There’s a buzz in the air at Clearway School in Newton, Massachusetts. Today is a special day for an already special school. Sitting among the high school students in an engineering-focused STEM classroom is Congressman Joe Kennedy (@RepJoeKennedy), whose youthful appearance – suit and tie aside – makes him look more like one of the students than a politician.
The new Massachusetts congressman has made countless visits to classrooms in his district during his busy first year in office, but this is no ordinary class – and Clearway is no ordinary school. Led by co-directors Rebecca Antes, Kerry Dougherty and Mary Ryan, Clearway School is comprised of just 35 students and has a student–teacher ratio of 4 to 1. What else makes this school so different from the other schools in its district? Peter Rosen, Clearway’s Educational Director, explains:
“Our students are sent to us by public schools when the public schools are having difficulties meeting their needs. We are a school for students with learning disabilities that often have had difficult prior school experiences.”
What also makes this school special is that, despite prior difficulties and learning disabilities, students are doing exceptionally well in science, with many students going into careers in science and technology after graduation. Watching teacher Becky Holloway’s class in action, it becomes crystal clear how and why this small school is succeeding in STEM, and why Congressman Kennedy is visiting them.
Congressman Kennedy, like many members of his family, has dedicated his life to serving others through politics from a fairly young age. As a first-term congressman of the 4th District in Massachusetts, he has set out an aggressive (some would say progressive) STEM education agenda to help underserved, special-needs schools such as Clearway. On any given day, his hectic schedule consists of attending public events, navigating countless interviews with the news media, meeting with constituents, enacting and fighting for crucial legislation, and more. But today, Congressman Kennedy is a student at Clearway learning crucial engineering concepts in a high school science class – which many would say is harder than being a politician.
Using the project-based Engineering the Future™ curriculum, Congressman Kennedy and Mrs. Holloway’s students investigate resistance in pipes by experimenting with various drinking straws, which teaches them how a difference in pressure is needed to make engines work. The students and the congressman focus intensely on the task at hand: blowing air through straws, deliberating, calculating, questioning and arriving at solutions.
The Congressman effortlessly engaged with the students by listening, experimenting and working with them to solve engineering problems. He did quite well. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this.
The congressman’s STEM-roots run deep. Long before he was sworn into office, he was a Harvard J.D. and the proud recipient of a bachelor’s degree in Management Science and Engineering from Stanford University. While he has chosen to serve the community through public office, he credits his background in STEM as a necessary precursor for his success. Taking the time to not only visit Clearway, but to work with the students and their curriculum, underscores just how passionate he is about STEM and why he chose to visit this small, special-needs school.
“Despite the enormous economic opportunity at our feet, federal policy around STEM and workforce training has left enormous segments of our population behind. The vast majority of federal funding is channeled towards higher education into four-year degrees, graduate schools and doctorate programs that students from economically distressed communities are often priced out of from the start. That’s all well and good for the upper middle-class families that can easily afford and access our higher education system. But what about the hundreds of thousands of families who can’t?” – Congressman Kennedy, “Why I Care About STEM“
The congressman asks a compelling and difficult question. How can we help low-income, underserved and special-needs students succeed in STEM? How can they get the funding and support they need to implement modern curricula and technology that will prepare them for the jobs of the future? And, if given quality STEM education, will these students, like the ones in Mrs. Holloway’s class, really have the same opportunities to excel in STEM careers as students from more affluent schools?
This year, Congressman Kennedy, along with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, introduced new legislation called the STEM Gateways Act – a bill that would provide grants for classroom learning, career preparation, mentoring, internships, informal learning and other educational activities, specifically for women, minorities and low-income communities. Additionally, he cosponsors, with Congressman Paul D. Tonko & Senator Gillibrand, the Educating Tomorrow’s Engineers Act 2015 (H.823) and has recently announced a partnership with the Latino STEM Alliance.
