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Addressing Current and Anticipated Challenges in Science and STEM Education

By Elizabeth Allan, NSTA President-Elect, and Kevin Anderson, President, Council of State Science Supervisors

Posted on 2020-05-19

Over the last few months, school districts across the country have been thrown into turmoil as teachers, parents, and administrators grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic that shut schools down almost overnight and led to a new and uncharted path for providing education to millions of students, with new challenges for equitably meeting the needs of all students.

As leaders of the National Science Teaching Association and the Council of State Science Supervisors, we are amazed at how well—and how quickly—educators of science have adapted to this new normal. We applaud those who are teaching our students for their dedication and creativity as they adjust to remote learning.

We are concerned about the many challenges that our teachers will face this fall. In many areas of the country, educators and students are still contending with home connectivity issues, and schools are struggling to provide students with devices to access distance learning instruction. Too many schools lack options beyond paper packets or must rely on instructional practices that do not move beyond content delivery. The resulting inequality of digital access, and effective science learning in general, is something that is not acceptable and must be remedied.

To address the anticipated shortfalls in state and local budgets, it is imperative that continued emergency funding be provided to K–12 schools to support the health and safety of students and the continuity of their learning.  Notably, it is projected that an estimated 20% loss in combined state and local revenues could lead to nearly 300,000 teachers being laid off from schools nationwide.

Looking Ahead to the Fall

When the academic year begins, schools will likely look dramatically different, with face coverings, partial remote learning, and socially distanced classrooms (how will collaboration and lab experiences look with desks placed 6 feet apart to maintain safe distances between students and teachers/staff?). Many schools are planning to shrink class sizes, which means finding a way to have high-quality science teachers in these smaller classes and meet the needs of all students.

For example, some schools and teachers are creatively planning for strategies such as staggered class time and/or blended learning that would involve students rotating between online learning and in-person learning on certain days of the week to limit contact.

Science and STEM teachers face unique challenges in addressing these issues:

  • Remote learning will continue to challenge many teachers’ ability to engage all students in the critical thinking and problem solving of scientific investigations and engineering design,  which require student-to-student discourse to be most effective. Teachers will need substantial support through high-quality, sustained professional development to adapt quality instruction to a remote setting and effectively meet the needs of all students.
  • Many Content Management Systems (CMS) only provide the structure for science content; they do not emphasize scientific practice, the integrated learning goals of STEM education, or the future-ready workplace skills of STEM fields. Further, many schools are already considering using their CARES Act funds to purchase online curricula that only focus on literacy and mathematics.
  • Particularly in elementary grades, where students often form their science or STEM identity, educators receive much less professional learning for teaching these subjects. That priority has diminished even further in this climate.
  • State standards aligned to the new vision for science and engineering education are still in the implementation phase. A reduction in state budgets will likely reduce the funds that states and districts have been using to implement these new standards, leaving a gap in support.
  • School districts have a myriad of funding priorities with which to contend, and many are struggling to provide services to students. As a result, little funding remains in budgets to support professional learning for teachers on how they can better use the technologies available to them.

As teachers move to new interaction modalities between them and their students, school systems will have to invest in additional professional learning to enable educators to effectively do the following in a hybrid or distance-based environment:

  • Create, select, and adapt instructional materials and learning experiences to be meaningful, relevant, and engaging to all learners; 
  • Provide opportunities for students to connect their science learning to their interests and identities via at-home resources including family knowledge, or by virtually accessing science organizations, higher education researchers and staff, local businesses, government agencies, etc.;
  • Support coherent and progressive student sensemaking of phenomena, both individually and with peers; 
  • Provide appropriate assessment and feedback mechanisms to guide student thinking; 
  • Design instructional experiences that encourage and effectively structure self-directed  learning; and
  • Transition laboratories and in-depth learning to remote and/or at-home environments that still effectively utilize STEM skills and knowledge.

School leaders also need support to address the future of Science and STEM learning, including

  • Redesigning systems with community input to attend to all learners, particularly those at the margins, in at-home or blended learning environments;
  • Establishing space, time, and norms within which students and teachers operate, considering community needs and constraints;
  • Establishing appropriate expectations and feedback systems to support the diversity of students, teachers, and families represented by the school community; and
  • Providing mindful vision, leadership, priorities, and support. 

In this unprecedented schooling environment, educators and other science/STEM education leaders need further professional supports in both instructional design and effective structures for learning. Without this learning, it will be difficult to maintain student growth in critical areas of science and STEM education. Future-readiness requires students who can connect learning across disciplines to understand and solve real-world problems. Traditional methods of instruction cannot be readily applied to new circumstances to accomplish this essential goal; innovation is essential.

Elizabeth Allan
Elizabeth “Beth” Allan
, Ph.D., is president-elect of the National Science Teaching Association. Allan is currently Professor of Biology and Coordinator of the Secondary Science Education program at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, Oklahoma.

Kevin Anderson
Kevin J. B. Anderson
, Ph.D., is the Science Education Consultant for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, for which he also helps lead STEM education efforts. He has researched effective STEM instruction and school change, and taught middle school science and mathematics.

Advocacy General Science Policy STEM

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