The merits of specialised STEM schools?

For the last few days I have been here in Kansas City at the STEMtech conference, and it has been fascinating being around so many educators who are passionate about engaging students in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics courses at school and on to university.

I have heard time and time again about the STEM skills crisis facing the United States – so many unemployed people, but lots of engineering-related jobs left vacant. One statistic I heard was that for every one college graduate with a STEM major there is four open jobs, but for every four college graduates with a liberal arts major, there is just one available job. Hence the problem.

During my trip, I have visited three schools which specialised in STEM fields. I have been reflecting on the merits of these schools in the face of a ‘STEM crisis’ in the US, and what role they play in developing future STEM graduates.

Diversity of school types in the US

First, let me give short introduction to some of the things I have learned about the range of schools available here in the US. The diversity of schools available to students is one of the things which has struck me about the US schools system: the system is far more complex than simply public versus private, as the public sector has a range of school types within it.

Of course, there are traditional district-based public schools which schools draw students from the local area. Interestingly, public schools in many US states directly draw their funding from the land taxes in the local area. So rather than a flat per-student rate, schools in wealthier areas (which have higher land taxes) have more money. This obviously does not provide for equality of education, that’s for sure.

Then there are public ‘magnet’ schools. These ‘magnets’ attract students from a wider area and usually offer a unique or specialised curriculum. Although they are still public schools, they sit outside the traditional district system and they have more independence in how they are run, in particular with the curriculum they offer. Some of these magnet schools are selective, others are not but they all have some element of difference from a traditional public school. The magnets schools I visited we specialising in a combination of Maths, Science and / or Engineering and running specific programs to develop students skills in these.

Another step beyond the magnet schools are the publicly-funded, privately-run charter schools. Although they are funded by the government, they are independently run under a state government mandated ‘charter’. The charter system means that they have a lot of freedom to run their school in different ways than a normal public school, within the scope of their charter agreement. The High Tech High schools are Charter schools, as is Arizona School for the Arts. The charter system is highly contentious, and this is not a debate I feel I know enough about to enter into, but these schools do have a great deal of freedom and the system has produced some unique schools like High Tech High. Most charter schools are not allowed to be selective in their admission practices as this is specified in their charter, and some (like High Tech High) specifically use a postcode-based lottery system to draw a wide range of students.

In addition, there are also the independent private schools and religious schools. The thing I find interesting about these (aside from the fact I don’t think they get any funding from the government at all, unlike Australian private schools) is that private schools are often freed from being obligated to sit the state tests. Private schools in New York do not have to sit the state Regency exams for their subjects. This is an interesting contrast to NSW private schools, which if anything are more obligated to prove they are meeting the state standards than their public counterparts.

STEM schools

So overall, there’s a wide range of schools for students to chose from. How they get into each of these schools is slightly different – they can go to the local public school no questions asked, they can usually go to a private schools provided they can pay the fees. The charter schools often run on a lottery system, and the magnet schools may or may not be academically selective. The three magnet schools I visited were the following:

  • High School of Maths, Science and Engineering (HSMSE) at City College – New York City
  • Science and Technology Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut (STMHS) – New London, Connecticut
  • Massachusetts Academy of Maths and Science (Mass Academy) at WPI – Worcester, Massachusetts

Each of these schools are different in their admissions process, the programs they run, and the outcomes of these programs.

Both Mass Academy and HSMSE are academically selective schools designed to give students college-level experience prior to finishing high school. In particular, Mass Academy targets the best and brightest: it is highly selective and academically rigourous, with only 50 spots in its intake year of year 11 students. They only spend year 11 in the school itself, as during their year 12 year students attent Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) full time. So they obtain a full year of college classes prior to completing high school. HSMSE is located on the City College campus, and students can take college courses if they wish, although not full time like Mass Academy.

The idea of college credit is common here in the US, although it is rare in Australia for students to finish high school already having obtained credit for university courses. Although Mass Academy and HSMSE actually enable students to take college classes on a college campus, many normal schools offer classes which have college credit associated with them, such as the AP Science classes. So this is a unique system, but frequently students can finish high school with a semester or more of college credits.

