Global Talent: The Role of Primary and Secondary Teachers and Leaders in Developing a Competitive STEM Workforce

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Written by Carol O’Donnell

The global skills gap for filling science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs that permeates today’s job market can only be reduced by developing STEM skills early in primary and secondary schools. The current trend of employers—only hiring the most talented individuals—has created a great demand for positions with little to no qualified individuals to fill them. By cultivating these STEM skills early in primary and secondary schools, however, educators and professionals in both the public and private sector are helping prospective employees become equipped with the foundational skills necessary to succeed in the STEM workplace.

The Role of Education in Global Competitiveness

In 1983, a report from the United States, called “A Nation At Risk,” indicated that to maintain its global competitive edge, the U.S had to dedicate itself to the reform of its educational system for the benefit of all students (Gardner et al., 1983), not just the top few. More than 30 years ago this report indicated that the U.S. was at risk. On international tests that compared students’ math, science, or reading outcomes across nations, American students, compared with other industrialized nations, were “never first” and in many cases, were nearly “last” (p. 10, Gardner et al., 1983). Many 17-year-olds did not possess the higher order intellectual skills needed to compete globally. Almost half of U.S. students could not draw inferences from written material or solve a mathematics problem requiring several steps. National assessments in the U.S. showed a steady decline in science achievement scores (Gardner et al., 1983). The report indicated that the future of the U.S. depended on its educational attainments as a nation.

Nearly 30 years later, in 2012, an Independent Task Force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) produced a report on U.S. Education Reform and National Security, which came up with nearly the same conclusions as the 1983 “Nation at Risk.” The authors of the CFR report found that despite the fact that the United States invests more in K-12 public education than any other developed country, its failure to educate its students has put the country’s future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk–leaving the nation unprepared to compete and threatening the country’s ability to thrive in a global economy (Klein, Rice, & Levy, 2012). The report indicated that too many young people in the U.S. have inadequate levels of education and are therefore not employable in an increasingly high-skilled and global economy. 

Problem: Today’s Education Challenge

In a world that could be defined as “one global village,” many countries agree that collectively, we have made some progress in addressing the trends of educating global talent, but there is still quite a way to go. For example, 20% of U.S. jobs require high levels of knowledge in STEM disciplines, and these demands are growing (Rothwell, 2013). A survey of 400 senior Human Resource professionals ranked “critical thinking” as the most important skill their employees would need in the next five years (Casner-Lotto & Benner, 2006). Over 93% of businesses and nonprofit leaders indicated that they wanted candidates that “demonstrate capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems” (Hart Research Associates, 2013).

So, what does this all mean for teachers and education leaders in primary and secondary schools across the globe?

It’s no longer good enough to just expect students to memorize content. Students have content at their fingertips in their phones and laptops. The real goal is to help students know what to do with that content to solve complex problems—not simple problems, not complicated problems, but truly complex problems. And it is no longer good enough to just give students problems to solve. We have to teach students to identify the problems that need solving, to come up with the solutions, and to engage in critical thinking. Yet, on international tests such as the Program for International Assessment (PISA), 15-year old students in many countries still lag behind in STEM skills (DeSilver, 2015). Similar results for primary and secondary school students were found by The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) (Martin, Mullis, Foy, & Stanco, 2012). These deficiencies come at a time when the demand for highly skilled workers in new STEM fields is accelerating rapidly (Rothwell, 2013).

Policy: Support for Developing Global Talent

What role does primary and secondary education policy play in ensuring global talent? The Independent Task Force sponsored by the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations proposed three overarching policy recommendations for addressing the global skills gap (Klein, Rice, & Levy, 2012). First, with collaboration across both public and private sectors, a nation must implement educational expectations, standards, and assessments in subjects, like STEM, so that students master the necessary skills and knowledge vital to protecting national security. Second, in order to fuel innovation, a country must make structural changes that equitably distribute resources so that students have opportunities to compete and make good choices. Finally, schools and policy makers must be held accountable for results to raise public awareness.

National Policy Shifts

Today, STEM standards include not only what students should know, but what skills are needed for success. Students must not only “understand” science, technology, engineering and math, they must engage in the processes of the disciplines in an integrated way. Educators do this by engaging students in “authentic STEM experiences” defined as “designed experiences inside or outside of school in which learners engage directly in doing STEM…from ‘hands-on’ science, to problem-based learning, to inquiry” that “have measureable impact on student motivation, persistence, and learning” (p. 10, U.S. Federal STEM Education: 5-Year Strategic Plan, 2013).

Teachers and researchers across the globe are working to design STEM curriculum materials that respond to this shift by giving students opportunities to: develop their own questions (not just answer questions they are given); explore phenomena; collect evidence; reflect on their learning; reason from evidence and construct explanations; think critically, solve problems, and form decisions; apply what they learn to novel situations; and, communicate logically and clearly. The bottom line—students who behave like scientists, technologists, computer scientists, engineers, and mathematicians during their primary and secondary school years should be better prepared for college and career, and become scientifically literate citizens. These beliefs are universal. In the United States, for example, there is a national shift to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). With these new standards, the nation is thinking more deeply about how to help students and teachers engage in scientific and engineering practices (NGSS Lead States, 2013).

