Monday, January 30, 2012

STEM Education in the State of the Union address

We are thrilled that Washington DC is buzzing about STEM education lately!
Last November, Congressman Michael Honda of Silicon Valley proposed the STEM Education Innovation Act, which would create an Office of STEM Education in the Department of Education.  Read Congressman Honda’s appeal to Congress to pass the STEM Act here
Last week, President Obama highlighted the importance of STEM education in his State of the Union address.  Here is some of our favorite media coverage of the address, where the President linked STEM education to American innovation, jobs and the economy.
US News & World Report, STEM Education blog “Obama Pushes STEM in State of the Union” 
Education Week, Curriculum Matters blog “Obama Emphasizes STEM Education in State of the Union” 
Then the Today show did a heartwarming story about a recently homeless teenager who was invited to attend the State of the Union address.  What has helped her stay positive during this difficult time for her family?  Doing science!  Watch her story here.
What do you think of the conversations in Washington about STEM Education?  Add your comments to this conversation in the Scientific American blog post, “Science Education Experts Respond to Obama’s Speech”.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Math and Social (In)justice

When I told friends and colleagues last week that I was excited to go to a conference on Math and Social Justice, I saw a lot of curious and confused faces.  Many of them said that it sounded interesting, but what does math have to do with social justice?

Well, did you hear the one about the math teacher in Georgia who assigned slavery-themed word problems to a class of third graders?

The Creating Balance in an Unjust World 2012 conference brought together over 300 educators, youth and community members at Mission High School in San Francisco.  The conference featured 31 workshops and 50 workshop facilitators who engaged attendees in discussions of equity, justice, pedagogy and practices.  The keynote speaker was Dr. Lisa D. Delpit, the author of Other People's Children and Multiplication is for white people.

I quickly understood that this was a very hands-on conference, with most of the attendees being math or science instructors eager to learn about the intersection of math and social justice, forge partnerships, share best practices, discuss challenges and plan for advocacy.  The major themes of the conference were:

Social Justice in the Mathematics Classroom
Understanding the math around us is important for all youth, and perhaps especially for at-risk and marginalized populations.  At the conference, Jessica Hopson from Portland Youth Builders presented a powerful lesson she developed about the impact of gun violence on children and teens.  By using current events or historical information as a jumping off point in the math classroom, teachers shared new and culturally relevant ways to motivate students to understand graphs, charts, statistical trends, causal relationships, percentages and other math.

Additionally, educators interested in incorporating a social justice component in their classroom or after school programs presented how to convey concepts and information through math.  Teacher educators who believe that mathematics courses for preservice teachers should have a social justice and equity focus met at the conference to design courses with social justice-oriented lessons.

Mathematics literacy as a "gatekeeper"
We already have a good sense that the mastery of math, and the corresponding test scores, act as a gatekeeper for higher education and better jobs.  But a good understanding of math is also the key to some basic "gatekeeping" life skills.  Teachers from El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Brooklyn, NY presented a 9th grade math unit called "Finance My Life" which gives students a basic understanding of budgeting, loans, taxes and savings.

Gatekeeping also comes into play in the sense that a student gets 'locked out' of higher math, and therefore related science, engineering and technology fields, without a solid base of knowledge.  A presentation by the Boston Public Schools' Secondary Math Department and MathPOWER, a Boston-based non-profit, described an innovative partnership to attempt to keep the 'gates' open under new district demands on the 8th grade algebra requirements.  In this partnership, teachers and students elected to spend 3 or 5 weeks in the summer to focus on pre-algebra skills and prepare for the school year.

It may seem as though math is an international language, but math instruction can be alienating without equitable teaching practices.  The term "ethnomathematics" was used first used by a Brazilian mathematician named Ubiratan D'Ambrosio to describe the mathematical practices of different cultural groups.  He said,
Mathematics is absolutely integrated with Western civilization, which conquered and dominated the entire world. The only possibility of building up a planetary civilization depends on restoring the dignity of the losers and, together, winners and losers, moving into the new. [Ethnomathematics, then, is] a step towards peace.
By far the most heady and philosophical theme of the conference, being introduced to the idea of Ethnomathematics was the highlight of the conference for me.  To explore further, I recommend watching this video, which I watched as part of a discussion by Professor Anita Bright of Portland State University.

The Dot and the Line won an Academy Award in 1965.  As you watch, think about how this short cartoon uses mathematical terms to express social and cultural values.

Overall, it was an incredibly inspiring and eye-opening conference.  In light of horrifying international social injustice in the STEM field, it is up to us to move discussions about math and social justice from theory into practice.  Check out the complete list of 2012 conference presenters to find out who the leaders in this area are, and get your literature review and background from Joan Kwako's article in the Journal of Urban Mathematics Education.

Please comment what your organization is doing to address issues of social justice with math and science, or how you ensure the youth you work with are receiving an equitable STEM education!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Closing the STEM Gender Gap through Mentoring Programs

Happy New Year!  As you probably already know, January is National Mentoring Month, which makes now the perfect time to resolve to learn how your organization can impact gender equity in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields through a mentoring program.   
Why is mentoring so important in establishing equity in the STEM fields?  Isn’t it enough to provide high quality science programs in after school settings, spark boys’ and girls’ interest in science, and offer them support to explore, build, experiment and discover?
According to the Collaborative for Gender Equity in Emerging Technologies, young women don’t consider careers in science because they don’t have female role models in the field or because they feel dissuaded by adults to pursue a career in science.  Furthermore, there are powerful implicit assumptions, held by both men and women, that prevent girls from continuing on in STEM fields.  
One implicit assumption often made is that boys are just ‘naturally’ better at math than girls.  However, in a recent cross-cultural analysis of math abilities across gender by Jonathan Kane and Janet Mertz, no significant difference was found between boys’ and girls’ math abilities.  The report suggests that we need to make social and cultural changes if we want to close the gender gap.  As Mertz explains:
"None of our findings suggest that an innate biological difference between the sexes is the primary reason for a gender gap in math performance at any level. Rather, these major international studies strongly suggest that the math-gender gap, where it occurs, is due to sociocultural factors that differ among countries, and that these factors can be changed."
The partners of the Gender Equity Collaborative, and we at the Coalition for Science After School, believe that mentoring is a critical sociocultural key that can help debunk implicit assumptions about gender and science, and keep us moving towards equity in the STEM fields.   
Mentoring programs can and should look different depending on the needs of the youth in your community, and the strengths of your organization.  
  • 4-H’s mentoring program Tech Wizards is designed for all youth, not just girls, who tend to be underrepresented in STEM fields.
  • Techbridge highlighted in this article by EdWeek, serves over 600 elementary and secondary girls, most of whom are minorities.  The website has great resources for potential mentors. 
  • New Coalition member Chidren First CEO of Kansas recently announced the launch of their mentor program.  They are currently recruiting college women seeking STEM degrees, as well as girls in middle and high school to participate in monthly meetings.
  • At the Exploratorium, the Biology Department has created an internship program for one high school student.  This video shows that even the smallest of mentoring programs can have a tremendous impact on how a mentee feels about pursuing a future in STEM. 
If Mentoring Month, the stories listed above, or your reflections on your own career path have motivated you to make a difference in a young person’s life and in the future of the STEM field, visit on information on how to start a mentor program.  And if you’re already involved with a mentoring program, you’re not off the hook!  This is the perfect time time to think about evaluating your program.
How are you and your organization resolving to impact equity in the STEM fields through a mentor program?