Improving science education

What are the most pressing policy issues facing science education? A panel of higher education leaders answered that question – and offered some policy recommendations – during a webinar earlier this week.

The panelists addressed members of the Committee on Call to Action for Science Education, which was convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The committee will recommend to state and federal policymakers how to support equitable, productive pathways for all students to succeed and have opportunities to pursue careers that build on scientific skills and concepts.

The session was moderated by Francisco Rodriguez, committee member and chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College District.

Though the focus was on science education, many challenges panelists brought up and policy recommendations they suggested would benefit not just STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education but would benefit higher education as a whole.

Easing transfer

In Florida, a “robust policy framework” is in place to make transferring from a community college to a four-year state university more seamless, said Kathleen Plinske, who is executive vice president and provost of Valencia Community College and will soon become its president. That framework includes common course numbering between the two- and four-year institutions, which benefits “all students, but particularly students in STEM,” she said.

Through the DirectConnect program, Valencia students have a straight path to the University of Central Florida (UCF). And students don’t necessarily have to travel far to UCF. The university has regional campuses co-located on Valencia’s campus. For example, a baccalaureate in biomedical sciences from UCF is offered at one Valencia campus.

All of these factors have led to an increase in the number of community college students completing degrees in STEM, Plinske said.

Another factor that improves science education outcomes is undergraduate research at the community college level. If students don’t get research opportunities until their junior year of college, “it’s too late,” she said.

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Looking at the bigger picture, Plinske urged leaders to “be brave enough to set very bold goals that commit to racial equity and consider all students,” not just first-time-in-college, full-time students.

“Every student counts,” she said.

Questioning assumptions

In California, equity gaps have leaders to examining assumptions around student potential and access and how assumptions affect policies.

“We also have to think hard about rolling up our sleeves and doing hard work around representation,” said Marty Alvarado, executive vice chancellor of educational services at the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. That includes examining who is teaching and who students can see as role models.

“Who is represented for students and who is missing?” she said.

Advising also has to change. Rather than relying on “students finding the right person at right time with right information,” students need access to a “portfolio of resources” beyond individual advising, Alvarado said.

Though faculty should have control over their classroom, Alvarado urged more transparency to ensure that what is taught is relevant to both students and potential employers and is culturally competent.

She added that faculty members should receive more professional development.

Minimizing credit loss

For Portland Community College (PCC) President Mark Mitsui, it starts with data – particularly data for K-12 and community college students related to the labor market, job requirements and wage potential. There also should be more clarity about STEM pathways to ensure “less wasting of time and credits to get students to their goals.”

Mitsui noted that the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education’s (WICHE’s) Interstate Passport is an initiative that minimizes credit loss.

“We know the credit course equivalency is a big hang-up,” he said. There’s more agreement, though, on learning outcomes. “Interstate Passport is about aligning learning outcomes and granting credits.”

Dual enrollment is another way to increase science education outcomes. PCC serves about 6,000 high school students annually through its dual-enrollment programs.

The goal is to “create momentum for a diverse cohort of students into career pathways” that lead to high-wage, high-demand fields, Mitsui said.

But pathways cannot only be geared toward younger people. Many adults haven’t had the opportunity to access higher education.

“We need to look at pathways for adults,” he said.

Mitsui also advocated for an “ecosystem approach” to help students reach their goals. That means getting K-12, community colleges, universities and businesses in the same room to align programs.

Culture change

Similarly, Elaine Maimon, former president of Governors State University, said transforming education depends on a “culture change.” Faculty at community colleges and universities – and colleagues at K-12 – need to “sit down together and think about what benefits the student.”

Science education also needs to be spread across all programs – not just STEM programs, she said. Many people have a “deep misunderstanding about what science is.” Schools need to better educate all students – even non-science students – about science.

“It’s crucially important that citizens know what science is and what science is not,” Maimon said.

To increase student success, Maimon said schools must “get away from more testing and rethink curriculum and pedagogy.”

There also needs to be a more holistic approach to supporting students, particularly because so many students are food or housing insecure, or have been traumatized in different ways.

“We need to invest in a case-study approach where students have social workers and others helping them from K-12 moving forward,” Maimon said. 

PCC’s Mitsui agreed that helping meet students’ basic needs should be a policy priority.

“It’s really tough to focus on science and complete STEM pathways when you have to make choice between tuition and rent, or books and a meal,” he said.

Next steps

The Call to Action for Science Education Committee will hold another public meeting on April 8. Stakeholders will have an opportunity to share their ideas on the future of science education and the most important issues for state and national policy-makers to consider. Registration is open.

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.