To drive major policy shifts, many ministries of education put in place policy documents that provide funding for education reform efforts that spark innovation. In the United States, for example, Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 2015 to replace its predecessor (which most people in 2001 came to know as No Child Left Behind [NCLB]). It had been more than a decade since the NCLB law was enacted, and in December 2015 the U.S. Congress rewrote the education law, which was way overdue (U.S. Department of Education [ED], 2015). The new law—Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—came at an important moment. ED reported at the time that high school graduation rates had increased; dropout rates had lowered; more students were graduating from college; more STEM teachers were being trained than ever before; and, States were raising expectations for all students, which meant the U.S. was prepared to outcompete and out-teach other nations at a time when knowledge is the single determinant of economic performance (NCES, 2015).

The ESSA law prioritizes STEM education. It provides funding through grants to the States for STEM education engagement, courses, after-school programs, service-based and field opportunities, and other activities. It provides professional development and instructional materials for STEM teachers, and for the creation and enhancement of STEM-focused specialty schools (Henry, 2015). It allows schools to partner with institutions of higher education for professional development for teachers, including in STEM. It establishes a nationwide STEM Master Teacher Corps, a state-led effort to recognize, reward, attract, and retain outstanding STEM teachers, particularly in high-need and rural schools. It also retains the requirement that States must test all students in mathematics in each of grades three through eight and again in high school; and once in science in grades 3-5, 6-8 and once in high school. And it adds computer science as a core academic subject that is part of what constitutes a “well-rounded education” (Henry, 2015).

But there is more work to be done. In today’s economy a high quality education is a “prerequisite for success” (White House, 2015). Students have to not only master the basics, but become critical thinkers, problem identifiers, and problem solvers. Competitive advantage depends on whether a nation’s students are scientifically literate. Interest has grown in public-private partnerships and other forms of multi-stakeholder initiatives as ways to leverage resources and talents to address education.  Although collaborations between corporations and NGOs are not a new phenomenon, there is a call for both an increase in the number of collaborations as well as an increase in the scale of these efforts. For example, in partnership with Johnson & Johnson, the Smithsonian Science Education Center SSEC is working to help girls of all ages to stay on the STEM track through WiSTEM2D, which stands for Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, Manufacturing & Design. The Youth Pillar of the program is aimed at engaging girls between the ages of 5 and 18 through initiatives designed to spark interest in STEM at a young age—both in the United States and throughout the globe.

International Efforts

The InterAcademy Partnership (IAP) Science Education Programme (IAP SEP) and the Economic Cooperation Organization Science Foundation (ECOSF) have engaged science educators, scientists, curriculum design experts, health scientists, technologists, and historians from more than 110 countries in bringing Inquiry-based Science Education (IBSE) approaches to countries that share a common belief that knowledge is not a privilege—it is a right. According to reform experts in Chile, for example, despite extraordinary advances of science and technology in the last decades and the increase of their influence, science continues to be a site of privileged knowledge (Devés & López, 2012). Devés and López argue that there is consensus at different levels that the achievement of a more equitable access to scientific knowledge requires improving the quality of science education in schools. As a result, organizations like the InterAcademy Partnership and its members, as well as the World Science Academies, have called for “a stronger involvement of scientists to work as active partners with their local educational systems to ensure effective science education” (Mohamed, 2001).

The InterAcademy Partnership (IAP) Science Education Progamme (SEP) convened a series of meetings in Khartoum, Sudan (5-9 February 2017), including a two-day Inquiry-based Science Education (IBSE) Policy Forum (7-8 February).  With the establishment of the IAP in 2016, ongoing projects and programmes, including across health and science education, are now starting to integrate. One example of this is a new project being led by IAP SEP Global Council member Dr. Carol O’Donnell of the Smithsonian Science Education Center, which will focus on Zika and other mosquito-borne diseases. The project aims to develop community-focused inquiry-based curriculum materials for primary and middle-school-aged children aligned with the United Nations’ Global Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs). The goal is to help raise primary and secondary school students’ awareness of the dangers of mosquitoes and the diseases they transmit, and to help students understand how they can reduce the risks of becoming infected. This example is only one of many of the efforts by IAP. Another example, led by Dr. Pierre Lena of La Main a La Pate, along with several other scientists and science educators across the globe, will focus on developing climate change education materials that align with the science of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Together, the 110 countries represented by IAP SEP, believe that knowledge is not privilege, it is a right, and primary and secondary school educators play a key role in producing global talent that will help each country maintain its competitive edge.

Practice: Case Study of STEM Education Reform

Policies are only as good as the implementers that put these policies into practice (O’Donnell, 2008). Success depends on everyone working together—the ministries of education, regional leaders, community leaders, school leaders, elected officials, philanthropists, corporations, and primary and secondary school teachers.