Kennedy’s message and mission are in line with the concerns of many STEM educators across the country who are struggling to give all of their students the solid science and math foundation that will propel them into the future, rather than be left behind. The organizers of one of the most popular weekly science education Twitter chats, #NGSSchat, recently launched a virtual book club and summer tweetchat series for STEM educators called Science for ALL Students (#Sci4AllSs). Based on the book NGSS for All Students published this year by NSTA Press, the tweetchat explores how teachers can teach science effectively to all students including:
• Economically disadvantaged students
• Students from major racial and ethnic groups
• Students with disabilities
• English language learners
• Students in alternative education
• Gifted and talented students
Moderated by science teachers Tricia Shelton (@TDIShelton), Josh Hubbard (@jhubb546), Adam Taylor (@2footgiraffe), Jessica Holman (@Bchsholman), Taylor Sullivan (@tdsull0518) and Patrick Goff (@BMSscienceteach), this tweetchat is a prime example of how science teachers are trying to level the STEM playing field for all students. And Clearway, among other schools, is like a beacon of light in a dark tunnel showing us what is possible if we give schools, teachers and students the support they need.
Maximizing Potential for a Global Marketplace
Clearway, a small, private, nonprofit day school for grades 6 to 12, caters to children with language-based learning disabilities, nonverbal learning disabilities, dyslexia, and other special needs, has seen impressive success with students in STEM despite their disabilities. Peter Rosen insists that Clearway’s students be afforded the same opportunities as students anywhere else. “We have a large number of students that have a vision of going into something related to computers or programming and they are drawn to it,” explains Rosen. “We believe our students will have technology in their lives for their entire lives — just like everyone their age will. They need access to [STEM] curriculum [the same] as everyone else. Their learning disabilities shouldn’t be a hindrance for that.”
Indeed, it’s rare to find a quality STEM program in a special needs school such as Clearway – these programs have primarily been reserved for upper-middle class schools in more affluent pockets of America. But as we race toward a future that will be increasingly managed by STEM fields, there is a palpable sense of urgency to make all kids STEM-proficient now. Congressman Kennedy sees this as a matter of national priority:
Congressman Kennedy sees this as a matter of national priority:
“If we’re going to make sure that all students across this country have access to the skills and the talents and the capabilities that they need in order to compete in an increasingly competitive marketplace, it means every school has to have access to programs like this. This isn’t just a question about technology or innovation, this gets back to a fundamental question of trying to make sure that every child has the tools and the skills that they need in order to maximize their own potential in the future.”
The numbers behind the problem can be discouraging. Only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career. The United States is falling behind internationally, ranking 25th in mathematics and 17th in science among industrialized nations. Women hold only 26 percent of all STEM jobs, and Hispanics and African-Americans hold just 13 percent of STEM jobs combined. In Congressman Kennedy’s home state, the unemployment rate for black and Latino residents is nearly double the state’s overall rate.
When it comes to preparing for STEM jobs of the future, many would agree that we can’t afford to leave any students behind. Jobs in the STEM fields are expected to grow by 17 percent over the next decade. “As our economy becomes far more innovation-based, we’re going to need students in our workforce that [have] the skills, the capabilities, not just to get a job today, but to have a solid foundation for jobs 20, 30 years from now.”
The students at Clearway School are getting a solid STEM foundation for the jobs of the future. Clearway is sending more and more students into STEM careers than ever before. “We have students whose vision is to have jobs in the future related to programming and computers,” notes Peter Rosen, proudly. “We have students [who have graduated] that are in IT, that are pharmacists, and that have potential in the areas of science and math. We have students that have amazing potential!” How is Clearway succeeding in giving students quality STEM education?
The Secret Sauce: It’s in the Curriculum!
Getting politicians to support STEM funding is important, but it’s even more important to get the right curriculum funded. This, it turns out, is the biggest challenge in STEM education reform.
For decades, STEM education has been mired in a reliance on outdated and ineffective textbooks. Access to quality science materials has been a big problem for teachers for too long. This is particularly true in urban public schools where science textbooks are often 10 years old. What schools desperately need – but can’t get due to lack of funding – are new, project-based, science curricula like the Engineering the Future used at Clearway School.
