There are many thousands of websites with content that is suitable for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. Several thousand of these websites are either Federal or Federally funded. Unfortunately there is no systematic way to find these websites. STEM education content on the web is like a cottage industry with 100,000 cottages and no distributor. The material is there in abundance but there is no way to find it except by going door to door.
The policy literature on Web based STEM education tends to ignore this problem, assuming that Web access is equivalent to efficient "findability," but this is not true. Just because something is on the Web somewhere does not make it findable in any feasible sense. The technical literature on Web based learning also tends to assume that teachers, students and parents have unlimited time to search through the myriad websites available, to find the right content. These assumptions are simply not true and as a result a major obstacle to Web based learning is overlooked.
The Web really does not work for science education. This problem is similar to the problem of making the Web work for science, but with an important difference. Because students learn a lot of science every year, the content that is appropriate for one grade level is not suitable for most other grades. Even if the topic is the same, it is as though different languages being used to present it. Users need to find more than just the topic, they need to find the topic at the right grade level. This is a huge challenge.
OSTI has an immediate interest in this issue, because it is building a portal to provide federated access to Federally sponsored STEM education content, beginning with DOE content. As part of this project, we are developing a unique "learning level" search method to improve findability. To do this we are identifying and cataloging the technical language used in various grades, from kindergarten through undergraduate college.
Each technical term is then assigned a learning level, which is the estimated average grade at which it is taught. This averaging is necessary because the same concept may be taught in different grades in different states or schools. The resulting STEM language thesaurus is then used in the search method to find content that is written at a specified learning level. For example, instead of returning everything in the search that is written about solar energy, the method returns just that written at a 4th grade learning level, or 8th grade, or high school, or advanced undergraduate, or a specified range of these levels. This selectivity greatly improves findability.
Federally funded STEM content is scattered and unfindable because STEM content development is not a generally recognized federal mission. While the federal government has a large science education mission, funded at about $3 billion a year, this is almost entirely directed toward financial aide in various forms. Some of these programs develop content but many do not. As a result the vast bulk of federally sponsored STEM content is developed on an ad hoc basis to support specific technical programs, projects and facilities, which occur throughout the government. There is no central organization for this content and no guidance, so there is no way to tell where it will occur, or what it will look like.
Formal development of science education content used to be generally left to the textbook publishers. However, since the advent of the World Wide Web an enormous amount of STEM content has been developed by individuals, especially by scientists. The Federal government spends tens of billions of dollars on scientific research each year and a significant amount of this funding is going into ad hoc educational content development.
For example, consider a recent report by the Subcommittee on Education and Workforce of the Committee on Science of the National Science and Technology Council, entitled "Review and Appraisal of the Federal Investment in STEM Education Research." (NSTC members are the Federal science department cabinet secretaries and major agency heads.) While the report is focused on education research rather than education content, it mentions that "Although the NICHD program described above is the sole NIH program depicted in this report, it is important to point out here that a myriad of other education projects are funded each year by the NIH..." Likewise the report notes that "NASA funds a vast array of education programs..."
Terms like "vast array" and "myriad" are accurate descriptors for the distribution of STEM education content throughout the Federal government. Yet there is no feasible or systematic way to find these vast resources today. It is important to realize that conventional search engines like Google do not distinguish educational content from advanced scientific content using the same search terms. Nor do they search based on learning level. All Federal agencies with significant R&D budgets face the same problem. The material is known to exist on the Web, tens of thousands of items, maybe more, but it is not feasibly findable. That is the problem that OSTI seeks to solve, making the Web work for science education.
Senior consultant for Innovation