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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response


May 2018


What research exists on the implementation of STEM programs in middle school? What does the research say about the components of effective STEM programs in middle school, such as curriculum materials?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and descriptive studies on the implementation and effective components of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs in middle school. In particular, we focused on identifying resources related to middle school STEM curriculum materials. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. The references are selected from the most commonly used research resources and may not be comprehensive. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Afterschool Alliance (2010). Afterschool: Middle school and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). (MetLife Foundation Afterschool Alert. Issue Brief No. 44.) Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The 21st Century’s information economy has been creating more jobs that require not only a college education but also a fair amount of expertise in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math—collectively known as STEM. The last several decades have seen the industrial- and manufacturing-based economy shift to a service economy fueled by information, knowledge and innovation. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 1996 and 2006, the United States lost three million manufacturing jobs. In that same timeframe, 17 million service sector jobs were created, specifically in the areas of health care, education, environment, security and energy. From 2008-2018, many of the fastest-growing jobs in the service sector are and will be STEM-related, high-end occupations that include doctors, nurses, health technicians and engineers. Industries projected to have the most employment growth are in scientific, technical and management consulting; computer systems design; and employment services. In order to help prepare youth for these careers, individuals need to think about STEM learning opportunities beyond the traditional school day. Afterschool programs are currently serving more than 1.3 million middle school students, with many programs providing engaging STEM content. Combining STEM learning with afterschool programming offers middle school students a fun, challenging, hands-on introduction to the skills they will need in high school, college and the workplace. This issue brief highlights afterschool programs that incorporate STEM activities, giving middle school students time to develop an interest in STEM and inspiring them to learn. This brief is a second in a series of four issue briefs examining critical issues facing middle school youth and the vital role afterschool programs play in addressing these issues.”

Billiar, K., Hubelbank, J., Oliva, T., & Camesano, T. (2014). Teaching STEM by design. Advances in Engineering Education, 4(1). Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Developing innovative science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) curricula that elicit student excitement for learning is a continuous challenge for K-12 STEM teachers. Generating these lessons while meeting conflicting pedagogical objectives and constraints of time, content, and cost from various parties is truly a challenging task for any teacher. Recognizing the parallel between curricular design and engineering design, we posit that the engineering design process (EDP) can be used as an innovative, effective, and logical means for formalizing the development of K-12 STEM lessons. The use of the EDP as an instructional development (ID) model is firmly based on the existing literature theory of how people learn; in particular, identifying the students and teachers as clients for the design process is a learner-centered approach, and problem-based learning (PBL) encourages active learning of STEM concepts in the context of authentic problems. To develop this process in practice, we collaborated with 15 middle school teachers over three years to create active learning curricular modules to teach over 2,000 students difficult STEM concepts. This article describes the practice of how teachers can utilize the EDP to develop problem-based curricular units and in doing so become more comfortable with the EDP themselves. We also report on the evaluation of this project.”

Cheung, A., Slavin, R. E., Kim, E., & Lake, C. (2017). Effective secondary science programs: A best-evidence synthesis. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 54(1), 58–81. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This article reports a systematic review of research on science programs in grades 6-12. Twenty-one studies met inclusion criteria including use of randomized or quasi-experimental assignment to conditions, measures that assess content emphasized equally in experimental and control groups, and a duration of at least 12 weeks. Programs fell into four categories. Instructional process programs (ES = +0.17) and technology programs (ES = +0.47) had positive sample-size weighted mean effect sizes, while use of science kits (ES = -0.02) and innovative textbooks (ES = +0.10) had much lower effects. Outcomes support the use of programs with a strong focus on professional development, technology, and support for teaching, rather than materials-focused innovations.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Friedman, L. B., Margolin, J., Swanlund, A., Dhillon, S., & Liu, F. (2017). Enhancing middle school science lessons with playground activities: A study of the impact of Playground Physics. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Playground Physics is a technology-based application and accompanying curriculum designed by New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) to support middle school students’ science engagement and learning of force, energy, and motion. The program includes professional development, the Playground Physics app, and a curriculum aligned with New York State Learning Standards, Common Core State Standards, and Next Generation Science Standards. The iOS app allows students to record and review videos through three ‘lenses’: (1) motion; (2) force (Newton’s third law); and (3) energy, and the curriculum integrates informal and formal, inquiry-based learning strategies to promote greater student knowledge and understanding of physics. The program was designed to be implemented in a formal school setting during the regular school day. This report describes the results of an experimental study of the Playground Physics program’s impact on learning of physics concepts, student engagement, and science-related attitudes. Sixty New York City middle grade teachers were randomly assigned to treatment or control conditions. Treatment teachers were asked to participate in Playground Physics professional development and use Playground Physics as part of their physics instruction during the 2015-16 academic year; control teachers were asked to use their regular instruction. In total, 15 teachers left the study. The final sample included student data from 24 treatment teachers and 21 control teachers.”

