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Hooked on Metrics: Why Learning Can and Should Be Measured


The following is a guest post by Scott Bennett, principal of eSTEM Academy in Reynoldsburg, Ohio

When I first started teaching science 10 years ago, no one ever talked about achievement or thought about data. You just entered the classroom, taught and assumed what you were doing were the right things.

One day, my principal called me into her office and asked why more of my students weren’t passing a mandatory state science exam. I knew my students, who came mostly from at-risk populations, were taking this test, but no one had ever held us accountable for the results in the past.

I went back and made some changes to my class. By the time I was finished, a higher proportion of my students were passing the Ohio Graduation Exam in science than those at more affluent high schools in neighboring districts. Of course, test scores don’t offer a complete picture of a teacher’s skills or of students’ abilities. My students enjoyed being in the classroom, and that, too, contributed to their success.

How do you measure these more intangible elements of education – whether a particular teacher inspires a love of learning in his or her students and motivates them to succeed? As the principal of a STEM high school outside Columbus, Ohio, I’m engaged in these very questions. In light of the recent push across the nation to measure teacher effectiveness, we have begun to look for ways to evaluate STEM teaching.

We work with approximately 550 students in grades 9 to 12, just over 50 percent of whom receive free or reduced lunch. We spend the lowest amount of money per pupil in our county and, due to staff reductions, are actually spending less today than we were 10 years ago. Yet our students’ scores on the mandatory Ohio Graduation Tests and other assessments have placed us in the top 15% of schools in the state. We would love to make the claim that our STEM teaching methods are the variable that has led to these impressive outcomes, but that is difficult to prove conclusively. Recently, we began working with the University of Chicago as part of a broader study to determine which metrics can be used to evaluate the efficacy of STEM teaching. Here are some of the factors we’re looking at:

• A large component of our STEM teaching is finding authentic problems in our community that our students can attempt to solve using what they have learned in class. Our teachers take on the role of coach during these problem-solving endeavors and lead our students to find new information that may be needed to answer their question. Just like engineers, they are given design constraints and a budget that they must work within to solve their problem. They work collaboratively and go through the design process until they are ready to report their findings. We believe that this develops independent learners that are capable of complex thought, but is this the variable that has led to our success?

• We have a flourishing robotics program that is embedded into our students’ curriculum as well. We compete in the FIRST robotics league and have finished at, or near, the top in several nationwide competitions. Our students have the opportunity to directly apply concepts from Calculus, Chemistry and Physics as they work together to build a competition robot from scratch. They actively seek out information on programming and circuitry in order to create the best product that they can. We believe that this application of knowledge helps our students make connections between disciplines and develop deeper levels of understanding, but is this the variable that has led to our success?

• We have added an MIT Fab Lab and converted our library into a Design and Creativity Center. This area has become a think tank for our STEM students, in which they are free to experiment and build. We have seen everything from furniture, to building blocks, to a human hand and arm built in the Fab Lab. We believe that this ability to design and create builds a love of learning in our students that makes them passionate about school, but is this the variable that has led to our success?

• All of our seniors participate in internships and then develop a capstone project with their mentors. Their internships are in STEM related careers and allow them the opportunity to see how their curriculum is preparing them for life beyond high school. They interact with professionals and learn about future careers, as well as the training that is necessary to become successful in this line of work. We believe that these experiences give our students a sense of purpose and direction in their education, but once again, is this the variable that has led our success?

To answer some of these questions, we’ve been working with Melanie LaForce and the Outlier Research Group at the University of Chicago. Through their research, they have helped us to identify eight variables that are at work in inclusive STEM high schools associated with their study. Those variables include staff foundations, personalization of learning, problem based learning, rigorous learning, school community and belonging, career technology and life skills, external community, and essential factors. All of these variables can be explored further at their interactive website.

The next step in the project is to begin to link these variables to specific outcomes, such as college attendance and completion, STEM-related career choices and credentialing in STEM related fields. Once we are able to establish links between variables and outcomes, we will be able to spread this work to other STEM schools to help them pinpoint areas for improvement. Developing these metrics has the potential to have a huge impact on STEM education and help all STEM leaders develop stronger programs. The effectiveness of STEM teaching may not be quantifiable today, but the measurements to define success are coming in the near future.

Scott Bennett is principal of eSTEM Academy in Reynoldsburg, Ohio

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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