US kids behind in Science education

800px-Frederick-Froebel-Bardeen

Our children are continuing to fall behind in STEM (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and currently the US is ranked 44th in the world. The ranking has been on a steady slide downwards with no hope for improving. Other countries continue to improve their engagement in modern education, and help their students prosper, because of better policies and parent’s involvement. Paul Morgan of Penn State’s education department has done a focused study on the causes of this decline in America over the past decades, and come up with some startling findings. These are similar to the ground breaking work done by Fredrick Froebel (pictured above) over a century ago, who started Kindergartens and revolutionized children’s education, and was very influential in improving education in our world.

His research looked for the timelines when these declines happened, whether in High School, or 8th Grade, or third grade, or started in Kinder Garden. It also looked at racial and economic backgrounds of the children, and any other social factors that may be causing the US children to be consistently falling behind in STEM studies. He found this is threatening the development of the knowledge based society, required for our future. Given all the modern gadgets available and tools of our information age, it seemed strange that our children are not gaining ground, on the rest of the world. I was intrigued by the contrary findings of his research, as I would have expected that our children would have the benefits of an internet age, and be able to develop basic math and language skills, more rapidly.

His core findings are that the knowledge gap starts in Kinder Garden itself and children just do not have the general knowledge and societal awareness, which form the foundation for a good education. It is the parents and society that is failing the children by not exposing them early to the needs of a modern educated society. Mathematics and science exposure early is not required but just an exposure to general knowledge where we broaden a child’s horizon to include a broader exposure to our world. The child has to be given the opportunity to expand his\her brain by exercising it in learning general and broad spheres of knowledge. Especially in minorities an effort needs to be made to help groom the children early, to have this broader exposure to education, as soon as they enter, or even before they enter Kinder Garden.

His research talks about a “leaky STEM pipeline” where low-income, minorities and women are allowed to set lower expectations, and hence not encouraged, to challenge themselves, towards loftier learning goals. The same individuals when encouraged and provided the right support, can excel at basic STEM education, and develop into scientists and engineers in later life. While about 20% of white children and similarly about 20% of upper-income children do not display aptitude for science and mathematics, it falls to 52% for low-income students and 63% for blacks by the time they reach 8th grade. These low numbers are not acceptable if we really want these children to live an economically better life, in the knowledge based economy we are transitioning to.

The solution proposed is to encourage young children to become competent in English and mathematics at an early age. They should be guided to have more exposure to general knowledge in Kinder Garden and encouraged to broaden their horizons. Young brains must be encouraged to develop basic language and mathematical skills, along with physical and societal awareness. This foundation is to be built up to the third grade and if they are up to the grade level by then, it is highly probable that they will continue on that path, even when they are in the 8th grade. Education policy has to change and parents, teachers and society all have to contribute to the child’s success. Then the children having built this foundation and with the right expectations, will become competent in STEM education in High School and College.

As Paul points out “It is never too late to help children grow to be successful.” By starting early we can make them more aware of the physical and natural world around them, even before they reach KG. To make a great society we have to start at the beginning, and invest far greater effort in the children who are our future. To shirk this responsibility on the basis of race, ethnic, gender or economic background will be the greatest blunder we can make as a society. Each child deserves the opportunity to be successful in later life, and while not everyone has a STEM aptitude, not to be even allowed the opportunity to improve oneself, is a moral sin. There is still time to invest in our future, and by an early change in education policy, make America the land of opportunity once again.

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