Gallagher, C., Huang, K., & Van Matre, J. (2015). STEM learning opportunities providing equity (SLOPE): An Investing in Innovation (i3) grant. (Final Evaluation Report.) San Francisco, CA: WestEd. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This five-year evaluation examined the effectiveness of a promising middle-school mathematics intervention funded through an Investing in Innovation (i3) development grant. Evaluation objectives were to: (1) study the impact of an intervention aimed at increasing the academic achievement of students in Algebra I--a gate-keeping course—as measured by student performance on an end-of-year state test in mathematics; and (2) better understand the relationship between intervention impact and implementation fidelity, as measured by levels of compliance by teachers with the study protocol. The intervention was piloted in Year 2 of the grant (2011-12 school year) that was followed by a two-year [randomized control trial] RCT in grant years 3 (2012-13 school year) and 4 (2013-14 school year). Data collected in the RCT years were focused on impact and exploratory analyses, respectively. For the RCT component, 70 Grade 8 Algebra I teachers were recruited from 15 school districts across California. Randomization, conducted by WestEd in spring 2012, was conducted at the teacher level. Students were assigned to classrooms without knowledge of the group membership of teachers (treatment vs. control), using each district's routine placement policies. Fidelity of implementation study was monitored by collecting systematically information from teachers assigned to the treatment condition throughout the course of the study. The contrast of interest was performance on a standardized Algebra I test by students assigned to classrooms taught by treatment teachers compared to performance by students assigned to classrooms taught by control teachers. The final analytic sample for the 2012-13 cohort included 1,384 students assigned to 28 treatment teachers and 1,088 students assigned to 27 control teachers. None of the contrasts showed a statistically significant difference at the 0.05 level. Students who were assigned to classrooms taught by treatment teachers did not perform differently in relation to those assigned to classrooms taught by control teachers. Overall findings from the implementation study indicated that great variability emerged in the ways in which teachers implemented the intervention. The threshold for fidelity was reached with only one component (Instructional Unit #1) of the four studied (three instructional units and professional coaching).”

Guzey, S. S., Moore, T. J., & Harwell, M. (2016). Building up STEM: An analysis of teacher developed engineering design-based STEM integration curricular materials. Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research (J-PEER), 6(1), 2. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Improving K-12 Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education has a priority on numerous education reforms in the United States. To that end, developing and sustaining quality programs that focus on integrated STEM education is critical for educators. Successful implementation of any STEM program is related to the curriculum materials used. Educators increasingly recognize the challenge of finding quality curriculum materials for integrated STEM education. In this study, 48 teachers participated in a year-long professional development program on STEM integration, and they designed 20 new engineering design-based STEM curriculum units. Each STEM curriculum unit includes an engineering challenge in which students develop technologies to solve the challenge; each unit also integrates grade level appropriate mathematics (data analysis and measurement) and one of the three science content areas: life science, physical science, or earth science. A total of 20 STEM integration units were assessed using the STEM Integration Curriculum Assessment (STEM-ICA) tool. Comparisons among the STEM units showed that the context or the engineering activities in physical science focused STEM units were more engaging and motivating comparing to the authentic contexts used in life science and earth science focused STEM units. Moreover, mathematics integration and communicating mathematics, science, and engineering thinking were not found to strongly contribute to the overall quality of the STEM units. Implications for designing effective professional development on integrated STEM education will be discussed.”

