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New psychological research on STEM education is showcased on Capitol Hill

Findings show how math and science learning in early grades can be improved.

By Karen Studwell

The Obama administration and other policymakers have made increasing the nation’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce a key priority. For example, the president’s fiscal year 2014 budget proposal includes a proposed consolidation (PDF, 96KB) of federal STEM education programs that seeks to enhance the impact of these programs by eliminating 50 percent of them across 11 agencies and concentrating them in the Department of Education, the National Science Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution. 

To help inform discussions of STEM education policy, APA was the lead sponsor of a congressional briefing on “From the Lab to the Classroom: IES Research to Improve our Nation’s Math and Science Achievement” on May 23, 2013. The Capitol Hill event highlighted the findings of three research projects funded by the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES). APA’s Executive Director for Science Steven Breckler moderated the briefing and emphasized not only the need for more research on STEM education but also that, as part of the “S” in STEM, psychological science was uniquely positioned to improve learning outcomes across STEM disciplines.

Left: Robert Siegler, Carnegie Mellon University; Nora Newcombe, Temple University; John Q. Easton, Institute of Education Sciences; Steven Breckler, APA ; and Douglas Clements, University of Denver. Right: Congressional staff and representatives from across the education community are working together to improve STEM outcomes

Left: Robert Siegler, Carnegie Mellon University; Nora Newcombe, Temple University; John Q. Easton, Institute of Education Sciences; Steven Breckler, APA ; and Douglas Clements, University of Denver. Right: Congressional staff and representatives from across the education community are working together to improve STEM outcomes.

 
The panel included IES Director John Q. Easton, who spoke of his efforts to increase education research’s relevance and usability across education communities by having IES support research on a variety of questions using a wide range of methods to strengthen schools and students’ cognitive, emotional and social skills. He provided a brief overview of IES’ STEM research, which is supported through the institute’s National Center for Education Research and National Center for Special Education Research as well as its Regional Educational Laboratories. As IES also administers the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Easton discussed how the institute was addressing the need for new assessments in science learning, including hands-on and computer-based tests such as the new technology and engineering literacy (TEL) assessment. To increase the likelihood that educators will actually use research findings in classrooms, Easton encouraged scientists to engage in researcher-practitioner partnerships and to conduct research that has direct implications for enhancing programs, processes, practices or policies that will result in improved student outcomes. “I see part of my job is to continue to remind researchers to keep the end goal in mind: improving research and improving schools,” said Easton.

One area of concern is that mathematics achievement gaps are already evident before children enter school, despite the ability of young children to learn math concepts. According to Douglas Clements (University of Denver), who discussed findings from his research on early childhood mathematics interventions, even pre-school age children possess broad and sophisticated informal knowledge about math. His research with Julie Sarama indicates that early math ability not only predicts math achievement, but literacy skills as well. Despite the impact of early math skills, Clements has found that educators often underestimate the capabilities of children and do not challenge children in these areas. Addressing the concern that more math learning would detract from play learning or literacy, Clements has actually found that math and play are not mutually exclusive and that math interventions actually lead to increases in more complex forms of play and have no negative impact on language and literacy skills. 

Psychologist Robert Siegler (Carnegie Mellon University) discussed the long-term consequences of early math knowledge, starting from observations that high school students’ math knowledge predicts college matriculation and graduation, early career income and earnings growth. Siegler has focused his research on fraction knowledge, as it has been shown that fifth graders’ understanding of fractions predicts their high school math achievement test scores five years later, even after controlling for IQ, family education and income, and other aspects of mathematical knowledge. Siegler is working with psychologists Lynn Fuchs at Vanderbilt University and Nancy Jordan at the University of Delaware in the IES-funded Center for Improved Learning of Fractions, which focuses on remedying low-achieving children’s difficulties understanding fractions. The center’s research includes experimental studies aimed at diagnosing sources of poor fraction understanding, longitudinal studies that identify early predictors of later problems and intervention studies that apply data from the experimental and longitudinal studies to remedy serious problems with fractions. Siegler has also incorporated play into his research, by examining the impact of a numerical board game that bolsters the basic numerical knowledge of preschoolers from low-income backgrounds, and may prevent them from starting school far behind peers from middle-income families. The game provides visual, verbal, kinesthetic and temporal cues to numerical magnitudes and thus helps preschoolers build a general and enduring number sense. 

Education researchers utilizing cognitive science to improve math and science outcomes share their data at a recent congressional briefing

Education researchers utilizing cognitive science to improve math and science outcomes share their data at a recent congressional briefing.

 
Addressing science education, psychologist Nora Newcombe (Temple University) shared her experience testing a cognitive-science-based middle school science curriculum. In her work, she discovered that teaching science often means addressing misconceptions or erroneous beliefs that students bring with them into the classroom about science concepts. She discussed her research from the IES-funded Center on Science and Student Learning that examined the impact of interventions based on cognitive science to improve middle school science instruction in three large school districts in Pennsylvania and Arizona. Although the United States has been improving its science education over the past decade or so, it still lags substantially behind many other countries, especially countries in Asia. In addition, there are substantial disparities in science achievement in the United States linked to socioeconomic status.

A lively discussion followed as the speakers took questions from congressional staff, federal education officials and other stakeholders about the role of teacher training, the need for more subject matter content, improved professional development and the role of schools of education.

APA cosponsored the briefing with other organizations including the Society for Research in Child Development, the Consortium of Social Science Associations, the American Educational Research Association and the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. APA and its partners will also continue to monitor the impact of the president’s proposal for consolidating STEM education programs.

Karen Studwell, JD, is senior legislative and federal affairs officer in the APA Science Directorate’s Government Relations Office.