What Are “U” Thinking? STEM challenges and a state model


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The challenge to many states’ STEM initiatives can be summed up in three “U”s: uncoordinated, underfunded and un-evaluated. What do these “U”s actually mean and how can states address the challenge? Read on to find out.

Uncoordinated: In many states, no single state agency or entity is charged with overseeing STEM programs. Consequently, some K-12 programs may be operated by the department of education, postsecondary programs under the purview of a higher education institution or agency, or by other pockets of state government. As a result, the left hand may not know what the right hand is doing, and there’s potential for misalignment of programs or duplication of efforts within a state. For example, a STEM teacher preparation program might not be coordinated with a STEM career exploration initiative that teachers should be trained on.

Underfunded: It is not always clear what the funding source is for STEM efforts in states. For new STEM programs to be successfully developed and implemented, dedicated full-time employees should be identified and funded by state agencies.

Un-evaluated: It’s ironic that an education policy issue like STEM that is intended to teach students to be analytical and data-minded and evaluate outcomes, is not consistently evaluated in terms of program outcomes. In the absence of this evaluation, it is hard to say with any certainty what state-level STEM initiatives are most effective. This lack of evaluation is especially frustrating given the search for state-level approaches to increase STEM interest and achievement among female and underrepresented minority students.

And to complicate matters, ambitious state STEM plans often outstrip states’ capacity to execute those plans. Dr. Tom Peters, the executive director of South Carolina’s Coalition for Mathematics & Science, observed in an email last year: “We have studied countless state and other STEM plans over the past two years and found them to be overly complex and largely inactionable as they seek to do too much with too few resources.” Dr. Peters has also used the phrase “overstuffed and underfunded” to describe this state of affairs.

As coincidence would have it, it’s a “U” state, Utah, which has enacted legislation to address these pervasive “U” challenges. Legislation enacted several years ago creates the Utah STEM Action Center. Housed in the governor’s office of economic development, the STEM Action Center coordinates an array of STEM education activities from the early grades through postsecondary, including teacher preparation and professional development. The STEM Action Center is led by an executive director and Board, whose statutorily designated members include the state superintendent of public instruction and the commissioner of higher education (or designees), as well as representatives of the private sector and other state agencies.

STEM Action Center activities are carried out by a staff of seven. The enabling legislation requires the STEM Action Center to report to legislative committees and the state board of education not just on the number of teachers and students served by STEM Action Center programs, but the performance of students participating in STEM Action Center programs against students not engaged in STEM Action Center initiatives (see paragraph (4) here).

Utah’s neighbors have taken notice. In 2015, Idaho’s legislature passed H.B. 302, which closely mirrors the Utah legislation.

While not the only STEM coordination model, Utah’s approach is one other states can consider as they strengthen STEM programs.

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