Moving STEM Education Forward: National Priorities and the National Science Foundation’s DR K-12 Program

What does the United States need to do to build future generations’ knowledge and skills in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and what kinds of research and innovation can enable the needed changes in teaching and learning? This brief describes examples of research and development (R&D) sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) that are designed to advance knowledge and practice in STEM education. It highlights just a few of the many R&D projects that have the potential to equip educators in pursuing national priorities for STEM education.

The national priorities cited in this report are among those identified in recent years by expert committees, with members drawn from the STEM professions, the military, business and industry, as well as from education policy, research, and practice. These committees have deliberated how to teach and inspire future generations of STEM-skilled citizens and professionals, and they have made specific recommendations for STEM education. Their recommendations could, if carried out on a broad scale, transform schools and other settings where young people learn STEM knowledge and skills. But for that to happen, educators need research-based resources and guidance that they can use in changing their practice.

Some of the needed advances in R&D are likely to come from the NSF. Among the many kinds of work that the NSF supports are research on learning in schools and other settings and the development of educational innovations. Under one NSF program, Discovery Research K-12 (DR K-12), grantees pursue research questions and develop resources, models, and tools for students and teachers in STEM.1

This brief describes a sampling of DR K-12 projects that could, if successful, give life to the recommendations made by the experts. These are not the only such projects under way nationally or even within the DR K-12 program. They were selected to illustrate the wide range of ways in which the education R&D community, working with STEM professionals and STEM educators, is studying and developing promising ideas that may advance teaching and learning.

For this brief, staff of the Community Advancing Discovery Research in Education (CADRE)2 reviewed recent national reports to identify recommendations for STEM education that will depend on better resources, models, and tools for their enactment. The reports were issued by bodies convened by the National Academy of Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, National Science and Technology Council, Council on Foreign Relations, and Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education (see the Appendix for a full listing of the reports). CADRE identified nine priorities that recur across multiple reports, each having direct implications for practice in teaching and learning.

For each priority, this brief presents several specific recommendations culled from the reports, followed by capsule descriptions of a few of the DR K-12 projects that are already working in these areas.3 These projects serve as examples, intended to illustrate the rich variety of work under way in the DR K-12 portfolio. The ones highlighted here were chosen because they differ in their intended outcomes, discipline areas, populations served, methods, and scope. What they have in common is that each one, if successful, could ultimately support schools and other learning settings in bringing about the changes in STEM education that experts say the nation needs.

1 Additional information about the DR K-12 program and its projects can be found on the NSF’s DR K-12 website.

2 CADRE, funded by the National Science Foundation, is a resource network that connects STEM education researchers and developers in the DR K-12 program community. Additional information about CADRE and DR K-12 projects can be found on the CADRE website at

3 DR K-12 project descriptions in this brief were developed by CADRE staff using publicly available information, primarily project abstracts housed on the NSF website and the projects’ own websites. Project leaders did not provide input on the content of the descriptions.