APS News

Kavli Plenary Session Examines STEM Education

By Calla Cofield and Gabriel Popkin

On Saturday, February 13, the APS “April” Meeting featured a plenary session entitled “Re-Energizing America’s Focus in STEM Education,” which was funded by the Kavli Foundation and organized jointly by the APS, the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), the National Society of Black Physicists, and the National Society of Hispanic Physicists. Speakers included Linda Slakey of the National Science Foundation (NSF), Shirley Malcom of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and Robert P. Moses of the Algebra Project.

Slakey, the Acting Executive Officer of the Education and Human Resources Directorate at the NSF, opened the session with her talk titled “Catalyzing Widespread Implementation of Good Teaching Practices.”

At the high school level, the key challenge to implementing good teaching practices is simply that, as Slakey put it, we don’t have physicists teaching physics. Without teachers who are deeply conversant with the subject, students are not receiving the feedback they need to their questions, or finding professional role models.

On the other hand, college level education suffers because for the most part it does not incorporate a growing understanding of how students learn STEM subjects.

“Many of our colleagues have a deeply held misconception that lecturing is the most effective way to teach,” said Slakey, “when in fact there is a lot of evidence to the contrary.” Slakey said she looks largely to member societies like the APS to promote evidence-based thinking about teaching, and applauded the APS’s New Faculty Workshops –a model that other scientific disciplines are considering imitating.

Slakey advertised grants offered by the NSF to help educators and scientists either study or implement STEM teaching strategies. She announced that the name of the grant program will change this year from Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Instruction (CCLI) to Research and Evaluation on Education in Science and Engineering (REESE). REESE has three types of grants with increasing cap amounts of $200,000, $600,000 and now $5 million over five years respectively. Slakey concluded, “There will always be work to be done to move [STEM education] forward.”

Shirley Malcom, Director of the Education and Human Resources Directorate at AAAS, spoke next on “The Value of Diversity in STEM.”

Malcom led off with a historical perspective in which she noted that the initial discussion of diversity in STEM fields centered on individuals’ rights and opportunities, but that the focus had shifted toward recognizing the value of diversity within a research community.

“It’s been easy for the biologist to get that,” Malcom said. She believes this came about mainly because of the biological differences between men and women. “Among the mathematicians and physicists…there was this belief that everybody was the same. And it would be a very difficult thing to kind of change the community’s mind about that…unless they had the sense that they were missing out on something by not being more diverse.”

Malcom posited that diversity increases the richness of ideas brought to a field, provides additional role models for minority and female students, and increases the number of potential STEM professionals. Lack of diversity can impact public support and funding for science because the STEM community does not currently look like the general population.

The final speaker of the session was Robert Parris Moses, a civil rights leader and former organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In the 1960’s, Moses saw literacy as the key to economic and political freedom for the African American population. Today, Moses believes that for minority students to participate in the decisions that shape the world and to gain economic freedom, they must have mathematical literacy. It was this belief that led him to found the Algebra Project, an organization that (from the Algebra Project website) “uses mathematics as an organizing tool to ensure quality public school education for every child in America.”

Moses gave a portion of his time to physics and mathematics educator Bill Crombie, who leads the Algebra Project at the Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, New York. Crombie stated that the project works with students who have previously found “no particular reason for engaging” in mathematics. Rather than what he called a “procedural approach” to math, the Algebra Project uses “pictorial representations [which] become geometric representations.”

The following day, Crombie brought a group of 14-to 16-year old students from the Boys and Girls High School to the APS meeting, where they engaged in a question and answer period with some of the attending physicists. The core of the students’ learning experience was focused on developing a deep understanding of the number line, and of positive and negative numbers. The students made number lines that featured pictures they took on a trip across the Brooklyn Bridge, a tactic that enables them to associate mathematics with an experience in their own lives. In addition, the students then taught what they had learned to younger students in the school. Nearly every student raised his or her hand when asked if they would consider becoming a math teacher.


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