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Critical Thinking, Critical Choices: What Really Matters in STEM
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News & Updates

  • NY Academy of Sciences Tackles STEM Paradox

    STEM graduation rates are going up globally, yet more STEM jobs in developed and developing countries are going unfilled. Why?

    For the past four years, New York Academy of Sciences has looked at why this happens. It’s report, The Global STEM Paradox, sees a flawed STEM education pipeline with holes, gaps, and weak points. As a result, “students drop out – often at predictable points – due to lack of interest, engagement, help, or financial support.”

    NYAS focuses on four specific reasons for this paradox:

    Soft skills. Some educators emphasize rote learning, so students struggle to apply what they have learned. Other students lack basic skills in communication, critical thinking and teamwork. (This may be why companies recruit students who participate in challenges, hackathons, and complex capstone projects.)

    Lack of qualified technicians. Many unfilled jobs require mid-level skills, yet universities want to teach higher level courses that leave students overqualified. In the United States, 67 percent of manufacturers say they cannot fill these mid-level positions. (This is why community colleges students with technical degrees make good money.)

    Loss of skilled workers. There is what they used to call a “brain drain” from developing nations to more developed countries. Africa loses 20,000 professionals annually to developed countries, while 90 percent of skilled workers in the Caribbean leave.

    Untapped talent pools. Women, rural populations, ethnic minorities, and the poor are under-represented in the sciences. Women, for example account for only 30 percent of scientific researchers. In the United States, whites and minorities show equal intent to study STEM when they enter college, but minorities represent only 10 percent of the STEM workforce.

    Clearly, the solution does not lie in schools alone. NYAS calls for a stronger ecosystem that also includes government policies, business incentives, and cultural attitudes that make it easier for students to study STEM and find a job after they graduate.

    NYAS makes three recommendations to build a stronger STEM ecosystem.

    Incentivize companies. Government policies should provide incentives for companies to invest in research and innovation to create job opportunities for STEM graduates. This starts with identifying and investing in STEM industries that have national competitive advantages, and then supporting those industries with seed funding, intellectual property protection and research.

    Strengthen education. NYAS wants to see an interdisciplinary system that aligns with local employer needs and that incorporates learning inside and outside school. It points to Germany’s vocational system as an example. This might include career training across skill levels and a system of internships, apprenticeships, and mentoring opportunities.

    Foster an inspiring STEM culture. Make sure society understands the importance and opportunities of STEM. This involves elevating the stature of STEM at home, in school, and in the media, but also developing fun, interactive recreational STEM activities. Schools should try to break down stereotypes of technical and vocational training, and reach out to more diverse audiences.

    We have heard some of this before, by NYAS puts it together in an interesting way and backs it up with data and examples.

    The report also provides several examples of how nations have reset their STEM strategy. For example, South Korea boosted its per capita income to $26,000 in 2013 from $92 in 1961 while turning itself into an electronics and robotics powerhouse. Malaysia is on the way to achieving similar gains, and Rwanda has developed a sound STEM infrastructure.

    All three are inspiring tales of how STEM can transform nations, even ours.

  • Finding space for innovation

    Can architectural spaces encourage innovation?Brad Lukanic, executive director of CannonDesign, a company that designs educational spaces, makes the case in an article in Fast Company.

    Lukanic sees a rising generation of makers, hackers, and prototype builders who need collaborative spaces where they can learn as they create. He sees three different types of spaces:

    Multidisciplinary. The focus is on encouraging people with different disciplines, skills, and backgrounds to collaborate with one another across multiple fields.

    Partnerships. As federal research funding shrinks, universities are trying harder to create spaces where professors, students, and corporate researchers can work on specific types of problems.

    Entrepreneurship. Several schools, like Iowa State and University of Utah, have created centers that bring the energy of startup companies to campus.

    At a time when companies are looking for practical experiences beyond the classrooms, innovation spaces provide a way to energize many of the STEM professions on campus.

    You can read more at http://bit.ly/1AKQO4G.

  • Scientists raise flags about U.S. STEM education, knowledge

    Scientists are pessimistic about STEM education in the United States. Only 16 percent think K-12 STEM education is “above average” or “best in the world.” Fully 46 percent of scientists and 29 percent of the general public rank K-12 STEM as “below average.”

