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Can We Better Define and Identify 'STEM Deserts'? This Nonprofit Is Going to Try

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It's well known that there are disturbing, pervasive disparities for needy students in their science and math experiences: They attend schools with less lab equipment, have access to fewer rigorous classes, and receive less hands-on teaching. But there hasn't been an agreed-upon definition for what specifically constitutes a "STEM desert"—and especially, where they're located across districts and neighborhoods.

Now, the National Math and Science Initiative, a nonprofit that works to get more students access to advanced classes in science and math, is hoping to create such a definition—and use it to better target its work and that of others in the STEM education space. It is inviting interested STEM education partners to join in the work. (The first to join is the school rating and resource site GreatSchools.org.)

By next summer, NMSI hopes to have finalized the definition and released a report on the state of STEM deserts, as well as highlighting "oases" where most students have access to rigorous programs. 

"The idea of putting a spotlight on some of these STEM deserts that exist throughout the country is a recognition that it is going to take many aligned contributors from philanthropies to school districts to corporate philanthropy to identify where these massive opportunity gaps are and, strategically in partnership with each other, scale rigorous STEM opportunities," said Matthew Randazzo, the CEO of NMSI. 

It's an interesting attempt at cohesion, given that the STEM field itself is fairly fragmented, with coding advocates siloed in one place and informal science fans in another, for instance. And the announcement also marks an evolution of sorts for the now decade-old NMSI. 

Evolving Priorities

NMSI's current core activities fall into three buckets. By far its largest initiative is to support efforts to increase access to Advanced Placement classes in math, science, and English. (In 2015, the nonprofit spent nearly $22 million, or more than 70 percent of its programming, to do this.) NMSI also helps establish math and science teacher-preparation programs on the model of UTeach, developed at the University of Texas at Austin, and runs a professional-development initiative to boost K-12 teachers' STEM content knowledge and teaching skills.

NMSI has grown quite a bit over a decade (its work has touched a million and a half students), but some of that growth has been opportunities-based rather than with a cohesive regional goal in mind, Randazzo said. It has also, from one angle, been narrowly tailored: The group has favored Advanced Placement access because that program's frameworks and standards cross state lines, and success on the exams has been shown in research studies to predict future college success. 

But with this new coalition, NMSI hopes to better link communities to what they need. It may be access to AP—or it might be other services, like better elementary education science content, that other providers are better-placed to provide, Randazzo said. 

And in crafting a definition, the group plans to consider measures of STEM course rigor beyond AP.  That will probably include AP's main competitor, the International Baccalaureate program, as well as dual-enrollment programs that allow students to take some college classes and earn college credit while in high school, and possibly even "honors" classes.

The last two pose some significant challenges: Dual enrollment looks very different from state to state and college to college. And honors recognition, similarly, is decided by states or even school districts, so it is very difficult to compare the quality of the offerings.

Meanwhile, the group is excited at what GreatSchools can bring to the table. 

"We can do a lot of work in naming what a STEM desert is and building a coalition, but ultimately, we need parents in local communities to be in partnership around us. GreatSchools has a great brand, and a great reach around parent engagement," Randazzo said.

Photo Credit: Parker Knight. Licensed under Flickr/Creative Commons

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