Schools zoom in on STEM equity

Spring math and science conferences promote importance of making instruction relevant
By: | February 17, 2017

With the U.S. Department of Education doling out billions of dollars to promote diversity and to support low-income schools in 2017, administrators across the country are also working to better serve students of all backgrounds, abilities and interests.

Two annual conferences this spring—the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA)—will feature multiple sessions designed to help educators deliver more equitable curriculums.

“We know that science levels the playing field in a classroom where students can do scientific investigations together” says Terry Shanahan, program coordinator of this year’s NSTA conference and a lecturer at the University of California Irvine School of Education.


National Council of Teachers of Mathematics

San Antonio,

April 5-8

National Science Teachers Association

Los Angeles,

March 30-April 2

The NSTA conference will feature several sessions that explore ways teachers can better include special education students, English language learners and children from various socioeconomic backgrounds.

“When teachers organize students into groups for scientific investigations, they can give them roles that actively engage them in the learning, rather than relying on lectures” Shanahan says.

Access and equity will also play a major role at the NCTM conference, which features sessions about universal design for learning, multitiered systems of support and other instruction strategies. The program also examines social justice issues regarding pre-K, special needs and minority groups.

“Access and equity is one of NCTM’s six guiding principles, so it’s a big focus” says Sarah Bush, an organizer of this year’s conference and associate dean of the Bellarmine University School of Education in Louisville, Kentucky.

In 2017, the U.S. education department will devote more than $15 billion to Title I grants, $350 million to charter school grants, and $128 million to expand the number of districts involved in Promise Neighborhoods’ cradle-to-college-to-career projects.

Two new initiatives this year will provide $4 billion to expand computer science instruction nationwide and $120 million in “Stronger Together” grants to support wide-ranging, community-driven projects that make schools more diverse.

NCTM: Making math meaningful

New concepts in math assessment and high-stakes testing are hot topics each year during the annual NCTM conference, and this will be the case this April in San Antonio. The 2017 conference will focus on how teachers present math problems to students.

By asking students specific questions while they solve a math problem, for instance, teachers can create a stronger discourse beyond just “yes-or-no” answers, Bush says.

Asking students, “Have you found all the possible combinations?” and “How do you know?” can be more productive than “What is your answer?” or “Where is your work?”

Such methods of personal, “productive struggle” have been used more widely because they engage students with the numbers—rather than only forcing classes to memorize formulas, Bush says.

Other sessions will focus on using assessment as a tool for planning and classroom instruction, and making math more relevant to students’ everyday lives, based on their culture, socioeconomic status and life experience, Bush says.

This year’s conference theme, Creating Communities and Cultivating Change, will continue some of the work done last year around encouraging teachers to spend more time sharing ideas.

Last year, the conference piloted “reflection coves” that encouraged small groups to gather and talk between sessions. This year, the reflection coves will play a larger role, as will several new meet-and-greet sessions with speakers and evening social outings.

“We want to create a community at the conference so people don’t just attend and leave and forget” Bush says. “We want an atmosphere where attendees extend their conversations after April.”

NSTA: Taking subjects out of silos

In recent years, the NSTA conference has increasingly highlighted the importance of blending science, technology, engineering and math. When students create a structure in an engineering class, curriculum can include science and math concepts as well.

The height of a roller coaster, for instance, affects the speed of the cars traveling through a loop.

“We don’t have to teach a science unit, then an engineering unit, then a math unit” Shanahan says. “We don’t have to think of instruction as silos.”

This year, the April conference in Los Angeles will extend that philosophy to include the arts, literacy and language arts. When students learn science, they’re also speaking, listening, reading and writing.

During an investigation, students can learn a science concept by talking about it in groups, debating the evidence around a hypothesis and recording their responses in a journal.

They also can infuse art by sketching out science concepts or learning the science behind designs and patterns in nature. “Students need to be able to talk about science” she adds. “Discourse is often forgotten.”

To further support that idea, the conference will promote discourse among attendees as well.

During several sessions about new Next Generation Science Standards, for instance, presenters will talk about how the three dimensions of science education guide their teaching.

The sessions will incorporate step-by-step workshops for creating a lesson and replicating it in different classrooms. Then presenters will ask teachers to contribute their own ideas.

“The great minds in science education challenge my thinking” says Susan German, a former NSTA teacher of distinction and an eighth-grade science teacher in Missouri’s Hallsville School District, “and give me great ideas to implement in the classroom.”