Last year, an article by Ingfei Chen at MindShift went viral in the online education community. The article, Can Project-Based Learning Close Gaps in Science Education?, highlights a research study, published by SRI and funded by NSF, of 3,000 middle-school science students, in a low-income school district using the Project-Based Inquiry Science™ (PBIS) curriculum. The results showed that, for the students who used the project-based curriculum, there were no differences in learning performance among genders and ethnicities of students. Additionally, on average, students scored approximately 8 percent higher in assessments. Personal engagement in meaningful classroom activities was the real differentiator and the great equalizer.
The curriculum used in Mrs. Holloway’s class uses real-world connections that help students understand how science, mathematics, and engineering are part of their everyday lives. Through this curriculum, they begin to understand the relationships between STEM concepts and practices. Congressman Kennedy is re-learning these principals using Engineering the Future, with students who confidently and accurately explain to the congressman how they arrive at solutions to the unit’s problems. It’s safe to say that these rock-star students impressed the congressman.
Also present, and equally as impressed with the students as Congressman Kennedy, was Laurie Kreindler (@LaurieEDU), co-founder and managing partner of IT’S ABOUT TIME® (IAT), the edtech company behind Engineering the Future, PBIS, and other successful, project-based STEM curricula for schools across the country. Kreindler, like the congressman, visits classrooms, talks to teachers and parents, and works with students to understand their needs. Says Kreindler, “Meeting with students and teachers and seeing the impact of our STEM programs inspires me and everyone at IAT.”
The success of the students at Clearway is due, in large part, to their switch to a project-based curriculum that teaches them not only science principals, but also valuable communication and life skills. The transformation in the students, notes Mrs. Holloway, is a remarkable one:
“After students go through the Engineering the Future, course I see significant growth in their ability to work with peers to solve problems in class. We are always working on social skills, and this course is set up to really help students learn the skills they need to work collaboratively. Another takeaway from the course for students is that failure is part of the process and can lead to important learning. I also see them asking questions in different ways, both about class content and how things in their world work in general. They seem to gain a sense that their ideas matter and could make a difference.”
Buying and implementing new curricula, however, is as challenging for most low-income and special needs schools as terraforming Mars. The SRI study highlighted the sizable investment that schools need to make in order to acquire and implement new project-based curricula. Ingfei Chen notes, “Teachers need substantial training, including support throughout the school year, to learn how to coordinate kids to collaborate well on projects, and to ensure that important scientific concepts bubble up and get discussed… Project-based learning is generally a huge investment for school districts and more work for the teachers, but many of them find that the hard work pays off.”
Are Politicians Ready to Make a Difference?
At this year’s White House Science Fair in March, President Obama announced over $240 million in new STEM commitments to “inspire and prepare more girls and boys – especially those from underrepresented groups, to excel in STEM fields” including:
- $150 million philanthropic effort to empower a diverse cadre of promising early-career scientists to stay on track to become scientific leaders of tomorrow
- $90 million “Let Everyone Dream” campaign to expand STEM opportunities to under-represented youth
- $25 million Department of Education competition to create science and literacy themed media that inspire students to explore
- 120 universities and colleges committing to train 20,000 engineers to tackle the “Grand Challenges” of the 21st century
- CEO coalition Change the Equation committing to expand effective STEM programs to an additional 1.5 million students this year.
The announcement was a welcome one and a boost for STEM initiatives across the board. But STEM reform is a slippery slope. Not all politicians are on-board with the funding of STEM programs, particularly at the federal level.
When voting against the Kennedy-supported Student Success Act (H.R. 5) earlier this year, which would have launched the STEM Gateways Act for educating girls, minorities and low-income students, Congressman John Kline of Minnesota stressed that the government already has more than 200 STEM education programs, and that creating a new program would only add to the “STEM bureaucracy.” Kline, instead, urged that states and local school districts be given “the flexibility to invest in programs that produce more efficient and effective results instead of Washington’s priorities.” Kline is not alone in his opposition – not by a long shot.
Part of this opposition, it can be argued, is due to Congress not having enough STEM representation among the rank and file. In a 2013 STEMwire article, Is Congress STEM Literate?, author Hetali Lodaya writes, “While the 113th Congress is often touted as being the most diverse Congress ever, some still worry that STEM does not have enough of a presence.” Lodaya highlights that only 10 percent of Congress has some background in STEM (42 percent have a degree in law).
