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A Simulation Model for "STEM"—UPDATED

State and federal policymakers, academic researchers and others have spent a lot of time thinking about how to increase the pool of U.S. students with interest and talent in math and science who study those subjects in college, and choose careers in related fields.

Today, a coalition of business and education advocates have unveiled a computerized "simulation and modeling" tool aimed at providing insight on that topic. The modeling device will allow policymakers, researchers, and pretty much anybody with sufficient time and computer know-how to crunch data on students, teachers, and workforce trends in STEM to evaluate various education policies. The "U.S. STEM Education Model" uses complex algorithms and allows users to adjust for more than 200 individual variables—everything from class size to teacher pay. You can try out the site at http://www.stemnetwork.org. IT requires simulation software, which the Raytheon officials have told me you can download for free.

UPDATE: This afternoon I attended an event where the STEM simulation model was unveiled and put through a series of test-runs. Two of Raytheon’s top engineers who designed it, Brian Wells and Alex Sanchez, talked about a few of the questions they’ve sought to answer about K-12 and college STEM efforts, through early experiments with the system. Some of their simulations produced intriguing results:

The first year of college, rather than any stop along the way in K-12, is the “greatest leverage point” for determining whether students with math and science talent graduate with STEM degrees. A relatively small percentage of students who show an interest in STEM majors end up persevering and completing a degree in those majors, Raytheon officials said.

This finding, if borne out by other research, would seem to have big implications for education policy. What is it about the first year of college STEM classes that is scaring talented students away? Could it be that high schools are actually producing more and more capable STEM talent than many believe? Or is the K-12 system not preparing students for the rigors of a freshman-year math or science course?

In an interesting twist, one audience member asked the Raytheon speakers if, given all the attention that’s paid to the supposedly weak teacher corps in K-12, the model had any way of evaluating the skills of college STEM faculty. One of the presenters responded that the computer-modeling program had not yet established a definition of a STEM-capable college teacher.

Keeping the best teachers in STEM classrooms is important, the model suggested, and “increasing the attrition” of less capable ones is also big.

Efforts to reduce class size, such as what’s been attempted in California, are likely to be hindered by shortages of qualified teachers, the model showed. “We could have run that [model] and shown it in a matter of minutes,” one of the Raytheon officials said of California’s struggles to find enough teachers.

Also in attendance at the event: Rep. Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Science and Technology. Gordon has called for more coordination and evidence of effectiveness among the myriad STEM-related federal programs, and he’s proposed legislation designed to bring it about. Gordon suggested that the simulation model could help give lawmakers information about whether various math and science education programs in different federal agencies are “making a difference.”

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