May/June 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 4

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Building a STEM – Literate Society Calls for Sociologists’ Expertise

Debbie Storrs and John Mihelich, University of Idaho

The changing global and local economies and other complex problems the world faces demand an increasingly STEM literate citizenry to make informed decisions. Much has been made of the waning U.S. student interest and performance in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Recent statistics demonstrate the magnitude of this problem on the STEM educational front:

The alarm has been sounded and states have responded by forming STEM networks, developing STEM education roadmaps, adopting Common Core State Standards, and sponsoring various other initiatives (see Change the Equation’s Vital Sign which documents STEM educational actions and outcomes by state at vitalsigns.changetheequation.org/).

Sociologists Bring Unique Perspectives

Sociologists bring methodological expertise and an ability to craft research designs to explore both why students are underperforming in STEM fields at the K-12 level and why so few are choosing to pursue STEM fields in higher education. Perhaps equally important, sociologists also bring their disciplinary knowledge to the issue. Despite a general “blame the victim” sentiment that places responsibility for poor STEM educational outcomes solely on teachers and schools the reality and solutions are much more complex. Fortunately sociologists excel at this type of problem solving with their understanding of the multiple and intersecting institutions, social positionings, forms of capital, and other social factors that impact student decisions and STEM educational outcomes. Finally, sociologists can and should engage in the public policy arena, communicating with legislators and other external stakeholders on potential policy responses to research findings. A group of sociologists is doing exactly that in Idaho.

The State of STEM Education in Idaho

Sociologists in Idaho have much to be alarmed about in terms of STEM education. Barely a third of Idaho’s eighth graders perform at or above proficient in math and science. While this is on par with the national average, it’s an abysmal figure that both Idaho and the nation must improve. While Idaho students graduate from high school at a higher rate than the national average, they are less likely to attend college (49% of high school graduates went to a two- or four-year college in 2008 compared with 63% of high school graduates in the nation) and of those who do attend, the retention of first-year students at four-year institutions is lower than the national average (67% vs. 78%). Additionally, they take longer to graduate compared with other high school students in our region (National Center for Higher Education Management Systems Information Center for Higher Education Policymaking and Analysis). A recent education Quality Counts report ranked Idaho third to last overall in K-12 educational performance and policy. Adding to these challenges, Idaho families must devote a larger share of family income for students to attend four-year colleges and universities as the amount of state-funded aid in Idaho is lower than it is in other states in the region (National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, “Measuring up 2008: The National Report Card on Higher Education.)

The Study and Implications

With a $1.2 million dollar gift from the Micron Foundation, sociologists at the University of Idaho are leading a five-year (currently in the third year) interdisciplinary research project to explore statewide and community level factors that contribute to these educational statistics, with the goal of shaping policy and practice toward improved K-12 STEM educational outcomes. Thus far, we have collected quantitative and qualitative data from 12 counties across the state of Idaho. Focus groups were conducted in each of these counties with teachers, parents and community members; and surveys were administered to teachers, community members, and students matched with their parents in grades 4, 7, and 10. In addition to contributing to the sociological understanding of educational challenges, our analyses will inform and shape place-based innovations designed to leverage community strengths and opportunities. This summer we have funded three such innovations in different communities, informed by our analysis.  Next year, we will convene a statewide STEM education conference, bringing together multiple stakeholders from industry, K-12 and higher education, nonprofits, and the faith community, to share our findings and encourage innovations across the state that are data driven and informed by a sociological perspective.

Such multifaceted research projects and applied innovations assist in establishing sociology as a vital STEM discipline to be supported and cultivated. By extension, we hope to further the practice of incorporating sociologists into interdisciplinary research projects aimed at addressing complex problems ranging from cyber-security to global climate change. We should embrace this opportunity to contribute to finding solutions to our global problems. After all, as ASA executive officer Sally Hillsman “reminds us,” sociology is a STEM discipline.

For more information on the University of Idaho-Micron STEM Education Research Initiative, see www.uidaho.edu/research/stem/micronstemed.

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