Broken STEM: A failure to teach Science, Technology, Engineering and Math

Jo Handelsman remembers the moment she realized something was seriously wrong with the way science was taught. She was an undergraduate at Cornell University in her junior year, sitting in a biology lecture with an unusually good professor.

“It suddenly occurred to me that every idea I had memorized or learned or thought I understood in a textbook was actually the result of scientific investigation,” said Handelsman, who is now a professor at Yale. “And that just floored me.”

She also couldn’t help thinking why she hadn’t realized this before. “What was missing that it took me so long?”

Handelsman now directs the Yale Center for Scientific Teaching in order to fix that very problem. She also helped write a report for President Obama on science and math education in colleges and universities. She thinks science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields aren’t taught the right way in the United States –- and that’s largely why states like Connecticut face a bizarre paradox of high unemployment, but many unfilled job openings in STEM-related professions.

In 2009, the national unemployment rate was 9.8 percent for all occupations. For computer occupations, it was 5.2 percent. For life scientists, it was just 2 percent.

Mark Richards sees the lack of skilled computer workers firsthand.

“I would say it is the most difficult time in over 15 years,” said Richards, who runs a recruitment firm in Shelton called eRichards Consulting. “It’s just unbelievable. I’ve never seen the lack of qualified people.”

Richards said that he couldn’t fill more than 40 vacancies for IT professionals that client companies were asking for at the end of last year.

The problem will only get worse if education standards don’t start measuring up to employment needs. Economists project that at the rate we’re going, the United States will be short 1 million college graduates with STEM degrees in the next decade. And that doesn’t even count jobs that draw significantly on STEM-related skills, such as health care workers and manufacturing professionals.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy didn’t talk about STEM education in particular in his “State of the State Address” this month. But he did address the gap between unemployment and unfilled jobs -– and the need for an overhaul in public education. Advocates say that when it comes to STEM education, that overhaul needs to happen early in children’s lives.

“Because of the pressure to perform on standardized tests in reading and mathematics, science is getting squeezed out of the elementary curriculum,” said Adam Gamoran, a member of the National Board for Education Sciences. And when science does get taught on a secondary level, “the U.S. tends to have a curriculum that repeats the same topics over and over, that presents topics in a fragmented way, and just isn’t very rigorous compared to other countries.”

Jack Hammer, a high school chemistry teacher in Milford, has seen the effects of that curriculum on his students. He began the school year by asking his students if they were looking forward to his class.

“Out of 80 kids, maybe one answered that they were really looking forward to chemistry,” Hammer recalled.

‘Too little, too late’

Data show that American students actually do well in math and science in the early years ( By 12th grade, however, their performance has plummeted ( And by the time students get to college, they’re often woefully underprepared for rigorous math and science courses.

“Probably the majority of students are coming in without adequate preparation in the sciences and math,” said Robert Kennedy, president of the Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education. “It’s an enormous amount to try and overcome. A lot of [their STEM education] is focused on remediation … it’s often too little, too late.” (According to Handelsman’s report, colleges and universities spend $2 billion each year on educational programs to help students catch up.)

Malloy has proposed improving teacher preparedness in Connecticut, which many say could go far toward making sure kids are taught by qualified instructors in math and science. Connecticut, which is seeking a waiver in its “No Child Left Behind” requirements, has included in its request steps the state would take to improve and better assess STEM education.

“Rather than focusing exclusively on math and reading [as it does now], our new system will hold schools accountable for mathematics, reading, writing and science,” a draft of the waiver application reads.

‘Lacking in basic math’

Better basic math and science preparation alone could help fill many of Connecticut’s job vacancies. That’s what human resources manager Judi Spreda wishes more high school graduates who walked into her office had. Spreda works at Peter Paul Electronics in New Britain, a factory that builds solenoid valves, an electromechanical device that controls liquid or gas flow.

“They’re very lacking in basic math,” she said of the graduates. “They’re lacking in problem solving, they’re lacking in … the only way I can describe it is, they don’t know how to go to work,” Spreda said.

The situation has gotten so dire that Peter Paul created its own Academy, dedicated to educating workers in-house. Julio Reyes got his first job at Peter Paul once he completed the factory’s training. And what did he learn during those few months?

“Basically a lot of math -– if you’re going to work in manufacturing you gotta know a lot of math. I learned I think a lot more here than in school. It’s a whole lot different.”

Workers in many such manufacturing positions are expected to have more technical skills than in the past. The Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology estimates there are a thousand vacancies in skilled trades across the state.

And that’s just the picture for employers who are looking for high school graduates. For those who want college grads, the economists’ projection of the need for 1 million more college grads with STEM degrees in the next decade is particularly daunting. Handelsman, at Yale, hopes her Center for Scientific Teaching will help teachers at the college level keep students in STEM fields.

Right now, 60 percent of students with interest in pursuing a STEM degree end up switching their major before they graduate. Handelsman thinks that’s largely because teaching methods in the introductory courses are all wrong.

Even students who’ve decided to pursue a STEM degree to the end acknowledge the need to slog through the intro classes.

“They’re not always very interesting, because a lot of it is … basic skills that you need to learn how to do before you can do things that you really find interesting,” said University of Connecticut sophomore Kevin Duignan, who’s been interested in science since middle school. Junior Alex Gomez agrees that “the general classes are more difficult.”

What Duignan looks forward to — and what Gomez is already able to enjoy as a junior — are the more advanced, specialized courses. “You start experiencing what science is really about,” Gomez said. “You get to start dissecting hearts, frogs and cats.” In a recent lab course, students removed a frog’s heart and watched it beat on its own under a microscope.

Handelsman thinks students shouldn’t have to wait for the more advanced courses to get excited about the scientific process. She’s developing a course to be taught at Yale next year that incorporates research laboratory methods for freshmen — which she expects to be a refreshing change from the large lecture courses most of them take in the STEM areas. Many say such changes also need to take place at the secondary education level.

“One camp will say, well, you’ve got to learn a lot of the basics before you can actually do some science,” said Hammer, the high school chemistry teacher. “But then there’s another camp, which I think is more persuasive to me personally, that if you get kids doing science, even if it’s fairly simple at first, you will capture their imagination.”

The report Handelsman helped write for President Obama was released in early February. Shortly afterward, the president announced investments of more than $160 million in total by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education to improve STEM education.

A model in Enfield

For Malloy’s part, his administration wants to create more centers like Asnuntuck Community College, which runs one of the state’s most successful manufacturing training centers. Manufacturing companies in the state have direct input into Asnuntuck’s curriculum, and the program has a more than 90 percent graduation rate. Gary Zweifel, who works for a manufacturing company that makes jet engine parts, is on the college’s advisory board.

“It has not only machinist training, but math training, computer training, programming, safety, lean manufacturing, inspection. It’s got the whole array,” Zweifel said of Asnuntuck’s program. “All the kinds of things we need people to know before we bring them on board here.”

Almost all of Asnuntuck’s students already have a job lined up when they graduate. So Malloy’s desire to clone such programs is just what employers in Connecticut say they’re looking for.

“I think we’re finally starting to become aware in the state of Connecticut that, you know what — we kind of dropped the ball a little bit,” said Judi Spreda of Peter Paul Electronics. “And we’re starting to pick it up again.”

Editor’s Note: A version of the story aired on WNPR as a series on STEM education in the state: