and middle school students spend learning science and social studies and will explore whether classrooms have adequate learning resources. Another part of this survey will establish how many teachers are certified to teach social studies and science in the state of Maryland.
With a reduction of social studies in schools, Maryland students had little to no education in this field; in fact, according to an article in the Baltimore Sun, “A 2005 survey found that nine of ten Maryland elementary school teachers said social studies was not a high priority subject in their schools.” Some schools in lower income areas had no social studies at all. Most Maryland educators and legislators felt that it was important to bring emphasis back onto social studies. The only opposition to the new laws consisted of those who felt that sometimes legislators get too involved in education standards when it should be more localized boards of education that make pertinent decisions on curriculum content.
Unfortunately, financial issues will likely continue to affect educational policy, but Maryland’s new legislation shows that education remains critical in many people’s minds, and many will continue to fight for the importance of a well-rounded education for young Americans.