In the United States, for example, the federal government provides annual appropriations to the Smithsonian Institution—an instrument of the government—to “increase and diffuse knowledge.” The Smithsonian does this through its 19 museums (which are free to the public), 9 research centers, zoo, and numerous education and cultural centers. The Smithsonian Science Education Center—the only education unit within the Smithsonian that is fully dedicated to formal STEM education reform and a member of the InterAcademy Partnership that represents the United States on the IAP Science Education Programme’s Global Council–has reached into 50 states and Washington, DC, served 1454 school districts and 6.8 million students (Shuler, 2010), and distributed science curriculum to 25 countries, including Chile (IAP, SEP, 2016). The Smithsonian Science Education Center also has evidence from a five-year rigorous experiment, funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED’s) Investing in Innovation (i3) grant, that its Leadership and Assistance for Science Education Reform (LASER) model—which engages teachers and students in authentic STEM experiences through five pillars of reform—works, not only in the US (Alberg, 2015; Zoblotsky, 2017) but throughout the globe (Devés & López, 2012; Skogh & de Vries, 2015).

LASER stands for Leadership and Assistance for Science Education Reform and includes five pillars of reform—curriculum materials, professional development, materials support, community and administrative support, and assessment (Shuler, 2010). “LASER i3” refers to the study conducted by evaluators from the Center for Research in Educational Policy (CREP) at the University of Memphis that was paid for by the U.S. federal government through the i3 program. As a third-party evaluator of the Smithsonian Science Education Center’s LASER model, CREP examined student and teacher performance at both elementary and middle schools  (students ages 5-13) implementing the LASER model, which theorizes that STEM education reform must be built on what the research tells us about best practices and developed around a shared vision of instructional improvement that is contextualized to a school, district, State, or region (Shuler, 2010). The LASER model also outlines that STEM reform must include not only good STEM curriculum materials, but it must also include supporting teacher professional development; materials support—the stuff of science; community, business, and administrative support; and solid assessment of student learning to ensure impact (Shuler, 2010). A true STEM ecosystem.

During the i3 LASER study, CREP studied approximately 60,000 students across three States and assessed the impact of the Smithsonian Science Education Center’s curriculum and professional services on a longitudinal subsample of more than 9,000 elementary and middle school students and their teachers in three regions of the United States: (1) the Houston Independent School District in Texas, (2) eight school districts in northern New Mexico, and (3) seven school districts in North Carolina.  Participating LASER teachers at grades 1–8 received a different Science and Technology Concepts (STC™) curriculum unit each year for three years. The STC curriculum—developed by the Smithsonian Science Education Center—was accompanied by another integral part of the LASER model: professional development. Teachers attended two professional learning workshops for each unit to better understand pedagogical strategies and gain deeper content knowledge for successful implementation (Alberg, 2015; Zoblotsky, Bertz, Gallagher, & Alberg, 2017).

What did CREP, as a third party evaluator, learn about student outcomes by studying the LASER model using a randomized control trial? Students who are the most underserved—who are English language learners, have disabilities, or are economically disadvantaged—received the most benefits from learning STEM by doing STEM. Teachers were more confident in their use of inquiry. Students were not only learning science, but their math and reading scores on State tests improved as well (Alberg, 2015; Zoblotsky et al, 2017). Using the Partnership for the Assessment of Standards-Based Science (PASS), the evaluators found that the strongest gains by LASER students relative to the comparison group were seen in hands-on performance tasks. These gains are particularly noteworthy as they indicate students are able to apply what they have learned in science to hands-on tasks, just as professional scientists apply their expertise to conduct investigations and solve problems (Alberg, 2015; Zoblotsky et al, 2017).

Educators in both the public and private sector across the globe are preparing primary and secondary school students for the unprecedented changes they face in the future. Historical trends demonstrate that education problems must be addressed through primary and secondary education policy and practice. As experts have noted, a nation’s failure to educate its students can put the country’s future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk–leaving the nation unprepared to compete and threatening the country’s ability to thrive in a global economy.

Armed with a validation of its efforts at both the national and international levels, the Smithsonian Science Education Center, the InterAcademy Partnership, and others are transforming science education throughout the nation and world, with one goal in mind: to help improve student understanding of STEM disciplines, and to help prepare today’s students—all students—for the demands of the STEM workforce of tomorrow. Together, we need to ensure a skilled STEM workforce, and we recognize—both nationally and internationally—that what happens in primary and secondary schools today, makes a difference in our success as nations tomorrow.

About the author: Dr. Carol O’Donnell is Director of the Smithsonian Science Education Center, dedicated to transforming the learning and teaching of science throughout the nation and world. She is a member of the InterAcademy Partnership Science Education Programme Global Council. Previously, Carol was a leader in the Office of State Support at the US Department of Education, supporting States and districts to sustain education reforms and improve student outcomes. A former K-12 teacher, curriculum developer, and researcher, Dr. O’Donnell also serves on the faculty for the Physics Department at George Washington University.