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Getting to the root of STEM classes

by Brian Walker
| November 24, 2010 8:00 PM

POST FALLS - Post Falls students, parents and citizens will play a role in finding out why Idaho students aren't as interested in science, technology, engineering and math careers as those in other parts of the world.

Post Falls and Priest River were the school districts randomly selected from North Idaho to participate in a statewide four-year study conducted by University of Idaho researchers and funded by a $1.2 million gift from the Micron Foundation.

The STEM Educational Research Initiative will analyze any cultural, socio-economic and geographic barriers that hinder education in those subjects.

"We know a lot of kids are not going into STEM fields and everybody is interested in finding out why," said Jerry McMurtry, project director and UI's associate dean at the College of Graduate Studies. "It truly is a stumping problem. Not a lot of research has been done in rural areas on this, and a lot of other states are interested in seeing the results."

Boise-based Micron Technology, which produces semiconductors, has a vested interest in the study.

"The Micron Foundation is committed to helping our youth see how STEM plays a role in their everyday life and can be part of their future," said Micron Foundation Executive Director Dee Mooney.

The study's findings will shape STEM teacher preparation, curriculum development and parent education, and help communities implement other interventions.

Post Falls Superintendent Jerry Keane said information from the study will give not only Post Falls but all school districts, higher education and decisionmakers insights about how people view STEM fields.

"This ultimately will help guide future efforts to encourage Idahoans to seek out math and science classes," Keane said. "This study will examine the perceptions of students, teachers, parents and others regarding the value and relevance of (STEM fields). As a society we have sent mixed messages regarding the value of math and science."

There's been recent efforts across the state to increase interest in STEM fields, including the planned youth science center near Rathdrum backed by Post Falls business owners Paul and Lorna Finman. And robotics camps and contests have gotten popular.

But McMurtry said Idaho and America is still behind in those fields on a global scale.

Some studies suggest that since parents were turned off or not exposed to STEM fields in their youth, that sentiment is being passed on to today's youth. But McMurtry said the burning question persists.

"Nobody has found that magic bullet yet," he said.

Stephanie Kane, project manager of the social science research unit, said few studies have looked at student performance in STEM fields from so many angles, including not only their educational setting, but also their family and cultural context.

"This study is going to be fairly unique in that respect," Kane said.

Researchers will engage 12 Idaho school districts and communities - a combination of large and small districts - in the spring. Thirty-six focus groups will be conducted (three in each district) consisting of parents, teachers and citizens.

Researchers also will use a self-administered pencil-and-paper survey of randomly selected groups of teachers, students and their parents in grades 4, 7, 10 and 12.

The student study will be repeated with the same individuals two years later to track how their perceptions of STEM fields have changed, if at all.