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How STEM-Centered Ed R&D Can Increase America’s Global Competitiveness

The nature of the workforce is becoming increasingly STEM-centered. In the U.S., industries like clean energy, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, aerospace, and advanced manufacturing are facing a workforce crisis. Projections currently estimate that there will be 1.4 million technical STEM jobs unfilled in the U.S. by 2030. Without a strong federal commitment to STEM education, American students will not be equipped with the skills necessary to thrive in the jobs of the future. 

 

One way to bolster STEM learning in the U.S. is through investing in STEM education research and development (R&D). Some federally funded STEM education R&D programs have been found to have a positive impact on student outcomes, but more work needs to be done to shine a light on what’s working, for whom, and in what conditions. Projects that have leveraged federal funding to increase students’ STEM engagement and learning outcomes include Prisms of Reality, Inc., Exploring Computer Science, and the ByExample pedagogical approach. 

Founded in San Francisco in 2020, Prisms of Reality, Inc. utilized various federal programs and funding sources to create the first spatial learning platform for K-12 STEM education. Prisms is an immersive virtual reality platform that teaches math and physics, tailored for students from historically underserved populations. It uses three main components to make learning more meaningful and interactive: 1) VR content modules that deepen students’ understanding of core concepts, 2) a multiplayer sandbox for additional practice problems, and 3) instructional materials with a web-based dashboard to support STEM learning.​​

Prisms was supported by three rounds of SBIR funding.


In 2020, Prisms received $225,000 of Phase I funding from the National Science Foundation’s SBIR program.


In 2021, Prisms received:

  • $270,000 of Phase I funding from the National Institute of Health’s SBIR program.

  • $945,000 of Phase II funding from the National Science Foundation’s SBIR program.

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During its first year, Prisms received nearly $225,000 of Phase I funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, sometimes referred to as America’s Seed Fund. With this grant, the research team created and tested the first iteration of Prisms’ immersive virtual reality modules to promote student learning in Algebra. The team found average learning gains of 20 percent for students before and after engaging with the prototype.

 

Prisms then received a Phase I grant from the National Institute of Health through the SBIR program in 2021. The grant, totaling approximately $247,000 supported an external feasibility study that validated the Immersive Virtual Reality Math learning model, providing data to support the technology’s return on investment.

In 2021 a $945,000 Phase II SBIR grant from NSF supported the study “Learning Exponential Functions With Immersive Virtual Reality.” In this study, researchers found that students who used Prisms performed 11 percent better than their peers on exponential functions. That same year, Prisms was scaled across the country, and the program is now used in 140 school districts across 30 states.

 

The SERP Institute offers another example of using federal funds to better support students’ understanding of STEM curriculum – specifically in math. Based in Washington, D.C., the SERP Institute collaborated with researchers from Temple University and several school districts to create a program that allows students to learn by working through math problems that have already been solved.

 

The idea behind the resulting “ByExample” program is that students can overcome misconceptions in math when provided with worked-through problems interspersed with additional practice problems. This method is proven by research but rarely used in math textbooks. With ByExample, some worked-through problems require students to explain the reasoning behind key steps. This practice furthers their skills in analyzing, critiquing, and articulating mathematical arguments.

ByExample was supported by four Institute of Education Sciences Development and Innovation grants:

  • $1.49 million in 2010

  • $1.5 million in 2015 

  • $1.4 million in 2019 

  • $3.8 million in 2021

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The ByExample program received vital support from Institute of Education Sciences (IES) grants to develop and test the effectiveness of this approach in the classroom. In 2010, the SERP Institute received an IES Development and Innovation grant of approximately $1.49 million to study whether high school students learned more in Algebra when provided with worked-through problems in addition to problems that they had to solve on their own. The research found that high school students who used AlgebraByExample scored an average of 10 percentage points higher in conceptual knowledge than their peers in control classrooms taught by the same teacher. And the research team found that students who had previously struggled with algebra benefitted the most from the assignments.

After finding great success with AlgebraByExample, the SERP team received a second IES Development and Innovation grant of $1.5 million to develop MathByExample -- a similar concept but for 4th and 5th graders. Preliminary research found that students who received the MathByExample intervention also saw improvements in learning.

When teachers using AlgebraByExample requested similar materials for high school geometry, the SERP-Temple team received a third IES Development and Innovation grant of $1.4 million to develop GeometryByExample, which will be released in the summer of 2024. Once again, preliminary results for GeometryByExample indicate that the more example-based items students used, the more they improved. Another round of IES funding is currently supporting a study to investigate the efficacy of MathByExample. The $3.8 million grant spans five years and will conclude in 2026, providing additional evidence of the benefits of students using ByExample problems when learning math.

Exploring Computer Science is another project that benefitted from federal investments in STEM R&D, and it is now making STEM skills more accessible to educators. Housed at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Oregon, Exploring Computer Science is a professional development program that teaches educators computer science concepts and practices that are effective in high school classrooms. It also includes online professional learning to any first-year high school teacher.

Exploring Computer Science was supported by a $1.4 million National Science Foundation Grant in 2016.

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Exploring Computer Science was founded in 2008 and received a $1.4 million NSF Grant in 2016 to establish a new approach to computer science professional development. The grant supported the exploration of how computer science is taught and how it can be made more effective and inclusive. They used these findings to create a new curriculum and training approach for educators.

The resulting program is rooted in three key components: computer science concepts, inquiry, and equity – and it supports teachers across disciplines, leading to more educators in different subjects gaining knowledge and understanding of computer science concepts. Exploring Computer Science not only expands access for educators, it also contributes to increased computer science interest and outcomes for students. One study demonstrated that students in Exploring Computer Science classrooms saw an average increase of 56 percent in their knowledge of computer science. Program participation resulted in a 25 percent increase in students who reported being “very interested in computer science.”

With jobs in STEM growing two times faster than non-STEM jobs, teaching students to become STEM literate is more important than ever. All students can benefit from evidence-based strategies in STEM education, and if they desire, pursue high-paying STEM-related careers. A federal investment in evidence-based programs like Prisms, ByExample, and Exploring Computer Science is essential to preparing Americans for the jobs and economy of the future and ensuring that the U.S. remains globally competitive.

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