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College of Education > News and Publications > News: 2009 > Forming Partnerships to Facilitate STEM Education

Forming Partnerships to Facilitate STEM Education

The dean's Connections column for May 2009

Monk_sml.jpg(May 2009)

Recently I made a presentation to Penn State’s Board of Trustees describing the College of Education’s work in the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. I was pleased to report that, as a College and as a University, we are playing a true leadership role for the nation and the world with our various STEM initiatives.

In this month’s column, I share the high points of my presentation to the Board. The full version of my presentation (pdf, 1.1 MB), including the PowerPoint slides, is available on our College’s Web site.

STEM education is an important topic for the nation as well as for Penn State. President Obama has announced a renewed commitment to education in mathematics and science and noted that the progress and prosperity of future generations will depend on what we do now to educate the next generation. He cited some worrisome statistics, including this: More than 60% of high school students are taught chemistry and physics by teachers without expertise in these fields.

Penn State is actively involved in STEM education and is playing for the nation and beyond. The University has a wealth of talent in this area, and the College of Education is working actively to build partnerships throughout Penn State as well as with relevant constituency groups. We as a College are well positioned to facilitate the development of these partnerships, and I share some examples below.

Pipeline issues exist at two interconnected levels. Some of these issues involve students while others involve teachers and teacher educators.

Student Pipeline Issues

There are two significant challenges related to student pipeline issues:

  1. Disappointingly small numbers of domestic students are pursuing interests in STEM or developing the skills to succeed in the STEM disciplines in higher education.
  2. Stubborn and frustrating differences exist across gender and other social and economic groupings. We continue to struggle in our efforts to attract women and persons of color into the STEM fields.

In 2002–2003, under 16% of the 2.5 million degrees awarded nationwide were in the STEM fields. At Penn State, the percentage is higher—in the 30% range—although some of this difference may be related to how degrees are being counted. Still, the 30% for Penn State compares favorably with the 11% for the State System schools and the 23% for all of the state-related schools in Pennsylvania.

The percentage of first-time students who are entering the STEM colleges at Penn State has been increasing, but the numbers remain relatively low. And not all of these students complete the programs they begin. More needs to be done to recruit larger numbers of women and students from minority groups.

Historically we’ve done a better job at stimulating students’ interests in science than we’ve done at sustaining it. The old-time television show Mr. Wizard and the more modern Bill Nye the Science Guy program frame science as being fun, which certainly is true, but not much is done as follow-up to build capacity to succeed with science curricula.

Teacher Pipeline Issues


Only small numbers of people are preparing to be STEM teachers, particularly in the physical sciences. Many school administrators struggle to find qualified teachers in these fields. One result is the presence of science teachers with less-than-ideal credentials, and one suspects that this does not help us as we try to stimulate and sustain student interest in the sciences.

The schools also face retention challenges, since well-prepared STEM teachers have many career options. But the turbulent economic times and uncertainties in the business world these days may actually work to the advantage of a sector like K–12 education. Highly qualified teachers may be less inclined to leave the security of a school district position, and we may also succeed at attracting more students who initially saw themselves majoring in a content area and staying away from teaching as a career.

At the elementary school level, the challenge is perhaps less obvious, but no less real. The nation’s elementary schools are populated with large numbers of teachers with limited backgrounds and interests in mathematics and science. We need to build strong foundations at the elementary level.

We’re fortunate at Penn State because of the strong reputation of our programs, and we recruit and retain top teacher educators. But this is not true throughout the field, and the overall result nationwide is an adverse effect on the quality of teacher education.

The chain of events nationwide is problematic. When weak teacher preparation occurs, it gives rise to weak teachers and weak teachers give rise to substandard teaching in the schools—and this chokes off the supply of talent into the STEM fields. The downward spiral needs to be turned around.

It’s a sobering message, but we can be proud of how Penn State is responding to these challenges.

College of Education Initiatives


Within the College, we’ve been emphasizing capacity building in STEM education. In particular, we’ve been adding to the strength of our STEM education faculty—we’ve made seven tenure-line hires in mathematics and science education in the past five years. Without exception, these have been phenomenal hires that build on the existing strengths of the faculty. We’ve also been adding quality fixed-term faculty to the mix.

Our College has assumed the editorships of two preeminent journals in STEM education—the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, edited by Kathy Heid; and Science Education, edited by Greg Kelly. These journals offer the opportunity to shape the entire field.

We’ve earmarked two faculty endowments for STEM education. Richard Duschl, the Waterbury Chair in Secondary Education, has focused his work on STEM. And we’ve named Carla Zembal-Saul the inaugural holder of the Kahn Professorship in STEM Education.

The College has embraced the role of technology in teacher education. The EDUCATE initiative—Exploring Directions in Ubiquitous Computing and Teacher Education—infuses the use of modern computing and telecommunication technologies into the day-to-day lives of our preservice teachers. We’re also launching an Innovation Studio, which will serve all College faculty who are working to harness technology and to develop teaching skills in online environments.

STEM education cuts across many parts of the university. We have some longstanding collaborative programs with the College of Engineering. More recently, we’ve been working with the Eberly College of Science to break down barriers in teacher preparation. Undergraduates at Penn State can prepare to be secondary science or mathematics teachers by completing a major in Eberly or by completing the secondary education major in the College of Education.

A key is to help the Eberly students become knowledgeable about a teaching career early in their time at Penn State. Some of the best students in STEM education started out thinking they’d like to be bench scientists, only to discover that they’re more interested in combining an interest in science with opportunities to work with young minds. Teaching is a good option for these students.

The College is undertaking some major research and outreach initiatives in the area of STEM Education. This rich portfolio of activity demonstrates the leadership Penn State is providing for the field.

  • The Mid-Atlantic Center for Mathematics Teaching and Learning has a research focus as well as a doctoral education focus. One of the Center’s great claims to fame is the number of doctoral students it has trained in mathematics education.
  • The Mid-Atlantic Regional Education Laboratory is doing major randomized control trial studies of widely used mathematics curricula. This is a very significant step forward for the field because more typically these curricula are developed and marketed with very little formal evaluation.
  • The Center for the Study of Higher Education (CSHE) has received major funding from NSF and other sources to evaluate the accreditation standards being used by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), the specialized accrediting body for engineering as a field.
  • The Center for Science and the Schools (CSATS) is working to build bridges among STEM colleges, education, and the K–12 sector. The Center works with researchers on NSF proposals where they need to demonstrate the broad social impact of the work and this often involves links with the schools. CSATS also works to provide in-service opportunities for teachers.

CSATS has taken on a major education initiative from NASA with a $27.3 million cooperative agreement that has created a Penn State presence in K–12 schools nationwide. The emphasis is on curriculum development and professional development for teachers.

In previous years at NASA, the emphasis was on having education specialists visit schools around the nation and show young people things like space suits and models of spacecraft. Penn State’s approach to this project is to move away from the one-shot, show-and-tell kind of assembly and toward a much more comprehensive effort to build the capacity of teachers in the schools to stimulate and sustain student interests in the sciences.

The challenges in STEM education are daunting, but there are corresponding opportunities. You can be very proud of what Penn State is accomplishing.

David H. Monk