Honey, M., Pearson, G., & Schweingruber, H. (Eds.). (2014). STEM integration in K-12 education: Status, prospects, and an agenda for research. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “‘STEM Integration in K-12 Education’ examines current efforts to connect the STEM disciplines in K-12 education. This report identifies and characterizes existing approaches to integrated STEM education, both in formal and after- and out-of-school settings. The report reviews the evidence for the impact of integrated approaches on various student outcomes, and it proposes a set of priority research questions to advance the understanding of integrated STEM education. ‘STEM Integration in K-12 Education’ proposes a framework to provide a common perspective and vocabulary for researchers, practitioners, and others to identify, discuss, and investigate specific integrated STEM initiatives within the K-12 education system of the United States. ‘STEM Integration in K-12 Education’ makes recommendations for designers of integrated STEM experiences, assessment developers, and researchers to design and document effective integrated STEM education. This report will help to further their work and improve the chances that some forms of integrated STEM education will make a positive difference in student learning and interest and other valued outcomes. Biographies of Committee Members is appended.”

Mueller, M. K., Byrnes, E. M., Buczek, D., Linder, D. E., Freeman, L. M., & Webster, C. R. L. (2018). Engagement in science and engineering through animal-based curricula. Journal of STEM Education, 18(5), 10–14. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “One of the persistent challenges in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education is increasing interest, learning, and retention, particularly with regard to girls and students in underserved areas. Educational curricula that promote process and content knowledge development as well as interest and engagement in STEM are critical in supporting student success and pathways to careers in STEM-related fields. One new and innovative method for promoting STEM learning is animal-based curricula, which can provide the opportunity to introduce students to science and engineering principles in an active, engaging way that promotes an optimal learning environment. The goal of this study was to pilot test the effectiveness of animal-based curricula in motivating middle-school students’ interest in science and engineering, as a gateway to them learning more broadly about science and engineering careers. The present study used data from two veterinary medicine-based out-of-school time STEM programs for middle school students. Students in both programs reported a significant increase in scores on interest in engineering after completing the program, but no significant difference in science interest scores. The findings from these pilot data provide exploratory information about the potential effectiveness of animal-based STEM education as a strategy for increasing interest in STEM careers for middle school students.”

Nakamoto, J., & Bojorquez, J. C. (2017). Pathways to STEM Initiative (PSI): Evaluation report for an Investing in Innovation (I3) development grant. San Francisco, CA: WestEd. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The purpose of this study was to assess the impact of the Pathways to STEM Initiative (PSI) on students and science teachers and to describe the level of PSI implementation. One group of middle schools participated in PSI, which included project-based science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) coursework; extra-curricular STEM opportunities for students; and teacher professional development. A multivariate matching algorithm was used to identify a comparison group of schools that received the participating district's standard science curriculum. The students in the study schools were 62% Hispanic/Latino, 17% Black/African American, and 12% White. Additionally, 23% of the students were English language learners. The study compared students’ science achievement and teachers’ beliefs about science and attitudes toward STEM across the treatment and comparison schools and assessed the fidelity of implementation of critical program components. Student impact analyses indicated that participation in PSI for one year for 6th graders and two years for 7th and 8th graders did not improve students’ science achievement. Teacher impact analyses did not show that PSI had an effect on the science teachers’ beliefs about science and attitudes toward STEM. Results from the implementation study did not reveal consistently high levels of implementation of PSI in the four participating middle schools. PSI could have a positive impact on students and teachers in different settings and/or when the intervention is implemented with higher fidelity to the program model. Given these possibilities, further research on PSI is warranted.”

