By Sareena Naganand, 2023 Governor's STEM Scholar
Most of the time, I learn science from books. In preparation for an upcoming assessment, I would take notes on atomic structure, reviewing concepts and applying them toward handout problems. This method of teaching contradicts the way that students learn, as a recent Harvard study uncovered that students learn best through “active learning,” or combining critical thinking with textbook concepts to design solutions. Only some schools are adopting this approach and providing students with the necessary tools needed to apply science toward solving real-world problems.
March is New Jersey STEM Month, a time to promote and celebrate STEM education in the state. But amidst this time of celebration, it is also a time to reflect that progress needs to be made to ensure that all students have access to high-caliber science education which promotes engineering, innovation and problem-solving.
I’m passionate about science research, aiming to pursue a career as a physician-scientist. Through pursuing STEM opportunities as a high school student, I’ve not only met students who are just as enthusiastic about science as I am, but have also become more aware of how STEM education is experienced differently across the Garden State.
According to a 2017 JerseyCAN report, New Jersey schools are in different places when it comes to providing STEM opportunities; some, such as Millburn School District, offer project-based STEM programs to elementary school students while others, such as the North Star Academy Charter School of Newark, are still working to implement high school computer science courses.
Currently, New Jersey science standards mandate the inclusion of research practices in high school stating that science classes should include opportunities to “conduct investigations” encompassing engineering design. While it is challenging to directly measure access to research in high school, other measures are good indicators of the access to STEM education students have. The New Jersey State Policy Lab at Rutgers University found that only about a quarter of high school freshmen segregated by both race and socioeconomic status take biology, compared to nearly six in ten freshman attending mixed schools.
Though access to advanced courses and equipment may be lacking, teachers can independently take steps to implement science research in classrooms, as demonstrated through the work of Deborah Cornelison, a science teacher in rural Oklahoma who is incorporating project-based learning in her curriculum through having students identify real problems in the community, gather data, conduct experiments, and develop solutions. Here, science is learned as a process applicable to other areas, which can be appealing to students who don’t have an affinity for science subjects. Critical thinking, collaboration and research – the heart of STEM – will prepare students to contribute to the future, whether that entails launching a business or discovering a medical breakthrough. Though funding equipment in the classroom is a challenge, little steps in the classroom go a long way.
Some may argue that ensuring students have access to STEM opportunities is not a huge priority when compared to other disparities plaguing our education system. Yet high school is much more than gaining proficiency in reading and math scores. Science research can provide students who are not academically inclined an opportunity to delve into a topic they are passionate about. In doing so, they will build upon the necessary analytical and communication skills to meet other learning standards.
Effectively implementing state science standards to ensure equal access to robust STEM education will be a challenge requiring the work of teachers, school districts, and the state government. Education funds could be targeted to communities who don’t have access to state-of-the-art STEM facilities, and teachers can start introducing new teaching methodologies – so that more students get to do science.
Sareena Naganand is a junior at Piscataway High School and a 2022-2023 Governor’s STEM Scholar. She is passionate about medicine and science research and hopes to pursue a career as a physician-scientist. Outside of STEM, Sareena enjoys reading, writing, creating art, programming, and playing the violin. She also curates a personal blog, Kahani (kahaniblog.com).