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New York Times launches campaign advocating STEM education “overhaul”

9 December 2013
The opening mega-editorial declares, “We can wake up the millions of students who aren’t interested.”

With substantial fanfare, the New York Times has begun a high-visibility effort to draw attention to the importance of STEM school subjects—science, technology, engineering, and math—and to measures for improving STEM education.

Times editorials usually cluster vertically, about four at a time, alongside letters to the editor, all on the page facing the one for columnists and other opinion writers. Sometimes a lengthy editorial appears, reducing the total. Once in a while, for an especially weighty issue, the opinion editors publish a single long editorial taking up nearly two-thirds of the page. On Sunday, 8 December, such an editorial appeared, headlined: “Who says math has to be boring?

Blurbs elsewhere in the publication, both online and on paper, call attention to the editorial. There’s also a three-minute video, “Math for real life,” about an industry-linked Brooklyn STEM school. The Times reports that these materials are the lead-off for coverage of three coming STEM topics: “Women and minorities” during the week of 8 December and, in the following week, both “Gifted students” and “How the United States compares.”

The editorial begins with the simple assertion that “American students are bored by math, science and engineering,” then cites statistics showing that the number “who want to pursue engineering or computer science jobs is actually falling, precipitously, at just the moment when the need for those workers is soaring.” The editors predict 2.4 million STEM job openings within five years.

The “American system of teaching these subjects is broken,” the editors charge. Students have been “turned off” by “off-putting” pedagogy; many teachers lack STEM expertise; curricula and textbooks are outdated and too limited in scope; math and science seem hard and are stigmatized. Privileged students tend to continue STEM study in college, but the “system is alienating and is leaving behind millions of other students, almost all of whom could benefit from real-world problem solving rather than traditional drills.”

Reform, the editors say, will “require a fundamentally different approach.” At some length, they present four “of the many possible ideas to begin that change”:

* “A more flexible curriculum.” Students need “a greater choice between applied skills and the more typical abstract courses.” High schools should introduce more engineering and computer science courses. Common Core math standards “encourage the use of technology and applied thinking, moving students away from rote memorization.” In high schools, the standards “would introduce all students to useful concepts like real-world modeling,” but they “also assume that all high school students should pursue a high-level math track, studying quadratic equations, transformational geometry and logarithms.”

* “Very early exposure to numbers.” Part of the reason that only “18 percent of American adults can calculate how much a carpet will cost if they know the size of the room and the per square yard price of the carpet” is lack of exposure to numbers at an early age. That’s when children should begin “grasping that a numeral represents a quantity, and understanding the relationships among numbers.” But although “preschool enrollment has increased in recent years, it is still not a high priority,” as seen in “the cold reception to expansion proposals by President Obama.”

* “Better teacher preparation.” Especially in low-income communities and in middle schools, too many chemistry, physics, and earth science teachers are underqualified or unqualified, and the situation in math isn’t much better. Encouraging signs are initiatives including “the national campaign to add 100,000 STEM teachers by 2021.”

* “Experience in the real world.” More and more schools “are helping students embrace STEM courses by linking them to potential employers and careers,” with the “practical and achievable goal” of “getting students excited about science and mathematics, the first step to improving their performance and helping them discover a career.”

Online, following each of the four, the Times asks, “Do you agree with this recommendation? Tell us why or why not.”


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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