National Research Council. (2011). Successful K-12 STEM education: Identifying effective approaches in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are cultural achievements that reflect our humanity, power our economy, and constitute fundamental aspects of our lives as citizens, consumers, parents, and members of the workforce. Providing all students with access to quality education in the STEM disciplines is important to our nation’s competitiveness. However, it is challenging to identify the most successful schools and approaches in the STEM disciplines because success is defined in many ways and can occur in many different types of schools and settings. In addition, it is difficult to determine whether the success of a school's students is caused by actions the school takes or simply related to the population of students in the school. ‘Successful K-12 STEM Education’ defines a framework for understanding ‘success’ in K-12 STEM education. The book focuses its analysis on the science and mathematics parts of STEM and outlines criteria for identifying effective STEM schools and programs. Because a school’s success should be defined by and measured relative to its goals, the book identifies three important goals that share certain elements, including learning STEM content and practices, developing positive dispositions toward STEM, and preparing students to be lifelong learners. A successful STEM program would increase the number of students who ultimately pursue advanced degrees and careers in STEM fields, enhance the STEM-capable workforce, and boost STEM literacy for all students. It is also critical to broaden the participation of women and minorities in STEM fields. ‘Successful K-12 STEM Education’ examines the vast landscape of K-12 STEM education by considering different school models, highlighting research on effective STEM education practices, and identifying some conditions that promote and limit school- and student-level success in STEM. The book also looks at where further work is needed to develop appropriate data sources. The book will serve as a guide to policy makers; decision makers at the school and district levels; local, state, and federal government agencies; curriculum developers; educators; and parent and education advocacy groups.”

Ntemngwa, C., & Oliver, J. S. (2018). The implementation of integrated science technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) instruction using robotics in the middle school science classroom. International Journal of Education in Mathematics, Science and Technology, 6(1), 12–40. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The research study reported here was conducted to investigate the implementation of integrated STEM lessons within courses that have a single subject science focus. The purpose also included development of a pedagogical theory. This technology-based teaching was conceptualized by school administrators and teachers in order to provide middle school science students with a formal classroom instructional session in which science curricular were modified to include an integrated STEM activity. To this end, the authors examined and generated an account of the implementation processes including: the nature of the instruction, type of scaffolds, challenges teachers faced, the interaction among teachers, and students and teachers’ perceptions of the integrated STEM instruction. Qualitative data were collected from interviews and classroom observations and then analyzed using grounded theory methods, specifically the constant comparative method. The results of study showed that teachers required support in the form of an expert technology teacher in order to accomplish a successful classroom implementation of integrated STEM with robotics. Additionally, it was found that teachers did not revise their existing science curriculum but rather selected integrated STEM activities that fit into the overall science course objectives and goals.”

Schuster, D., Cobern, W. W., Adams, B. A., Undreiu, A., & Pleasants, B. (2018). Learning of core disciplinary ideas: Efficacy comparison of two contrasting modes of science instruction. Research in Science Education, 48(2), 389–435. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Science curricula and teaching methods vary greatly, depending in part on which facets of science are emphasized, e.g., core disciplinary ideas or science practices and process skills, and perspectives differ considerably on desirable pedagogies. Given the multi-faceted nature of science and the variety of teaching methods found in practice, it is no simple task to determine what teaching approaches might be most effective and for what purposes. Research into relative efficacy faces considerable challenges, with confounding factors, ambiguities, conflations, and lack of controls being threats to validity. We provide a conceptual framework characterizing the many teaching strategies found in practice as being variants of two fundamental contrasting epistemic modes, and we disentangle conflations of terms and confusions of constructs in both teaching practice and research. Instructional units for two science topics were developed in parallel in the alternative epistemic modes, differing in concept learning paths but otherwise equivalent. We conducted a randomized controlled study of the comparative efficacy of the two modes for learning core disciplinary ideas, using operationally defined active-direct and guided-inquiry teaching methods. Five middle school teachers taught each unit in both modes over 4 years of classroom trials in an 8-day summer program for eighth grade students. Student understanding of core ideas was assessed using pre- and post-tests, and learning gains were analyzed by mode, teacher, topic, and trial year. Although routes to concept understanding were very different in the two modes, eventual student learning gains were similar, within statistical variation. Efficacy variations between and within teachers were greater than between modes, indicating the importance of teacher effects on student achievement. Findings suggest that teachers need not be bound to one mode throughout and can flexibly decide on the pedagogical approach for each concept and situation, on several grounds other than efficacy of core content acquisition alone.”