    The results come from two surveys taken by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). They surveyed both the general public and AAAS scientists. The data highlight concerns among scientists, as well as some big gaps in the way scientists and the public view a variety of issues.

    Scientists call U.S. science “above average” or “best in the world” for scientific achievements (92 percent), doctoral training (87 percent), basic research (87 percent) and industry R&D innovation (81 percent). U.S. medical treatment rates only 64 percent, but that may have more to do with economics (unequal distribution of resources) than science.

    Yet 84 percent scientists worry that the public doesn’t know much about science, and 79 percent fault news reports for not distinguishing well-founded findings.

    For example, parents who resist vaccination may argue that that vaccines can give their children autism. The initial research that discovered this link was retracted because the evidence was faked. No study has ever shown a causal link Yet scientists find it hard to make those points when a chorus of parents who know and love their child are blaming the vaccine.

    Besides, no argument is ever black and while. Vaccines can and do have serious and even lethal side-effects. Understanding how to balance those risks against the greater risk of measles or flu (which kills thousands annually) takes patience and an understanding of science the public often lacks.

    The gap between scientific and public understanding show up in several issues. For example:

    • Scientists believe genetically modified foods are safe, 88 percent to 37 percent.
    • Scientists favor animal research, 89 percent to 47 percent.
    • Scientists believe food grown with pesticides is safe, 68 percent to 28 percent.
    • Scientists believe humans evolved over time, 98 percent to 65 percent.
    • Scientists believe in childhood vaccination, 86 percent to 68 percent.
    • Scientists believe people mostly cause climate change, 87 percent to 50 percent.
    • Scientists believe population growth will be a problem, 82 percent to 59 percent
    • Scientists favor more nuclear plants, 65 percent to 45 percent.
    • Scientists favor more offshore drilling, 52 percent to 32 percent.

    While the general public may disagree with scientists about these specifics, nearly four out of five believe science has made life easier for most people. A majority also believe science has positively impacted health care, food and the environment.

    Perhaps most encouraging for scientists (who say funding and research opportunities have declined over the past five years), seven out of 10 adults believe government investments in basic science and in engineering and technology usually pay off in the long run.

    In fact, 61 percent say that government investment is essential for scientific progress, while 34 percent say private investment is enough.

  • What kind of education does manufacturing really need?

    Everyone seems to have a take on how to grow American manufacturing, and many of those answers are beginning to converge. Education is an important part of any solution.

    This shows in a new report from Brookings Institution, Skills and Innovation Strategies to Strengthen U.S. Manufacturing: Lessons from Germany.

    It looks at Germany as a model of one way to succeed.

    There is no denying Germany’s strengths. Manufacturing employs one of every five workers (nearly twice as high as the United States) and generates 22 percent of national GDP and 82 percent of goods exports. And Germany does it while paying its workers significantly higher wages than their U.S. counterparts.

    The report’s take on education puts the challenge into context. Over the past 40 years, the manufacturing sector has moved from massive, vertically-integrated companies to a more distributed mix of small, medium, and large firms. According to Brookings:

    “In this new environment, research and development, particularly applied research, and skills training are underprovided in the market because individual firms fear they will not recoup their full investment if a competitor reaps the benefits of a new innovation or poaches a well-trained technician.”

    The report goes onto discuss Germany’s “dual system” of education and work apprenticeships for vocational jobs, and the role of occupational certifications in that system.

    Overall, the report calls for:

    Regional collaboration between public, private, and civic actors (similar to the federal National Network for Manufacturing Innovation or business-driven collaborations like the Rochester, NY, photonics cluster);

    Targeted institutional intermediaries that address market failures (such as lack of vocational training in schools and companies); and

    Incentive-based investments to support small and medium sized businesses (which provide the majority of new hires and lead the development of new technologies).

    You can get a copy of the report at http://brook.gs/17DrLX2.


  • MOOCS moving into the tech mainstream

    Credit: Mathieu Plourde

    MOOCS – massive open online courses – were all over the news a couple of years ago. They hype may have died down, but the reality today is on ground.

