STEM-ing the Rising Education Tide

It is hard to ignore the momentum that STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics) education is gaining these days.  For years now, states and school districts have invested heavily in STEM education, first as a proactive step to allow our students to better compete in a flat, global economy and most recently as a reactive step to a changing economy and greatly changing job prospects.  No matter the reason, STEM is hot.  It is the only instructional area singled out for bonus points in Race to the Top applications.  Last fall, the White House announced a new federal initiative directing $250 million in new dollars to STEM efforts.  And that doesn’t even count the buckets of money that have been committed to the cause from the National Science Foundation, NASA, philanthropies like the Gates Foundation, and countless corporate entities.

Today, President Obama is slated to announce an additional $250 million to “improve science and math instruction,” essentially doubling the commitment his team made to the topic just a few short months ago in November.  The full story can be found here.

As someone who has worked in STEM education for many years, there is something satisfying about seeing the time, attention, and resources being devoted to this key issue.  There is little question that STEM literacy is a non-negotiable when it comes to an effective education.  The knowledge and skills learned through STEM instruction is not only important for the future rocket scientists and brain surgeons of the world, but it is essential for anyone who hopes to hold any sort of gainful employment in the coming years.  Coupling the necessary science and math with a STEM focus on problem solving, collaboration, critical thinking, is key.  Not only does it keep students engaged (and thus on the path to graduation), but it also demonstrates the relevance of what they are learning (at least when it is done correctly and effectively).

The public-private partnership proposed by the Obama Administration seems focused primarily on teachers, both in the training of new teachers and the in-service support of existing STEM teachers.  The details of both are still to be determined (we seem to have number targets, but not the how quite yet).  Regardless, there are a number of issues that dear ol’ Eduflack hopes are being considered as part of our increased commitment to STEM education:
* Mid-career changers — The changes in the economy have put a great number of STEM-skilled professionals out looking for new positions.  Just by looking at the pharmaceutical and telecommunications sectors alone, we have a great number of potential STEM educators ready, willing, and skilled.  We need to look at specific ways to equip these individuals with the pedagogy and support they need to be effective teachers.  Perhaps we can look to Pennsylvania’s plans for mid-career transition and IBM’s 2005 experiment to transition many of its employees into teaching as models to get us going.
* STEM certification — In the broad sense, STEM is an interdisciplinary field that demonstrates how the four components (and beyond) work together to meet the changing needs of a changing world.  We can’t expect a math teacher to teach engineering or science.  (And we mostly expect that “technology” is being taught through business departments that used to teach typing).  So what about a hybrid certification for secondary STEM teachers?  It may be broader strokes than some would want, but it can be far more effective than hopin’ and prayin’ that we are able to connect the S, T, E, and M in the current model. 
* Teacher Externships — With the private sector stepping up to the plate as a partner in this new endeavor, we need to do a better job of helping teachers communicate the relevance and importance of STEM education.  Like it or not, students look to teachers who have walked the walk.  So what about teacher externships in STEM fields, where teachers take a week in the summer to shadow in local industry (paid time, of course)?  They can then take these “real world” experiences back to the classroom, speaking truth to students about what is needed in the workforce and talking firsthand about the truly interesting opportunities that are out there.

And while we are at it, what about redoubling our investment in STEM internships for students?  As a nation, we are focused on increasing our high school graduation rates while moving more students into postsecondary learning experiences.  What better way to get high school students into internships, where they can explore job possibilities in the community, learn from those who do, and better understand the knowledge, skills, and degrees/certifications necessary to actually obtain the job.  When we talk about making the high school experience more relevant, what better way can we do that by linking lessons in the classroom today with lessons in the workplace today?

At the end of the day, STEM investment needs to focus on both the teachers and the students, with clear goals and expectations for both.  We not only need more STEM teachers, but we need STEM teachers that clearly demonstrate their effectiveness.  We not only need more STEM-literate students, but we need to use that literacy to fill the pipeline of secondary and postsecondary education, whether a child aspires to be an athlete, poet, chemist, or engineer.  And we need a community that places strong value on those STEM skills, recognizing that they are non-negotiables for virtually every citizen looking to contribute to the 21st century. 

Ultimately, $500 million and corporate partnership can go a long way in rising the STEM education tide.  We just need to make sure we are all taking full advantage of the crest.

96 thoughts on “STEM-ing the Rising Education Tide

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