Part of the Young Naturalist Awards Curriculum Collection.

The Young Naturalist Awards and STEM

In science everything is related. Solutions to problems might be in places that we do not expect, like studying mice in order to save owls. What makes science so interesting is that there are so many angles to a problem... even a person like me can look at some something and make observations and come up with ideas. John, 9th grade


America's economic growth in the 21st century will be driven by our nation's ability to generate ideas and translate them into innovative products and services. A strong consensus is emerging among scientific, business, and education leaders that America's ability to innovate and compete in the global marketplace is directly tied to the ability of our public schools to adequately prepare all of our children in science, technology, engineering and math or STEM

The saturation of technology in most fields means that all students—not just those who plan to pursue a STEM profession—will require a solid foundation in STEM to be productive members of the workforce. When employers were asked to identify job applicants' common deficiencies, most industries reported a lack of mathematics, computer, and problem-solving skills. The United States is also in danger of losing its competitive edge within the STEM fields as our students fail to keep up with their international peers.

In a survey of STEM education reform reports, the American Museum of Natural History found 50% recommended that more students spend time learning about and doing authentic science outside of the normal school setting.

 [pdf] from the National Governors Association recommends that policy makers "Support STEM education outside the classroom via expanded learning opportunities that develop and maintain student interest." The National Science Board's STEM Commission (2007) suggests greater support for informal science education providers through the National Science Foundation and for programs that encourage interest in STEM for all students. Finally, Rising Above the Gathering Storm (2006) recommends an increase in opportunities for students and teachers to participate in scientific research and inquiry-based learning for middle and high school students.

Research also supports the importance of authentic inquiry activities for all students [Patricia McClure, Alberto Rodriguez, 2007. Factors Related to Advanced Course-Taking Patterns, Persistence in STEM, and the Role of Out-of-School Time Programs: A Literature Review. SERVE Center at University at North Carolina at Greensboro]. According to McClure, students who participate in inquiry activities increasingly conduct open-ended experiments, formulate more complex questions about content they are taught, draw conclusions and increase their positive attitudes towards science. Use of authentic inquiry activities particularly influences achievement and attitude towards science for disadvantaged students, minority and female students; African American males, and students with diverse linguistic and cultural groups.

Taken together, these recommendations and research highlight the role that informal science institutions can play in creating both more STEM professionals and STEM literate citizens through authentic scientific activities. More importantly, research shows that kids view STEM as a way to solve large global problems in areas such as energy, the environment, and public health and as a way to collaborate with others across the world. Parents view STEM competencies as a key element of college admission and employers see STEM literacy as an important skill for all employees.

Meeting STEM Goals

Partnerships between schools and institutions of science provide students with an opportunity to not only learn about science but to do science in the real world. Such experiences allow students to learn science as a way of looking at the world and communicating their findings to those around them. Across the country, students are becoming more and more excited about their potential to solve some of the world's biggest crisis using their knowledge of STEM. In the past year, students have made headlines for building a sports hybrid car that runs on biodiesel [ http://www.depweb.state.pa.us/news/cwp/view.asp?A=3&Q=488561 ] while another solved the mystery of why owls were dying in his back yard. Kids are not only excited about doing science but about telling others how their findings connect to the larger world around them.

The Young Naturalist Awards, an inquiry-based competition, complements what students learn during the school day by encouraging them to independently explore the natural world around them. Does the algae growing in the lake near my house help or hurt the water? How does the nuclear power plant near the beach affect the plankton communities in the surrounding water? Do lichens indicate vehicle pollution? What is happening to the worm population in my neighborhood park? These are just a few of the questions that students have answered in recent essays.

In conducting their research, students:

  • Encounter real world experiences, as they use science to investigate the questions they have,
  • Discover new information and solve nagging problems,
  • Use everyday and specialized scientific technology to answer their questions,
  • Plan their own independent method for conducting their investigations,
  • Adapt and adjust their plan as they move through the inquiry process and learn more,
  • Put all of those math skills to use to record and compare data, and
    Communicate their findings via writing, art work, photography, mathematics, and graphical analysis,
  • Think critically about what they have found, how it fits into the "bigger picture" and piques their curiosity for more scientific research.

Teachers who incorporate the Young Naturalist Awards into their science curriculums provide students with something beyond a science experiment by fostering in them a sense of stewardship for the natural world, and by giving them a taste of what it is like to answer questions using science. This use of science can help support students' interest in a broad array of STEM oriented careers including careers that help kids make the world a better place.

Schools who participate in the Young Naturalist Awards support not only an effective and exciting STEM program but also foster interdisciplinary and collaborative research that provides students with an opportunity to use their scientific knowledge to begin to solve the world's greatest problems.