UW leads the fight for K-12 STEM education

Sixty-one percent of middle schoolers would rather take out the garbage than do their math homework. In 2011, only 30 percent of U.S. high school graduates were ready for college work in science. In Washington, the mismatch between the skills needed for available jobs in STEM fields and individuals with those skills is growing faster than in every state but one: Delaware.

Many students don’t really understand what scientists do or how they think. And so, the U.S. has slipped down the global rope with fewer young Americans, especially minorities, able to compete in a global marketplace driven by science and technology.

But this dismal picture is changing. Philip Bell, professor of learning sciences and director of the UW Institute for Science and Math Education, was one of 18 experts who worked to update the National Academy of Sciences vision for science education learning goals. This new vision was used to develop the Next Generation Science Standards that outline the science and engineering learning goals for all students. Many educators and advocates for STEM education hope these standards are adopted in Washington state.

One of several changes that the standards will bring is the requirement to introduce a small set of core ideas from four disciplinary areas—Physical Science, Life Sciences, Earth and Space Sciences, plus Engineering Technology and the Application of Science—early in K-12 education and then build upon this knowledge over succeeding years. The new guidelines call for students to study fewer concepts more deeply and for students to learn by engaging in the work of science—the practices they engage in—rather than simply by memorizing facts.

Even now the UW is helping to put some of these guidelines in place. Faculty and students are already in some of the region’s schools, engaging students in STEM fields and collaborating with K-12 classroom teachers. Bell and Andy Shouse, associate director of the Institute, have partnered with Rick Keil, a UW Oceanography professor, and his lab researchers to bring Project COOL (Chemical Oceanography Outside the Lab) to two middle schools in Seattle’s diverse Beacon Hill neighborhood where some schools are almost exclusively minority (96 percent).

Project COOL pairs UW undergraduates with middle school youth in an after-school science program, lasting two quarters for two hours a week. Annie Spung is a UW mathematics student who participated in Project COOL. “We wanted to figure out how chemicals end up in and affect the Sound and what can be done about it,” explains Spung. Students asked their peers about ingredients in their skin lotion and how often they applied the lotion. Then they studied the ingredients that wash down the drain into the Sound. What did they find? “The fish were becoming feminized; the students were shocked,” says Spung. When some male fish—English sole and juvenile Chinook salmon—are exposed to certain chemicals in Elliott Bay they began producing a protein used to make egg yolks, something that female fish ordinarily do.

Faculty and students are in some of the region’s schools, engaging students in STEM fields and collaborating with K-12 classroom teachers.

Although the study results fascinated the middle school students, the real benefit was how Project COOL changed the way students looked at science and how they began to see themselves as being capable of becoming a scientist. “As for me, it was good exposure to what a teacher does every day and what’s involved in developing a curriculum and getting it across,” notes Spung.

Project COOL is just one example of how the UW is collaborating with K-12 educators to strengthen STEM education for the region’s children. Graduate students in marine science are partnering with classroom teachers in Seattle and the San Juan Islands putting in about 10 hours per week in the classroom to help with demonstrations, lab activities, new teaching modules and more. Because marine science is interdisciplinary by nature, it can be used to teach biology, chemistry, physics and math while taking advantage of the area’s coastal environment.

Math is another discipline where UW researchers from both Seattle and Bothell campuses are making a difference. In 2010, only about one in five Lakeridge Elementary students in Renton were passing the state mathematics assessment test. Teachers and administrators realized that something had to change. Partnering with UW faculty, a new research-driven model was put in place. It worked. At the end of year one, tests showed a 15 to 25 percent jump in math scores in fifth and sixth graders.

The UW is also playing an integral part in a huge federally funded effort to improve education in ethnically diverse areas of south Seattle and south King County. The UW’s Dream Project is a subcontractor on a $40 million federal Race to the Top venture called the Road Map Project. A consortium of seven King County school districts received the funding from the U.S. Department of Education to double the number of students in south King County and south Seattle who are on track to graduate from college or earn a career credential by 2020.

The UW Dream Project serves all seven school districts by partnering nearly 600 undergraduate mentors with 1,800 high-school students at 16 schools. The UW students serve as counselor interns who build relationships with the students and support them as they select rigorous courses, choose and apply to colleges, and navigate high school graduation requirements, college entrance testing and the labyrinthine arena of financial aid. Part of UW’s participation also includes studying what parent engagement models work. There is a high correlation between parent involvement and a child’s success in school, but traditional methods like Parent Teacher Organizations have not worked well among underrepresented minority communities.

The UW’s role in these collaborative efforts reflects the university’s strong commitment to the children of Washington state. As the state’s flagship university it can do no less than contribute to the success of students who may one day wear the purple and gold.