How One STEM School Aims to Lower the Achievement Gap

BY Cindy Huang  January 8, 2013 at 1:50 AM EST

WASHINGTON — The U.S. is suffering from a shortage of applicants in the science, technology, engineering and math fields — or STEM. This is especially true for non-Asian minorities and low-income students, who are statistically less likely to be exposed to STEM professionals, have access to STEM education and hold STEM jobs. According to a recent study by Change the Equation, a non-profit initiative to improve STEM education in the United States, there are two job openings for every unemployed STEM professional. A 2011 report from the Department of Commerce projects that STEM jobs will grow by 17 percent by 2018, compared to 9.8 percent for non-STEM occupations.

The achievement gap between low-income and high-income students has been a persistent problem in American public education system. The problem is exacerbated as technology becomes more integral to 21st century professions, and urban American schools struggle to prepare students for this new job market.

But an urban public school in Washington, D.C., is trying to change all that. McKinley Technology High School is a Title I STEM magnet school. Title I schools are schools in low-income areas where at least 40 percent of students qualified for a federally subsidized lunch.

Senior James White, who is studying to be a civil engineer, is taking advantage of the STEM education.

“I like that it’s hands on and I like to help other people,” said White. “I get to build things we get to use.”

Low-income African American students like White usually do not have the opportunities to participate in STEM classes. According the Department of Education, only 29 percent of high schools with high-minority student populations offer calculus, compared to 55 percent of schools with low-minority populations.

“Students from impoverished areas generally have not met STEM professionals, do not know about STEM careers. It’s generally out of the realm of their experience,” said Linda Rosen, the CEO of Change the Equation.

The principal of McKinley, David Pinder, says that STEM classes engage students with its non-traditional approach to learning.

“The kids have a chance to do math and science in a different way,” said Pinder. “There’s plenty of opportunities to build relationships with their friends because it’s project based.”

STEM education also pays off in the future. STEM workers earn significantly more than comparable workers in non-STEM occupations. The Department of Commerce report also found that STEM workers command 26 percent more in wages than their non-STEM counterparts.

And Hispanics and blacks are consistently underrepresented in STEM fields. The president of the Washington Teachers Union, Nathan Saunders, suggested that STEM programs may help close the achievement gap.

“You know, the familiarity to STEM that these programs allow help kids choose careers in collegiate and secondary level that are not traditionally chosen by children of color and women,” said Saunders. “If you look at the annual salaries of STEM, you consistently see they’re making very good dollars on an annual basis.”

Another reason that STEM programs help to close the achievement gap is that STEM teachers are more likely to be experts in their field. Rosen says that 25 percent of teachers for low-income students have no certification in mathematics, compared to 11 percent for high income students. Jonathan Rothwell, an associate fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program, says STEM curriculum helps to attract expert teachers, a much needed resource for public schools.

“That’s a general concern for urban schools, that teachers don’t have degrees in science or math subjects they are teaching,” said Rothwell. “Schools especially in STEM are better to recruit teacher with those degrees.”

McKinley prides itself on recruiting industry professional passing the baton to the next generation.

Christopher Grimm was an engineer before he became a teacher at McKinley.

“I’m from the school of thought that demonstrations are the neatest things — live demonstrations,” said Grimm. “And then, we turn around and do an actual project”

Saunders says that the Washington Teachers Union support STEM programs. He hopes that every school will have elements of STEM.

“The kids are involved incredibly in technology, ” said Saunders. “They want to know how it works And the science, technology, engineering, math help to explain to them why.”

As technology rapidly evolves, it shapes the demand for certain skillsets. Rosen says even non-STEM jobs need STEM skills.

“STEM literacy is really a part of every job,” said Rosen. “The world is changing, requiring a lot more technology, a lot more STEM literacy.”

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How big is the achievement gap in America? How can STEM close that gap? How can more schools use STEM education to engage students? What resources are out there for more STEM literacy?

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