A History of STEM – Reigniting the Challenge with NGSS and CCSS

March 12, 2013

Posted by Karen Woodruff,
Associate Director, NASA's Endeavor Science Teaching Certificate Project

As we launch into a new era of education reform with Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and Common Core State Standards (CCSS), educators can find inspiration when reflecting on the almost 60-year-long runway of education reform which leads up to our current mission in STEM education.

The 1957 launch of Russian satellite Sputnik inspired a generation of innovation in technology and engineering in America. Fueled by our strong competitive spirit and the fear of falling behind other nations, Americans quickly charged into action. Over the next half century, we put men on the Moon, sent robots to Mars, explored the depths of the Earth, and heightened our knowledge of our planet and solar system beyond what most of us could have imagined at the commencement of the Space Race.

With Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy at the helm, Americans channeled fear into action and emerged as the leader in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In his famous speech, following Sputnik, Eisenhower called all Americans to the challenge stating,

“The Soviet Union now has – in the combined category of scientists and engineers – a greater number than the United States. And it is producing graduates in these fields at a much faster rate.”

He called for action,

“We need scientists in the ten years ahead. They (the President’s advisors) say we need them by thousands more than we are now presently planning to have. The Federal government can deal with only part of this difficulty, but it must and will do its part. The task is a cooperative one. Federal, state, and local governments, and our entire citizenry must all do their share.”

The Sputnik generation was poised to accept this challenge and quickly set to work. With the creation of NASA in 1958, the space program rapidly began to unfold. Kennedy continued the charge forward supporting innovations that successfully put the first man on the Moon. A decade after Apollo the United States came out as the leader in the number of students graduating with engineering degrees. The Engineering Workforce Commission cited 80,000 graduates per year in engineering in the mid 1980’s. Federal funding supported education reform shifting focus from rote memorization of facts to a more student centered philosophy emphasizing scientific process and literacy. The Reagan Administration’s National Commission on Excellence in Education published A Nation at Risk, which served as further incentive to reform programs that keep the U.S. competitive. Project 2061 then infused a comprehensive definition of scientific literacy and challenged Americans to meet it by the time Halley’s comet is once again visible from Earth.

In 1996, the National Science Education Standards placed high value on science as a student centered enterprise with inquiry-based learning as a core philosophy. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics guided math educators with K-12 standards outlining math understanding, knowledge, and skills. The International Technology and Engineering Educators Association compiled valuable Standards for Technological Literacy. All of these well constructed guidelines served to structure our classrooms in order to produce students ready for careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Yet, after years of education reform and countless standards, the U.S. struggles to maintain an edge. In the 1990’s the National Science Foundation married science, technology, engineering, and math with the acronym “STEM”. While the term is much more commonplace today, it is taking years to overcome confusion about its context; it is often misplaced with stem cell research or plant growth. The acronym embodies the necessary integration of the subject areas necessary to achieve success. After years of research we understand that subjects cannot and should not be taught in isolation, just as they do not exist in isolation in the workforce.

In his 2009 State of the Union Address President Obama renewed the charge forward stating that with the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history,

“We will not just meet, but we will exceed the level achieved at the height of the Space Race, through policies that invest in basic and applied research, create new incentives for private innovation, promote breakthroughs in energy and medicine, and improve education in math and science.”

He further drives us to action stating,

“Through this commitment, American students will move… from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math over the next decade – for we know that the nation that out-educates us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”

Today, we are uniquely positioned to make significant hurdles with effective education standards and practices which truly integrate the S-T-E-and M. Slowly but steadily educators are beginning to work together to reach across the hall and integrate subject areas for the benefit of students.

The CCCS and NGSS both emphasize the integration of STEM subject areas, evidence based reasoning, and academically productive dialogue in classroom lessons. Plus, for the first time, engineering practices are center stage in our standards. It is our challenge as educators to take this one leap further, moving from siloed, inquiry-based activities to integrated, real-world data driven practices that prepare our students for careers in STEM fields. The integrated STEM movement will be successful with the necessary support and professional development for educators who put standards in practice with their students. In an age of social media and fast paced communication, teachers need to collaborate and access effective, action-driven professional support to help students become engaged listeners, to reason, and to meaningfully externalize their thinking. The success of this recent launch in education reform depends on meaningful integration of STEM subject areas.

Over fifty years after Sputnik inspired Americans to innovate, life is very different. American astronauts are living in space aboard the International Space Station, now in cooperation with Russian cosmonauts. Through federal and private research we take thousands of new technologies for granted in our everyday lives — cell phones, Facetime, X-ray machines, safer food storage, and a slew of others. Our rovers explore distant planets, leave tracks on Mars, and send us exquisitely detailed images and data from our solar system. With a renewed direction and the personal American inspiration to continue to compete in the STEM fields, imagine what this new generation can accomplish. Students in our classrooms today will launch unimaginable innovations in American society, and educators today can help ignite their engines when we deliberately point toward the stars.

Karen Woodruff is an Associate Director for NASA's Endeavor Science Teaching Certificate Project.