Bridging The Gap Through Quality STEM Initiatives

The video above highlights a group of students from the San Francisco Bay Area working together to learn to code. One points out that coding isn’t all that different from her childhood toys.

“It’s kind of like Legos… everywhere you look there will be a different piece you can put together,” the student says. “The more you… put it together with people who have different ideas, the more creative you can be. You don’t just build a house with four walls; you can create a castle.”

Sounds a lot like Minecraft and the skills all young people need to be successful in school and work. But too many students, especially those from underserved backgrounds, don’t have access to technology at home. And few schools, even ones in affluent communities, teach kids the skills they’ll need to get jobs in the technology sector. Fewer than 5 percent of all U.S. high schools, for example, offer AP computer science classes.

We’ve already discussed how we need to get students, particularly those from underserved communities and backgrounds, exposed to technology earlier and more often. It’s important for them, and it’s important for the future of the businesses that drive the U.S. economy.

That’s why programs like CodeNow, which provides free, out-of-school technology training to underserved students, are so important. Students may miss a chance to find something they love — and skills that can open the door to challenging, rewarding careers — without exposure to skills like coding. The guidance of skilled programmers and engineers who can explain not only teaches students how to develop code, but also how to work as part of a team that can bring a project to life.

“It’s like playing a sport or a musical instrument. How do you know if you’re good unless you try?” asks Ryan Seashore, founder of CodeNow. “We live in a world driven by technology; these kids should be given the opportunity.”

To make its weekend programs work, CodeNow depends on tech companies like Facebook and Oracle to provide space, tools and volunteers to help students learn. “It’s important for all of us to understand how we can be part of building this future,” says Christine Yen, who works at Facebook as a software engineer.


Schools, too, need to create more room for STEM programs like these to expose young people to a more active and integrated, inquiry-based approach to these crucial subjects. If we are to ensure that all students — even the most disadvantaged — are to meet high standards, they need opportunities to master what they learn and really “own it” for themselves.

They can do this best by rolling up their sleeves and pursuing STEM subjects as engineers and scientists do — by determining the right questions to ask and pursuing the answers in a process of discovery that crosses many disciplines.

As John Dewey once noted, “Children soak up knowledge and retain it for us to use when they are spontaneously induced to look into matters of compelling interest to themselves. They progress fastest in learning, not through being mechanically drilled in prefabricated material, but by doing work, experimenting with things, and changing them in purposive ways.”

We want more companies like Facebook and Oracle to do their part to ensure that all students are exposed to learning opportunities that will prepare them for jobs in the technology.

The organization I run has developed standards to certify what makes for effective STEM programs. Whether work- or school-based, excellent programs:

  • support nontraditional student participation;
  • offer an interdisciplinary problem-based learning program focused on deeper learning and real-world applications where learning is demonstrated through performance-based assessments that demonstrate outcomes required for the next level of STEM learning and for postsecondary education and work;
  • develop opportunities for students to work independently and self-direct their learning experiences guided by STEM educators and adults in an inquiry-based environment that encourages finding creative solutions to authentic and complex problems
  • encourage STEM students to personalize and self-direct their STEM learning experiences supported by STEM educators and other adults who facilitate their learning;
  • use technology to conduct research, demonstrate creative and critical thinking, and communicate and work collaboratively; and
  • are backed by business/industry, postsecondary and community partners.

Too many students lack the opportunity to participate in such programs, and committed companies and their employees can help bridge that gap.

As with Legos, the more pieces we can bring into play, the more creative and prosperous we all will be.

Editor’s note: Mark Elgart is president and CEO of AdvancED, a provider of improvement and accreditation services to more than 32,000 schools and school systems across the U.S. and 70 countries. This is first of a four-part series that makes up the second installment of Generation Beta, a series of videos and articles developed by AdvancED to discuss the critical issues in the current and future state of K-12 education