By: Iris R. Wagstaff, Ph.D., STEM Program Director, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
As we reflect on the past three years that embroiled Americans in a pandemic, which highlighted educational inequities and social justice issues, two looming questions arise. How will we utilize the lessons learned and our new awareness of individual and communal perseverance and resilience? Will we employ these lessons and new awareness to frame and transform the future of K-12 STEM education to prepare the educators who will cultivate the next generation of diverse talent? They are needed to address critical problems and sustain America’s competitiveness in a global scientific and technical economy.
These questions were at the forefront of my mind, as I participated in the recent National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) Advisory Steering Panel to update the K-12 science framework for 2028. Our charge to craft what students should know, and know how to do, in science by 2028 addressed several questions:
- How do we ensure access to equitable science education for all students regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, language of origin, and students with disabilities or who have learning differences?
- How do we prepare students in 2023 for the future of learning and the future of work in 2028?
- How do we account for differences in school resources that create inequities in STEM competencies to design fair and balanced assessments?
As we tackled these issues, I also reflected on what teachers should know, and know how to do, to prepare this next generation of diverse student populations.
Moreover, the future of our country and that of our children depends on it according to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. (See Statement on the President’s Fiscal Year 2023 budget.)
As a Black, female scientist and educator from a divorced single parent, low-income, and first-generation status from the South, I have first-hand knowledge of the struggles and challenges regarding access to equitable STEM education. While my family had few resources growing up in eastern North Carolina, my mom was a huge proponent of not only excellence in education, but also using our education, gifts, and talents to make our communities better. Because of her influence, I always viewed education as not only a mechanism to change the trajectory of my life and my family’s life but also as a vehicle for advocacy.
While the challenges regarding equitable STEM education have been well documented, it is critical that we also acknowledge and celebrate the continued efforts of K-12 teachers, and the faculty who prepare them, to creatively address these challenges. After 30 years of working in the STEM education and DEI space, where I am today is largely a testament to the advocacy of my mom fighting for me to be in the appropriate higher-level STEM courses, and to the excellent K-12 teaching I received growing up in Goldsboro, NC. We know from the research that the greatest impact on a child’s learning is a teacher.
Having taught science at the middle and high school levels and serving as an adjunct faculty member in chemistry and science education, I found widespread agreement on best practices that center on equity, active learning, student-centered learning, and professional development for teachers. Still, issues remain regarding recruitment, preparation, and retention of a diverse pool of highly skilled educators, supporting students’ social/emotional learning and mental health, creating culturally relevant and justice-centered learning experiences, and developing teacher leadership.
2023 presents a moonshot call to rise to the challenge of harnessing our collective efforts to solve these problems. The NSF Noyce Program and the AAAS ARISE Initiative are leading the way in transforming teacher preparation and retention by advancing the research and innovation in the STEM education of preservice teachers in high-need school districts. These efforts have laid the foundation and provided a roadmap for much-needed future research on critical needs such as providing more hands-on research and student teaching opportunities for preservice teachers, increasing and advancing mentoring and coaching, and resourcing teacher training programs to recruit and retain a high-quality and diverse teacher workforce. These efforts not only align with the first of the NSF’s four strategic goals outlined in the 2022 – 2026 Strategic Plan, Leading the World in Discovery and Innovation, STEM Talent Development and the Delivery of Benefits from Research, which is to “empower STEM talent to fully participate in science and engineering”, but they also operationalize and further AAAS’s strategic goals to advance scientific excellence and achievement, and to foster equity and inclusion for scientific excellence. It is within the context of these national priorities and goals for STEM education that opportunities to frame the work for the next decade are presented.
In 2023 and beyond, there are several fruitful grounds for the exploration of creative and innovative strategies that may point the way to address the critical issues in STEM education that have been highlighted and prioritized. Those include: (1) the “grow your own” recruitment model, (2) extending the scope of teacher professional development, and (3) creative partnerships and collaborations to advance and enhance STEM education.
This “grow your own” model (Wan et al., 2022) while not new, has shown promise over the last few years and includes several strategies such as early exposure to teaching in high school, financial support, and incentives for college students (which the NSF Noyce Program is an exemplar), alternative route certification programs, and recruiting from non-traditional sources. Based on the research, it is well documented that having teachers who look like and come from similar backgrounds as the students they teach results in improved achievement. This is especially true in the case of African American teachers and students. Improvements are also observed in the social and emotional development of students of color, which is documented by the work of scholars such as Gloria Ladson Billings (1995, 2000, 2014). Enhancements to strategies that create more opportunities to identify and recruit potential STEM teachers from underrepresented STEM backgrounds, in addition to other sectors, industries, and less likely sources may present untapped benefits in 2023.
Against this persistent backdrop of disruption and uncertainty, 2023 presents an opportunity to address how we will transform challenges into opportunities to create innovative and evidenced-based strategies to reimagine the future of equitable and impactful K-12 STEM education for learners from diverse backgrounds.