What Works Clearinghouse. (2004). Curriculum-based interventions for increasing K-12 math achievement—Middle school. (What Works Clearinghouse Topic Report.) Princeton, NJ: Author. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This report summarizes evidence from studies that estimate the effects of interventions for improving the mathematics proficiency of middle school students and that meet What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) evidence standards, usually with some reservations.”

What Works Clearinghouse. (2012). Technology Enhanced Elementary and Middle School Science (TEEMSS). (What Works Clearinghouse Intervention Report.) Princeton, NJ: Author. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “‘Technology Enhanced Elementary and Middle School Science’ (‘TEEMSS’) is a physical science curriculum for grades 3-8 that utilizes computers, sensors, and interactive models to support investigations of real-world phenomena. Through 15 inquiry-based instructional units, students interact with computers, gather and analyze data, and formulate ideas for further exploration. This information is managed by software in a handheld computer and transmitted to other students and to the teacher. All classroom units use handheld computers to avoid the expense of networked desktop computers. The program includes a web-based teacher-reporting tool that allows teachers to review student portfolios and gather student responses for assessment and class discussion. Three studies reviewed by the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) investigated the effects of ‘TEEMSS’ on elementary school students. One study (Zucker, Tinker, Staudt, Mansfield, & Metcalf, 2008) is a quasi-experimental design that meets WWC evidence standards with reservations. This study is summarized in this report. The remaining two studies do not meet either WWC eligibility screens or evidence standards.”

What Works Clearinghouse. (2017). Connected Mathematics Project (CMP). (What Works Clearinghouse Intervention Report.) Princeton, NJ: Author. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “‘Connected Mathematics Project’ (CMP) is a math curriculum for students in grades 6-8. It uses interactive problems and everyday situations to explore mathematical ideas, with a goal of fostering a problem-centered, inquiry-based learning environment. At each grade level, the curriculum covers numbers, algebra, geometry/measurement, probability, and statistics. The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) identified two studies of CMP that both fall within the scope of the Primary Mathematics topic area and meet WWC group design standards. No studies meet WWC group design standards without reservations; the two studies meet WWC group design standards with reservations. Together, these studies included 3,062 students in grades 6-8 in at least 23 schools in 10 locations. The WWC considers the extent of evidence for CMP on the mathematics achievement of students in primary mathematics courses to be medium to large for the mathematics achievement domain, the only domain examined for studies reviewed under the Primary Mathematics topic area. CMP was found to have no discernible effects on mathematics achievement for students in primary mathematics courses.”

What Works Clearinghouse. (2017). Saxon Math. (What Works Clearinghouse Intervention Report.) Princeton, NJ: Author. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “‘Saxon Math’ is a curriculum for students in grades K-12. The amount of new math content students receive each day is limited and students practice concepts every day. New concepts are developed, reviewed, and practiced cumulatively rather than in discrete chapters or units. This review focuses on studies of ‘Saxon Math’’s primary courses, which include kindergarten through pre-algebra. The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) identified five studies of ‘Saxon Math’ that both fall within the scope of the Primary Mathematics topic area and meet WWC group design standards. All five studies meet WWC group design standards with reservations. Together, these studies included 8,855 students in grades 1-3 and 6-8 in 149 schools across at least 18 states. ‘Saxon Math’ had mixed effects on mathematics test scores of students in primary courses.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • descriptor:“mathematics curriculum” descriptor:“middle schools”

  • descriptor:“mathematics curriculum” “what works clearinghouse”

  • descriptor:“middle schools” STEM implementation

  • descriptor:“middle schools” descriptor:“STEM Education”

  • descriptor:“Science curriculum” descriptor:“middle schools”

  • descriptor:“science curriculum” “what works clearinghouse”

  • descriptor: “STEM education” descriptor: “middle schools” descriptor:“curriculum”

  • descriptor: “STEM education” descriptor: “middle schools” components

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2002 to present, were include in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.