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News from the National Academies

Date:  March 6, 2014

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Connecting Individual K-12 STEM Subjects Has Potential Advantages, Poses Challenges

WASHINGTON -- A new report from the National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council examines current efforts to connect the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines in K-12 education, both in formal classroom settings and informal learning environments, and suggests research to help determine the conditions most likely to lead to positive outcomes such as greater student retention and achievement, improved college-readiness skills, and increased interest in pursuing a STEM-related career.  A short video illustrating today's STEM education landscape and the potential benefits and challenges of integrated approaches also was released in conjunction with the report.  The report and video note that the recently published Next Generation Science Standards, which encourage integration between science concepts and engineering practices, provide an impetus for considering integration.

“STEM disciplines are vital for a thriving economy and provide a foundation for successful employment, but in K-12 education, most STEM teaching and learning focuses on science or mathematics, while comparatively little attention has been paid to technology and engineering,” said Margaret A. Honey, chair of the committee that wrote the report and president and CEO of the New York Hall of Science.  “In addition, K-12 STEM standards and assessments have tended to focus on the individual subjects, which, for the most part, have been taught in isolation.  So, the potential for fostering the natural connections among the four STEM subjects for the benefit of students is exciting.”

While there may be advantages to some forms of integration, knowledge in individual STEM disciplines still must be supported, the report says.  Connecting ideas across disciplines is challenging when students have little or no understanding of the individual disciplines, and students do not always or naturally use their disciplinary knowledge in integrated contexts.  Since the expertise of educators is important for these connections to be made, additional training to prepare classroom and after-/out-of-school educators is needed.

The committee noted that disciplinary integration can have both positive and negative effects.  The basic qualities of cognition favor connected concepts over separate concepts, so integration can effectively support an individual's ability to transfer understanding to new or unfamiliar situations.  At the same time, integration can impede learning because it can place excessive demands on resource-limited cognitive processes, such as attention and working memory.

Federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Education and National Science Foundation should consider supporting efforts to create assessments appropriate to measuring the various learning and affective outcomes of integrated STEM education, the report says.  It also presents a descriptive framework to provide a common perspective and vocabulary for practitioners, researchers, and others to identify, discuss, and investigate specific integrated STEM education initiatives.

The study was sponsored by the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation/Stephen Bechtel Fund, National Science Foundation, Samueli Foundation, and PTC Inc.  The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.  They are private, independent nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter granted to NAS in 1863.  The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.  For more information, visit http://national-academies.org.  A committee roster follows.

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Copies of STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research are available from the National Academies Press at http://www.nap.edu or by calling tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242.  Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

NATIONAL ACADEMY OF ENGINEERING and NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education
Board on Science Education
Committee on Integrated STEM Education

Margaret A. Honey (chair)
President and CEO
New York Hall of Science
Queens

Linda M. Abriola*
Dean of Engineering
Tufts University
Medford, Mass.

Sybilla Beckmann
Professor of Mathematics
Department of Mathematics
University of Georgia
Athens

Susan Hackwood
Executive Director
California Council on Science and Technology
Riverside

Alfred L. Hall II
Visiting Assistant Professor
Instruction and Curriculum Leadership
University of Memphis
Memphis,Tenn.

Jennifer Hicks
K-12 Science Program Manager
I-STEM Resource Network
Purdue University
West Lafayette, Ind.

Steve Krak
Director
International STEM School Design
Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM
Cleveland-Heights, Ohio

Bill Kurtz
CEO
Denver School of Science and Technology
Denver

Richard Lehrer
Professor
Department of Teaching and Learning
Peabody College
Vanderbilt University
Nashville, Tenn.

Beth McGrath
Chief of Staff
Office of the President
Stevens Institute of Technology
Hoboken, N.J.

Barbara M. Means
Co-Director
Center for Technology in Learning
SRI International
Menlo Park, Calif.

Donna Migdol
Fifth/Sixth Grade Teacher
Gifted and Talented
Oceanside School District
Merrick, N.Y.

Mitchell Nathan
Professor of Learning Sciences
Department of Educational Psychology
School of Education
University of Wisconsin
Madison

Mark Sanders
Professor Emeritus of Integrative STEM Education
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Blacksburg

Michael Town
Science Teacher
Redmond High School
Duvall, Wash.

STAFF

Greg W. Pearson
Study Director

Heidi A. Schweingruber
Co-Study Director
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* Member, National Academy of Engineering