“If we don’t follow through in the next ten to twenty years, today’s youth of color will probably have missed out on many of the nation’s most promising economic opportunities, and the nation will have missed out on a lot of talent.

–Claus Von Zastrow, COO and Director of Research for Change the Equation

Recently, the nonprofit organization Change the Equation released an exclusive analysis of the Nations Report Card published by the National Assessment Governing Board.

Change the Equation (CTEq) works at the intersection of business and education to ensure all students are literate in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by collaborating with schools, communities, and states to adopt and implement quality STEM policies and programs as a way to build and inspire the next generation of America’s workforce.

The organization’s report, Left to Chance: U.S. Middle Schoolers Lack in-Depth Experience with Technology and Engineering”, focused on the inadequacy of where, how, and from whom eighth-graders learn critical technology and engineering skills. The report not only honed in on demographic data, it also offered insights into how to prepare more girls, minorities and low-income students for the workforce in addition to offering strategies designed to cultivate widespread literacy in technology and engineering.

According to Change the Equation CEO, Linda P. Rosen, “There’s been a valuable ethos in this country about the importance of reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic but our study makes it clear that we need to add relevance to that mix.” She continued, “Technology and engineering literacy is critical for all young people to lead successful lives and thrive in any career, regardless of field. In order to build that literacy, they must engage in activities that allow them to actually explore how technology and engineering are relevant to their everyday lives.”

While the Nations Report Card offered the first assessment of the nation’s progress on the “T” and “E” in STEM; Left to Chance provided an in-depth analysis of that assessment.

In summary, the report found that young Americans are not receiving the opportunities needed to live up to the nation’s reputation of being global innovators.  According to the report, millions of American youth do not spend enough time tinkering, troubleshooting, or doing the kinds of hands-on problem-solving that are at the heart of technology and engineering. The report stressed that girls, minorities, and low-income students do this least of all. As a result, the nation’s ability to create a more diverse STEM workforce is minimized and students are prevented from developing the skills that are needed to succeed in any career field and in life.

In recent years, the nation has increased its educational focus on STEM. This week in an exclusive interview, Claus Von Zastrow, Chief Operating Officer and Director of Research for Change the Equation was asked why the nation is not seeing a greater impact of this focus in the knowledge, skills and abilities of eighth graders.

“Our research shows that students still lack access to opportunities to learn STEM,” he replied. “For example, our report on data from The Nation’s Report Card’s new Technology and Engineering Literacy test shows that large majorities of students, especially low-income students and students of color, don’t have much opportunity to do hands-on work in engineering and technology.”Von Zastrow shared his belief that it will take time to see big changes in these areas. “We saw that in mathematics,” he explained. “Students, and particularly students of color, have made substantial progress in math over the past few decades, as measured by The Nation’s Report Card in math. That’s in large part because leaders in states began to pay close attention to what students where learning, and they raised standards for student performance while increasing investments in schools.”

Although there hasn’t been enough progress in technology and engineering, Von Zastrow expressed his belief based on trends experienced in mathematics, that paying attention to student performance in these areas as well can also pay off. “Even so,” he stressed. “We need to accelerate progress.”

Von Zastrow was asked whether placing more attention on building a stronger STEM foundation and creating opportunities for troubleshooting and hands-on learning at the elementary school level would make it easier to build on those skills at the middle and high school levels. “There’s not a lot of research on this,” he responded. “But, what we do know suggests that there isn’t much opportunity for troubleshooting and hands-on learning in elementary school curriculum.”

According to Von Zastrow, much of this would happen in science, but elementary schools have given science short shrift for some time now. According to federal data, students in grades 1 through 4 spend roughly 2.6 hours per week on science, which is a small fraction of a 30 to 35-hour school week. Some programs, such as Engineering is Elementary, give teachers the guidance and materials they need to integrate hands-on engineering activities into the school day. Programs such as these need to be made available much more widely.

Left to Chance also stressed how students who are disproportionately white, higher-income, and male are much more engaged in technology and engineering activities outside of school as compared to minority and female students who largely lack such opportunities. Von Zastrow explained some reasons for this disparity. “Much of what all students do happens off the grid, and this is one of the big problems we have,” he said. “White, higher-income, and male students tend to have more advantages: They’re more likely to have family members who are engineers, computer scientists, or skilled tradesmen; They’re more likely to have access to excellent facilities in community centers or even in their own garages; and they’re more likely to receive encouragement.”

Von Zastrow stressed, “The data doesn’t tell us exactly what these students are doing, but it could run the gamut from building robots to working on cars. If we want to make the same opportunities available to minority and female students, we have to be intentional about providing opportunities that don’t depend on family connections or income.”

“According to our data,” he continued, “The large majority of students say they’re learning their engineering skills from their families. As for technology skills, students are more likely to say they are self-taught than that anyone else taught them. As a result, students’ experiences in engineering and technology are largely an accident of birth and circumstances.”There are afterschool and summer school opportunities in areas like robotics and technology that can level the playing field, and those programs have begun to make a difference in urban areas, but even here, students’ access is very limited. “We believe that public and private funding sources should join forces to ensure much more widespread access,” Von Zastrow stressed.

Another key finding of the report confirmed that although digital technology abounds, students don’t leverage it for the right kind of learning. Instead, they consume much more than they create.

The problem is that not many students actually take computer classes. Change the Equation did a quick analysis of recent data from the Nation’s Report Card in 12th grade mathematics, which included data on how many schools even offer computer classes. Here’s what they found: Less than half of 12th-graders attend schools that offer computer science; lower-income and black students fare worst. There was a substantial gap in access between lower- and higher-income students* (36% vs. 49%) and between black and white students (34% vs. 45%).

In general, the achievement gap in technology and engineering is one more area where black students are being left behind. Research has shown that Black students are less likely than white or Asian students to have engineers and computer scientists in their families—this is one of the terrible legacies of our very non-diverse tech workforce. “In a world where students are essentially on their own to gain literacy in engineering and technology, these differences in family and circumstance have an outsized impact,” Von Zastrow added.

Changes to academic standards, state tests, and curriculum can have a broad impact and help level the playing field. This is starting. States are slowly beginning to adopt new science standards, for example, that integrate technology and engineering principles, and they can get federal funds to start integrating engineering and technology into their state assessments as well. That said, out-of-school efforts are also very important. There are programs that have a strong track record of reaching students of color. For example, CompuGirls, helps girls of color gain strong skills in technology while applying technology to big challenges in their communities. According to Von Zastrow, “Public and private funders have to join forces to make these kinds of programs much more widely available.”

We are now confronted with another major social chasm—a Grand Canyon so to speak between those given access and opportunity to develop these skills and abilities and those (primarily minorities, females and the poor) who are not. In conclusion Von Zastrow stressed, “If we don’t follow through in the next ten to twenty years, today’s youth of color will probably have missed out on many of the nation’s most promising economic opportunities, and the nation will have missed out on a lot of talent. We need talent to stay on the cutting edge of innovation.” He added, “If we miss the chance to expand opportunity now, we’ll all pay a steep moral and economic price.”

To review the report in detail visit changetheequation.org/left-to-chance.Feature photo: Change the Equation