Congressman Bill Foster, a particle physicist and businessman who has called for more scientists in Congress, emphasizes “continually thinking of new ways to inject the rigor of science into the often messy give-and-take that is the essence of politics.”
Another politician calling for more STEM funding is Congressman Mike Honda of California. As a STEM educator for more than 20 years, Honda believes, just as Kennedy does, that for America to continue to grow and prosper, serious improvements to the quality, quantity and diversity of STEM education need to be made. Congressman Honda has also recently introduced legislation to advance STEM education via The Stepping Up to STEM Education Act which “provides matching grants for states to develop STEM networks that aim to increase access to STEM experiences and achievement, especially for underrepresented minority students,” and the Technology Enabled Educational Innovations Partnership Act to improve schools’ access to high-end educational technology.
There are certainly STEM supporters in Congress besides Kennedy and Honda – Keith Rothfus and Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, for example. Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson and Lamar Smith of Texas have also been strong supporters.
But by and large, support for STEM reform from politicians, particularly at the local level, has been lacking. Many respected education reformers agree that a significant increase in local and national support for STEM education is missing and long overdue.
Parents: The Missing Link
When asked what parents can do to help bring quality STEM education to their children’s schools, Congressman Kennedy, without hesitation, expressed the importance of parental involvement: “I think it’s reaching out to us [politicians], reaching out to your schools, your school districts, to your community boards – making sure that everyone understands the importance of programs like [Clearway’s].”
Indeed, parent participation is crucial, but often times parents don’t know where or how to offer support for initiatives like changing school curricula or helping their school obtain much-needed funding. And let’s be frank, the days of writing a letter to one’s local politician are long gone – not necessarily because it’s ineffective – but because, in this instant-gratification, tweeting, texting society, no one writes letters anymore. How can busy parents get involved in a way that will bring about real change?
Much headway is being made to give parents the tools and support they need to have a substantive seat at the table. According to a 2014 article by Karla Scoon Reid in Education Week, Parent Engagement on Rise as Priority for Schools, Districts, the US Department of Education published guidelines to encourage school districts and states to launch parent-engagement efforts to support student learning. Districts and states are responding and philanthropic organizations are stepping up to fund parent-engagement programs. Reid notes that some school districts are creating departments specifically geared towards parent involvement while some states are including family engagement in their teacher evaluation. In Congressman Kennedy’s home state of Massachusetts, several counties have created parent-engagement programs to provide parents with the tools, training, and support to help their children succeed academically. Family and community engagement is one of four standards within the Massachusetts teacher-evaluation rubric.
This should be encouraging for parents, teachers and politicians like Congressman Kennedy whose proposed legislations needs grassroots support.
Did Congressman Joe Kennedy Make the Grade?
So how did Congressman Kennedy do while meeting and working with the students at Clearway? Based on feedback from the students, Congressman Kennedy earned a solid A+. Explains Mrs. Holloway:
“The students thought it was very cool to have the Congressman come and participate in our class. They were surprised that he was interested in what they were doing. I think the visit made them realize that elected representatives care about what is happening in their communities – they don’t just sit and talk in Washington.”
For a teacher, this type of grassroots engagement is needed and appreciated. Adds Mrs. Holloway, “It was wonderful for me to see that the congressman was interested in what we are doing here at Clearway and for me to see the students interacting with him. It’s powerful for students to see their elected representatives in their schools, asking them about what they are doing and showing them that they care.”
Should there be dialogs between politicians and STEM facilitators – that is, parents, teachers, administrators and students – at the grassroots level? Absolutely. It takes a village to enact change. By empowering administrators, teachers and parents with support and funding from political leaders like Congressman Kennedy, who clearly cares about STEM education and is walking the talk, change can and will happen, the way it has for Clearway School.
[If you’re a teacher or school administrator interested in Engineering the Future, sign up for a free sample. Signing up for the full curriculum includes a three-day Getting Started workshop, where participants gain a deeper understanding of the engineering design process and physics applications in the classroom.]
Follow us in social media at: