Penn State actively involved in STEM education initiatives

May 15, 2009

University Park, Pa. — Penn State is playing a leadership role for the nation and beyond when it comes to educational initiatives involving science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), according to David H. Monk, dean of the College of Education, who gave a report to the University's Board of Trustees, Friday (May 15).

The STEM disciplines have been identified as critical in educating students who can advance the global competitiveness of the United States. Pennsylvania has joined a National Governors Association effort to make STEM education a top priority. Penn State's expertise in these areas, Monk said, will help the University build partnerships throughout Penn State as well as with agencies such as the Pennsylvania Department of Education and with the K-12 schools in the state. The College of Education, Monk said, is well-positioned to facilitate the development of these partnerships.

Monk first reported on pipeline issues that he said were cause for concern for the future of the STEM disciplines. The first issue, he said, is the small number of domestic students pursuing interests in the STEM fields. Of the students that are pursuing these fields, few are women and minorities. Monk attributed this partially to problems in how STEM subjects are handled in classrooms: "The way we approach science at the upper levels in schools is more burdensome than is necessary and we lose students along the way."

Another pipeline issue Monk discussed is the shortage of students studying to become STEM teachers. School districts today are finding it difficult to hire and retain qualified educators. Consequently, they must hire teachers with less knowledge in the STEM fields, which makes stimulating and sustaining student interest in those disciplines more difficult.

In addition to the shortage of STEM teachers, there also is a shortage of STEM teacher educators. Penn State's strong programmatic reputation makes it easier for the University to recruit and retain top teacher educators, but this is not the case throughout much of the nation.

"What we have is a chain of events that for the nation is very problematic in the STEM fields," Monk said. "When weak teacher preparation occurs, it gives rise to weak educators and weak teachers give rise to substandard teaching in the schools. This chokes off the supply of talent in the STEM fields. There are elements of a downward spiral here that need to be turned around."

Despite these obstacles, there is good news, Monk said. Within the College of Education, he listed the ways in which STEM education is strengthening:

  • There have been seven tenure line hires in mathematics and science education in the past five years building on the existing strength of the faculty.
  • The college has been awarded editorship of two preeminent journals in STEM education, the "Journal for Research in Mathematics" and "Science Education."
  • Two faculty endowments have been earmarked for STEM education: the Waterbury Chair in Secondary Education and the Kahn Professorship in STEM Education.
  • A two-year initiative in the college, Exploring Directions in Ubiquitous Computing and Teacher Education (EDUCATE), also is helping to embrace the role of teacher education in technology.

"Things work best when we're working in partnership with the various STEM colleges at University Park as well as with the campuses," Monk said. "We have some longstanding collaborative programs with the College of Engineering and more recently we've been working with the Eberly College of Science to break down barriers in teacher preparation. Undergraduates at Penn State can prepare to be secondary science or mathematics teachers by completing a major in Eberly, or one of the STEM colleges, or by completing the secondary education major in the College of Education."

Monk finished his address to the Board of Trustees by outlining research and outreach initiatives going on at Penn State in STEM Education, which included:

  • Mid-Atlantic Center for Mathematics Teaching and Learning
  • Mid-Atlantic Regional Educational Laboratory
  • Center for the Study of Higher Education
  • Center for Science and the Schools
  • NASA’s Aerospace Education Services Project based at Penn State
  • Seventh- and eighth-grade students recently took part in Math Options, a STEM education program at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College.

    IMAGE: John Fontecchio
Last Updated November 18, 2010