Much has been written about whether the United States is losing ground in education, and more specifically in the science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines that will shape our destiny in the global economy in the years to come. Along with its school quality, assessment and accreditation services, Cognia has certified more than 250 high-performing STEM institutions.

In recent years, it has extended STEM Provider Certification programs to providers of high-quality resources, as well as early learning programs (which set the stage for young learners in all subjects) as they progress through their education. In our observations of nearly 3,500 classrooms, we have zeroed in on what schools that want to provide a high-quality education in these critical STEM disciplines need to do to ensure their aspirations translate into real-world learning in their classrooms and beyond.

What we have learned through this work also can help dispel some longstanding misperceptions about what high-quality STEM education looks like, and what institutions committed to providing it need to focus on. Among them:

1. Teaching and learning in STEM is only about mastering content in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. Students need to gain mastery of key subject matter, but Cognia STEM-Certified schools do so much more. They apply technology to real-world problems, engage with scientists and business, address equity in learning, and bolster the so-called soft skills, such as communications and collaboration. The best STEM schools don’t restrict learning to specific content areas or courses but rather infuse learning experiences with inquiry and rigor throughout the curriculum that are relevant, while bringing together multiple disciplines and subjects, and require active participation and teamwork.

In fact, in the high-performing STEM schools which earn Cognia STEM Certification, students are far more likely to collaborate with one another—in 74 percent of STEM-certified classrooms versus 57 percent of classrooms in all accredited institutions. We also saw greater evidence of active learning environments that bring content alive, connect it to the real world, and spark discussions among teachers and students.

2. STEM-focused education is not well-rounded learning. A corollary to the previous argument, STEM study broadens, rather than narrows, the intellect and the learning experience that can have a long-term payoff for students later in life. High-performing STEM schools require students to demonstrate skills in authentic ways that mirror what they’ll need to do in college and future careers. That means they focus on ensuring that students develop collaboration, communication, and presentation skills. For example, students at Metro Early College High School in Columbus, Ohio, give “gateway” presentations to teachers and members of the community as a way of demonstrating college and career readiness—and in doing so, develop skills that will serve them well in both settings. STEM schools also focus on connecting students with business and community partners to help them develop real-world skills and expose them to future careers. In South Carolina, for example, students at Mount Lebanon Elementary School in Anderson begin job shadowing and on-site mentorships as early as in third grade.

3. STEM programs disproportionately benefit affluent students.

While this historically may have been true, high-performing STEM schools don’t just give lip service to being accessible to underserved students. They set measurable goals to increase the numbers of female, minority, and low-income students participating in programs, and then provide intentional supports to ensure they persist and ultimately graduate.

4. Schools can’t keep up with the rapid advances in science and technology.

Educators, like students, need connections with scientists and employers to ensure what they are teaching is relevant. High-quality STEM programs intentionally foster those connections to ensure educators have exposure to the ever-changing challenges in a wide range of fields. For example, Lower Richland High School in Columbia, South Carolina, provides professional staff development through partnerships with a public-private workforce development initiative and the University of South Carolina.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that like all teachers, STEM teachers need professional learning opportunities beyond their specific content areas that focus on pedagogy—opportunities that help teachers collaborate and improve instructional practices in ways that promote hands-on, experiential learning. That high-performing STEM schools score highly on our broader measures of high-quality learning environments is evidence that they do just that.

5. STEM learning is only appropriate in the upper grades.
While much has been written about the ages at which students are developmentally ready for higher-level courses such as Algebra, it’s clear that even the youngest learners have a natural inclination to explore, observe, and discover new things.

Cognia’s Early Learning STEM for preschools and programs which serve young learners doesn’t focus on specific content, but rather on how well they create an age-appropriate culture of inquiry and exploration across a wide range of activities. It’s never too early to leverage young learners’ innate curiosity and support the development of scientific thinking.

6. All STEM Providers are High Quality.

Not all STEM Providers offer high quality programs. To help school leaders determine which programs are of high quality, Cognia launched its STEM Provider Certification.

Organizations and companies that are certified have demonstrated that their products and services:

  • Promote scientific inquiry and engineering design,
  • Develop skill sets that transfer across career sectors,
  • Foster critical thinking skills and the ability to persevere through complex tasks, and
  • Engage students in their local community in ways that connect learning to the real world.

An impartial imprimatur of quality can help school leaders pinpoint the professional development organizations, publishers, afterschool providers, university-based STEM learning centers, and other resources that can help their institutions provide the quality resources their students need and deserve.

Scott Davidson, M.A.
Scott Davidson is Senior Director, Improvement Services at Cognia. In this leadership role, Davidson supports the Cognia Learning Community. In previous roles at Cognia, he has served as content developer and program manager. Davidson has had the unique opportunity to work with leaders, educators, and students representing diverse schools and systems across the Cognia network. He has also led and supported review teams for schools, systems, and organizations around the world. Davidson has undergraduate degrees in history and secondary education, as well as graduate degrees in adolescent literacy and teacher education. In addition to working as a classroom teacher and building-level administrator, he has also worked as a content specialist and program manager for school improvement projects across the U.S. His current professional interests include professional learning in virtual environments and innovative instructional designs (e.g., STEM, CBE).
Vicki Denmark, Ph.D.
Dr. Vicki Denmark previously served as the Chief Architect at Cognia. Dr. Denmark oversaw the design and development of solutions and resources for educational institutions to improve organizationally and most importantly, for students. She served as the subject matter expert for products, content, and solutions and identifies new opportunities that lead to innovative solutions for institutions. She holds a Ph.D. in Educational Policy Studies from Georgia State University.