The National Assessment of Educational Progress recently released results from its Science assessment from 2019. Education Week summarized the results as follows:
“4th graders’ performance has declined overall, while average scores have been flat for students in grades 8 and 12.”
Education Week also reports:
“‘The majority of 4th graders are spending under four hours a week in science, and NSTA strongly recommends that science be a minimum of an hour a day, five hours a week,’ Shugart said. NAEP analysis found 4th graders who had less than three hours of science each week scored significantly lower than those who had the recommended five hours or more. ‘We understand the competition with math and English/language arts is fierce, and science right now is losing out.’”
“Moreover, half of 12th graders, 42 percent of those in grade 8, and 30 percent of 4th graders only engage in ‘scientific inquiry-related classroom activities’ once or twice a year—or never.”
Scientific inquiry-related activities are STEM activities. When students ask questions and define problems, when they carry out investigations, when they obtain, evaluate, and communicate information, all of these scientific practices should be centered upon authentic and relevant themes to students. STEM introduces challenges to students as they appear in the real world, thus helping them understand the context and relevance of what they are learning.
It makes sense that Science scores are flat or falling when one considers the lack of time currently being devoted to science instruction. However, when considering the current challenges of Science education, it is crucial to recognize the current realities of so many teachers. Asking more of teachers right now is not feasible. Teachers already don’t have enough time to teach all that is required of them right now. Schools should instead begin looking at informal learning environments to help. Informal learning environments have been shown to increase students’ interest and content knowledge in STEM. A long-stated goal for STEM has been to increase participation, especially among girls, ethnic minorities, and students with disabilities. Informal learning environments can certainly help. Tens of thousands of children take advantage of afterschool programs to learn important lessons while participating in sports – this same model can be effectively applied to STEM.
Informal learning environments can be anything from after school clubs to summer camps. They can happen in libraries, museums, community centers, or at someone’s house. Informal learning environments can take some of the burdens off of teachers, so that they don’t have to add one more thing to their already packed schedule. Additionally, mentors, volunteers, and other students can facilitate informal learning environments, lowering teachers’ burden.
VEX Robotics supports informal learning environments in many ways. VEX STEM Labs and Activities were designed to fit into an existing curriculum or an informal learning environment. VEX Camps are also a great way to engage more students with STEM learning easily. Of course, there are also VEX competitions. VEX Robotics and the Robotics Education and Competition Foundation offer the world’s largest and fastest-growing robotics competition. The Robotics Education and Competition Foundation (RECF) makes it easy for new teams to get started. The REC Foundation provides grants, and a myriad of resources for competition teams. Also, the REC Foundation employs Regional Support Managers to help guide you through everything.
Informal learning environments have an opportunity to extend the STEM learning experience for students while also piquing their interest and engagement. Informal learning environments can be more flexible and potentially more innovative than regular classrooms. You can also use them to supplement the instruction that is happening at the school. Teachers had to think outside the box for the past 18 months. Educational leaders should do the same when addressing the lack of science in our classrooms.