STMHS doesn’t require students to meet specific entry requirements, they just have to apply. STMHS and HSMSE are similar in the way they offer some really interesting programs for students to take alongside their normal science and mathematics subjects. These are broken down into streams, such as engineering, technology, or biomedicine. In each stream, students take a series of courses throughout their high school experience. Both HSMSE and STMHS both use the Project Lead the Way engineering curriculum, and STMHS also uses Project Lead the Way for their Biomedical stream. I’ve heard a lot about Project Lead the Way over the past few days at the conference and it sounds like a great way for students to get hands-on experience with these fields through a structured, student-centred curriculum. (I will discuss PLTW more in a future post.)

STEM graduates?

A question I asked at many of these schools is whether their students were more likely to study STEM-related degrees at university. The common answer was that they haven’t done a lot of formal tracking of the students to determine this, but anecdotally many of them do so. However, there is a large degree of self-selction there: the students have to choose to come to these specialised schools in the first place, so one could assume these students already had an inclination towards these subject areas.

So from the perspective of a STEM crisis, how much are these schools helping? I think it is fantastic that they exist and allow students to get the experiences they obtain with science and engineering. The students at these schools have a far clearer understanding about what these jobs entail and even if they don’t go into a STEM career they have developed their skills in this area, deepening the STEM skills amongst the population in general.

However, personally I also have concerns about who these schools are targeting – or more importantly, who they are not targeting. It is great to develop rigourous courses for the best and brightest, but I would argue that we need to be exposing all students to experiences with hands-on engineering activities so that all students can see if it suits them. The academically brightest are not always the best engineers, the best doctors, the future innovators. Even when a schools like STMHS is not academically selective, it is self-selecting in that the students have to chose to be there.

So these schools are great for the kids who already know they are interested in this area, but what about all the students who don’t know that yet? How can we engage them and make them realise they could be interested in STEM careers as well? To do this, we have to bring science and technology to them, rather than waiting for them to come to it.


One response to “The merits of specialised STEM schools?

  1. While many of us appreciate and enjoy exploring knowledge for its own sake, the reality is that we all need to find employment to support our desires and interests at some point In life. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), about 1.7 million new and replacement doctoral-level jobs and about 0.9 million master’s jobs will open in this decade, comprising 4.7% of the total openings for new and replacement needs. In addition, 8.5 million openings are projected for bachelor’s degrees, at 15.6% of the total.

    If we consider that over half of high school graduates enter college, “following their heart’s dreams”, most of them will be disappointed when they encounter a job market that can accept only one-quarter of ALL the jobs available, at best. Many will be stuck with huge loan obligations, while being over-qualified and under-paid in positions that only allow them to “just get by”.

    This is a major reason why I believe that we must redirect the STEM emphasis in the high school curriculum away from the “college-degree pipeline” into a more flexible approach that uses additional dimensions of “Basic Workplace Skill Sets”, and “Applied Career Preparation Pathways”. These would slice up the core content information and knowledge needed for each of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics subject areas into additional levels of complexity, and into a variety of workplace applications.

    A ladder of “Basic Workplace Skill Sets” would clearly identify the methods, practices, and “habits of mind” needed for entry into several occupational levels. These six levels would be progressive in the complexity of the content topics, and in the mathematics preparation needed for each. The “Master/ Professional”, “Engineer”, and “Scientist” skill levels would require extensive post-secondary effort, of course.

    But if the STEM course content were also identified at a “Technician” level, students would know that being competent at that level is a requirement, along with post-secondary training, for that kind of career. Likewise, developing skills at the “User/ Operator” level would have expectations for graduates entering the workforce right after graduation. Finally, the “Home & Consumer” level would match the core content standards for ALL students.

    By labeling or tagging each specific topic, lesson, or textbook page with an identifier of what the achievement expectation is for knowing that “nugget” of essential information, learners could set realistic occupational goals, and follow more efficient pathways in pursuit of their futures. They can become successes as they step up the achievement ladder, according to their efforts and interests, rather than being failures for not having exited out of the college pipeline into a waiting job.

    So I think that a comprehensive STEM curriculum framework should provide some direct goals for the 75% of learners who will NOT be finding higher education degree occupations in this decade.

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