Science, technology, engineering and mathematics education gained prime-time attention in 2013 when President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address, calling for redesigning America’s high schools to better equip students for the demands of a high-tech economy.
“We’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering and math – the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future,” the president said. Obama’s speech, offering a solution to dearth of STEM professionals, came nearly exactly a year after an op-ed lamented the American students’ lackluster rankings in math and science education.
In a Feb. 9, 2012 op-ed, William Bennett, a former secretary of education, noted how U.S. students ranked 23rd in math and 31st in science when compared with 65 other top industrial nations.
“And, for the future of our own GDP, economic well-being, and employer and employment needs, this is a disaster in the making,” wrote Bennett, senior adviser to Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a nonprofit dedicated to providing STEM education curricular programs.
The low scores were especially bad news, considering a White House science and tech councils had found that over the next 10 years, the U.S. needs 1 million more college graduates in STEM fields than previously projected, Bennett added. As with both Obama’s address to the nation and Bennett’s piece, discussions around STEM typically focus on high school or college curricula.
However, children would benefit majorly from getting introduced to STEM at a much younger age, said Ken Nysmith, headmaster at Nysmith School for the Gifted. The selective private school emphasizes STEM, as well boosting critical thinking skills through social science, art, foreign languages, and computers.
“Research has shown that if children aren’t engaged in science by fifth grade, the chances of them going into any of the sciences drops dramatically,” he said. “One theory is that older children become so intimidated by science that they don’t see the fun in it – and it becomes a bigger challenge and different experience to teach those children.”
Bala Sundar, President & CEO of SyApps LL, shared a similar sentiment about getting involved early on.
“Every child is born with an inquisitive nature to explore, learn, and know,” Sundar said. “Some children have an innate interest in STEM field and for a number of children it has to be nurtured to perk their interest in STEM. Having a son at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST) , which has a specific focus on Science and Technology, I look back at his journey from his elementary school where he was involved in a number of activities which contributed to his interest in STEM. I agree that it is extremely critical to expose our kids to STEM related subjects at a very early age and it is too late to perk their interest in STEM at High School.”
Currently, there are numerous programs nationwide targeted toward high school or college students to awaken their interest in STEM. However, introducing young children to STEM should begin as early as pre-kindergarten so they can build up to a solid understanding of the disciplines – and cultivate a genuine interest – before they get to high school, Nysmith said.
At the Herndon, Va.-based Nysmith School for the Gifted, that journey begins with captivating young minds in kindergarten with 15-minute daily lesson on science. In fourth grade, students gain better understanding of biology with frog and fish dissections. In fifth grade, students have advanced to fetal-pig dissections. Technology is promoted as a valuable tool to students at an advanced level. For example, Powerpoint is already introduced in kindergarten, while seventh-graders use the same C++ program Tufts University uses with its freshmen. By eighth grade, students are familiar enough with Photoshop and Illustrator they create the yearbook using those programs. Math is a notoriously challenging subject for many children, but Nysmith offers students an individualized program that extends from algebra and geometry through an introduction to precalculus. Those children who are interested can participate in math competitions, which occur after school.
Typically, students work one to four levels above grade – all while learning through creative approaches and mathematical concepts. Thanks to that solid focus on math, several students have ranked high in math in national competitions. The best part? Minimal homework and repetition. Nysmith prides itself on being engaging, tailored toward each child’s specific needs. The focus is about making school fun while challenging each child at his or her own level, without competing with other students.
Nysmith is by no means the only private school embracing STEM, the headmaster acknowledged, but many of those promoting themselves as high-tech may have the technology needed but seldom the focused curriculum or the skilled teachers.
“Just following the hype and rolling out iPads in classroom isn’t enough,” he stressed.
Nysmith School for the Gifted facts: -Unique in its approach that it offers small classes, with two teachers in each who know how to motivate and inspire students -Each child is learning at his or her own level and never competes with others -Classes are fun and engaging, with science, computers and technology as vital components of the curriculum -Foreign languages, logic, and diversified reading and math elements help students become truly well-rounded -More focus on exploration, interactive, hands-on learning to unlock each child’s potential– and less on repetition, homework and memorization.