View from Ohio on new federal STEM plan

by Heather Sherman, Director of the Ohio STEM Learning Network 

Earlier this month, the White House released a new federal strategic plan for STEM education, Charting a Course for Success: America’s Strategy for STEM Education (download).  Last Tuesday, we shared featured STEMx director Wes Hall’s initial thoughts on the plan. I’ve spent the last week diving more deeply into the plan understand the implications for Ohio educators and schools.

The plan aims to do two things. First, coordinate the work of the dozen or so federal agencies engaging in STEM education programs, both their activities and financial investments.  Second, it also aims to “serve as a ’North Star’ for the broader community.” The Ohio STEM Learning Network (OSLN), is a part of that community. I was heartened to see that much of the plan aligns to the great work happening across our state to advance high-quality STEM education.

The document is structured into two sections. First, a set of three overarching goals. The goals read to me as well-targeted and defined, focusing on STEM literacy, diversity and inclusion and workforce development.

Rather than the plan’s goals, I’d like to zoom in on the second section.  In it, the report outlines four pathways to accomplish the goals.

Federal STEM Pathway: Develop and Enrich Strategic Partnerships

The first pathway is to “Develop and Enrich Strategic Partnerships.” It encourages collaboration between stakeholders in STEM ecosystems. Ecosystems are where cross-sector partnerships provide the foundation for work-based learning opportunities and that provide educators with training and resources not available in traditional formal education settings.

OSLN is a “STEM ecosystem”.  Through our network, we connect schools with one another, with partners in business, higher education and informal learning opportunities.  We convene and collaborate across the state and, as a result, increase opportunity and access to STEM education.

Our annual statewide design challenge provides opportunities for students to connect with community partners to learn more about the factors related to the challenge, so they can begin to understand the problem and develop solutions.  Engaging with local community partners allows students to understand the issues as these problems relate to a specific community. This understanding of the local connection to problems in the world offers something more than learning about issues from in textbooks and online research.

Students at Summit Elementary School in Reynoldsburg recently met with Franklin Soil and Water Conservation District to learn about the effects of erosion on their community’s water supply.  The Franklin Soil and Water Conservation District’s website has a variety of resources available for educators, including standards-aligned lessons, workshops and kits and models for classroom use.

Strategic partnerships are a cornerstone of STEM school culture, and there are many examples of successful partnerships across the state. We can capitalize on the work we have done so far partnerships by identifying successful partnership models scaling best practices to support future partnership development.

Federal STEM Pathway: Engage Students where Disciplines Converge

The second pathway, “Engage Students where Disciplines Converge” calls for increased engagement in innovation and entrepreneurial education with an emphasis on mathematics education and trans-disciplinary learning. These are familiar concepts to experienced STEM educators.

The rise of community innovation labs and makerspaces like The Idea Foundry in Columbus and the Akron MakerSpace are a few examples of how the demand for innovation and access to entrepreneurial education and resources goes beyond traditional schools into informal learning programs like the Selling Bee and Invention Convention (Read our interview from September with Invention Convention’s Professor Prototype).  These programs help students learn how to identify and solve problems and how to bring those solutions to market in entrepreneurial settings.

This section also underscores the importance of mathematics and “prioritizing support for programs and partnerships that integrate mathematics and statistics education in meaningful and applied contexts.”  Student performance in math is a significant determiner of future participation in STEM programs. We need to make math accessible and relevant for students. It is a matter of equity. Identifying promising practices in mathematics education will likely be a good source of future grant funding for states. We need to identify successful interventions around math, measure their efficacy and determine ways to scale those programs.

Federal STEM Pathway: Building computational literacy

“Building computational literacy” is the third pathway. It reads like a technology catch all section, spanning from digital literacy and cyber safety, to computational thinking and expanding access to digital platforms.  This section focuses on ways for students to develop computational thinking skills. Computational thinking (CT) is a problem solving process similar to the design cycle. The BBC’s column, Bitesize, defines CT this way: “Computational thinking allows us to take a complex problem, understand what the problem is and develop possible solutions. We can then present these solutions in a way that a computer, a human, or both, can understand.”  

Computational thinking requires students develop four key skills:  decomposition (breaking down a complex problem), pattern recognition, abstraction (looking at the important information only), and algorithms (developing rules to use to solve the problem).

Computational thinking can be used in any subject, but science, math,  computer science and engineering courses are great places to help students begin to practice the foundational CT skills listed above.  Schools can build CT requirements into their problem-based learning units by requiring students use modeling as part of their solution as a way to develop and reinforce key CT skills.

Though Computational Thinking is explicitly called for in Ohio’s Computer Science courses, there is a place for CT in classes like math and science.  Scholars from Northwestern University have proposed a taxonomy of how to incorporate CT into high school math and science coursesSchool leaders need to provide support for teachers to learn about Computational Thinking so they can begin to develop standards-aligned lessons so students can learn these critical skills.

Federal STEM Pathway: Operate with Transparency and Accountability 

The last pathway is not closely focused on schools and teachers. Instead, it calls for the collection and publication of data about federal investments in STEM education. What dollars are spent on programs? How many participants are involved? Critically, what rates of participation does the program report for women and minorities?

The plan’s pathway is focused on federal investments but these questions are good ones for us to answer as well. And we do. Read our 2018 report on the Ohio STEM Learning Network Difference with detailed data on the students we serve, how they do, and how STEM schools stack up.

Ohio’s Call to Action

This plan has many examples and areas where we can proudly say that Ohio’s STEM work is on track and on target.  Though funding for the plan is not explicitly stated in the report, we can assume that grant programs will be aligned to support the outcomes of the plan.  As you evaluate the work you are doing, consider how your STEM program, or local STEM infrastructure is aligned to the plan. Ask yourself:

  • Are you doing all you can to promote STEM literacy, equity and workforce development?
  • What local programs show promise, and how could those programs be scaled to have an even broader impact? Those programs could be ripe for grant funding.
  • Consider other organizations in your network—would they make good partners to expand the work you are already doing?
  • What components of the plan are we missing entirely? What do we need to do to begin to make progress in those areas?

We would love to know your thoughts on the questions above.  If there are programs that you need help scaling, or areas that you need help developing—let us know.  We can use the power of our network to start conversations and create plans to make progress as a state.

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