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Published June 16, 2013 5:51 pm

Problems with STEM funding
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Focusing attention on science, technology, engineering and math is a justifiable way to, as some Utah legislators like to say, meet the needs of business and industry for well-trained employees. However, meeting the needs of students should also be attended to, and that involves teaching them about the real world, not a world some conservatives wish were the reality.

Utah public schools earned an overall "B" in an assessment done by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute of how well they teach the "STEM" subjects and how state standards in science and math are working. The report ranked Utah 13th nationally, which is a solid ranking. Elementary schools do a good job of introducing children to geology, fossils and evolution, the report said.

But among the critical areas in which Utah did poorly is instruction in high school on earth science lessons about factors that shape Earth's climate. The warming of the planet will continue to affect these students' lives for many decades, and they should understand what nearly all legitimate climatologists agree is the primary cause of the change: the burning of fossil fuels by humans.

If Utah schoolchildren are not learning about global climate change, what's causing it and what it means to Earth's inhabitants, they are missing some of the most valuable information our schools should be giving them.

The report listed another critical weakness in STEM education in Utah: Students are not taught how to use the formulas they learn in math to solve problems in other sciences. Physics classes don't incorporate relevant math lessons. Teachers ask high school students to memorize, but they don't require them to use what they can recall to calculate the answers to practical problems.

High school physics and chemistry standards are missing key topics, including Kepler's laws of planetary motion, modern physics such as lasers and nuclear power, organic chemistry and writing chemical equations.

A Weber State University associate dean of the college of science says half the students who enroll there need remedial help in math. The Utah Legislature has allocated $10 million to improve STEM instruction, and we expect that money will help boost the standards in STEM classes, especially in high school.

While any funding boost to education can help Utah's struggling schools, legislators should look at the broader picture. Focusing just on STEM courses ignores the need for more early-childhood education and remedial help for at-risk children so more of them graduate from high school.