• by Nilka Avilés, Ed.D. • IDRA Newsletter • February 2012 •

The most important asset of a nation is its human capital. One symbol of a nation’s greatness in today’s world is vastly associated with its strength in science and engineering. The United States is seen as the cradle of knowledge for scientists and engineers around the world. Yet the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST)  in 2010 revealed that the United States now lags behind other first world countries in science and technology education (2010). The study concluded that there is an urgent need to develop methods and affect systemic change to increase interest and preparation of students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in the United States.

The issue is of greater magnitude as we examine the achievement of special population students and those who have been traditionally underserved in STEM fields. A recent Carnegie Corporation funded report, Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation – America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads, states that, although African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics make up 28.5 percent of the population, only 9.1 percent are college educated in the science and engineering workforce (National Academy of Sciences, 2011). The study raises the need to increase minority access at the secondary and post-secondary levels. The report sparked more than 65 groups to commit support to the recommendation.

Schools are being challenged to focus on preparing students in the STEM areas and to flood our universities with U.S. born and resident students pursuing degrees in science and engineering. The Community Foundations of Texas, through the Texas High School Project in collaboration with the Texas Education Agency, is now supporting initiatives that create Early College High Schools (ECHS), which target underrepresented populations, particularly with a STEM focus. Research conducted by Avilés-Reyes (2007) shows how focusing educational opportunities through programs like the ECHS have increased academic achievement, motivation, post-secondary aspirations, college preparation and readiness. The design of the initiative was to help traditionally underserved and underrepresented students in higher education to matriculate and complete college degrees. More than 90 percent of the students who completed the four-year ECHS program in three public high schools enrolled in an institution of higher education.

Funding STEM Initiatives

Several areas must be addressed to help set in place a STEM curriculum that serves all students. One of these is the funding needed to develop innovative initiatives. Although the role of education lies within the realm of each state, when initiating programs that need more than basic infrastructure, federal and foundation funding may be a means to support the necessary components, like partnerships, instructional materials, professional development, developing effective support systems for students and their families, mentoring, and partnerships as well as tangible assets.

The Goals 2000: Educate America Act and the No Child Left Behind Act focus on school accountability at the national level. As a result, federal funding was necessary to implement change. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act established funding for STEM education. Further, NCLB in 2010 made federal monies available through Title I, Title II and Title IV. Other sources from the U.S. Department of Education include money from the Institute of Education Sciences. Funding for STEM education through the U.S. Department of Education now exceeds half a billion dollars. Monies were earmarked to build sustainable infrastructures aimed at improving STEM education in public schools.

Other federal agencies that contribute to STEM funding include NASA, the Departments of Commerce, Energy, Defense and Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency. Foundations also are critical in raising monies to support new initiatives. Foundations, such as the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, are providing funding to support STEM initiatives.

Establishing Partnerships

A STEM focus in a school should include the local community by establishing partnerships with industries, hospitals, colleges and universities, and others who will benefit from and employ those who graduate in a STEM field. Having a strong and effective partnership between the STEM-focused school and a college can effect systemic change if teachers and professors view the working relationship as a win-win situation.

The PCAST in February 2012 revealed that most college professors are not taught pedagogy or the ways today’s students learn. Through a partnership between a public school and a university, professors can learn the art of teaching while teachers can learn how to guide their students in conducting effective and creative research in STEM areas. Further, professors can demonstrate what it takes to conduct research utilizing various techniques and become role models for the students.

STEM schools must have the ability to integrate with partners to develop internships where students receive hands-on instruction and formulate solutions to problems using collaborative methods. The process of shadowing a professional enables students to see into the realm of real life experience. This helps students develop social skills as well as giving then a first-hand look at how the professional world functions and how day-to-day operations are managed with critical thinking skills, analysis and decision making processes that impact performance outcomes.

Curricula and Teaching Quality

We must make available to teachers involved in STEM focused schools advanced graduate level courses that will improve their content knowledge and enhance their competency through support, collaboration among partnerships, community organizations, scientists, engineers and researchers to improve and provide high quality education. In addition, we need to provide professional development that targets innovative instructional approaches to engage and inspire students to learn about and seek careers in STEM fields.

Teachers also must be able to inspire learning through inquiry and Socratic questioning techniques. They need to be prepared with the most up-to-date methods of pedagogy, particularly relating to serving girls, minority students and English learners.

The classroom needs to become a student-centered learning environment that results in active learning that is project based. It is critical for the teacher to establish a relationship with each student and provide the link between school and community.

In addition, courses must be challenging for STEM students. They must require high expectations with a relevant and rigorous curriculum. Prerequisites must be established and adjusted as the program progresses.

With deliberate research-based action, schools can successfully increase the number of students who are prepared, proficient and inspired to pursue a career in the STEM fields.


Avilés-Reyes, N. Examining the Components of the Early College High School Model and the Impact on the Participants in the Program, dissertation (2007).

Foundation Center. “Report Finds Minorities Underrepresented in STEM,” Philanthropy News Digest (October. 14, 2010).

Mervis, J. “PCAST Remedy for Undergraduate Science is a Tall Order,” Science Insider (February 8, 2012)

National Academy of Sciences. Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation –
America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads
(Washington, D.C., National Academies Press, 2011).

President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (Washington ,D.C. : PCAST, February 12, 2012).

President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) for America’s Future (Washington, D.C. : PCAST, September 2010).

Nilka Avilés, Ed.D., is a senior education associate in IDRA Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2012, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 2012 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]