    Case in point: Coursera’s new direction. Coursera was one of the first companies out of the gate in developing MOOCS, and lined up money from the World Bank as well as the typical Silicon Valley investors.

    And the company is making money by partnering with universities and corporations to develop business and technology courses for people who want to upgrade their careers.

    So far, they have signed up such partners as Google, Instagram, Shazam, and 500 Startups. On the academic side are schools like UC San Diego, Maryland, Vanderbilt, and Wharton School of Business.

    The goal is to create microcredentials in very narrow and specific fields, such as cybersecurity, data mining and entrepreneurship. Courses costs $29 to $49 each, and so students can upgrade their skills for only a few hundred dollars.

    For this to work, Coursera had to develop ways to grade its tests and projects, and to ensure that the people taking the tests are the same ones who signed up for the course.

    There is a very interesting article about this in Inside Higher Ed at http://bit.ly/1ARNcyV.

  • STEM bias begins in elementary school

    Credit: Michael Anderson

    It’s not exactly news that most elementary school teachers are often anxious about teaching science and math. The surprise is that they may also unwittingly discourage girls from STEM studies, according to a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

    The study was based on a simple experiment. Starting in 2002, the researchers followed three groups of Israeli students from sixth grade through high school. They gave them two exams.

    When graded anonymously, the girls outscored the boys.

    When graded by teachers who knew their names, the boys outscored the girls.

    In other words, the teachers over-estimated the ability of the boys, and apparently gave them more credit than they deserved for partial answers or calculation mistakes when problem solving.

    Surprisingly, there was no bias when grading English and Hebrew.

    Fast-forward to middle school and the boys who had received encouragement were out-scoring the girls on standardized tests. By high school, they were taking more advanced placement classes.

    You can read more about it in the NY Times at http://nyti.ms/1wFdipl. The NBEA study is at http://bit.ly/1F2Ful9.

  • Clemson turns capstones into foundation

    Every year, thousands of college engineering students finish their senior capstone projects and go off to work. Now Clemson University is seeking to translate at least some of those prototypes into business startups.

    It also answers the question of why engineers don’t innovate – because it’s scary, unknown territory.

    So here’s the story in a nutshell. Three bioengineering majors developed a wrist bracelet that suppresses hand tremors from Parkinson’s disease. (It exerts force to counter upper arm vibrations, much the same way noise suppressing headphones emit sound waves that cancel the noise outside.)

    The students turned in their project and would have moved on, but one of the members, Elliott Mappus, presented the idea to the school’s Design and Entrepreneurship Network. That earned him a $5,000 grant from VentureWell, a nonprofit venture capital firm.

    A lot of student startups have similar stories to tell. What Clemson did next is interesting. It decided that more students should be looking at ways of turning their ideas into businesses.

    Clemson had already started the Spiro Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership at its business school in 1999. But it was preaching to the converted – business students. The new program will reach out to Clemson’s College of Engineering, so engineering students can learn more about the entrepreneurial process.

    Clemson’s efforts are part of an even larger effort by Stanford University. Its Pathways to Innovation program seeks to engage 25 schools for two years in innovation education.

    You can read more about it in USA Today at http://usat.ly/1N9QD9D.

  • A closer look at community colleges

    As we’ve pointed out before, community colleges are an important pathway to good jobs, STEM and otherwise. Because they receive instruction in specific, job-ready skills, many community college grads get jobs that make them the envy of their peers in four-year schools.

    So it is perhaps long overdue that President Obama announced an initiative to make community college free. Students would maintain their status as long as they enroll at least half time, maintain a 2.5 grade point average, and make “steady progress.” The cost would be about $60 billion over 10 years.

    The two most interesting essays I’ve read on the subject come from Richard Reeves, a senior fellow of economic studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, and David Brooks, a conservative columnist for the New York Times.

    Reeves first. He described four ways the United States can benefit from free community college.

    First, community colleges are the most accessible way for less advantaged kids to get to college. “Students whose parents did not complete high school, for instance, are twice as likely to start studying at a two-year college than a four-year college,” he wrote.

    Second, community colleges often teach skills that result in an immediate payoff for graduates. In fact, some four-year college graduates return to community college to get the skills they need to land a job.

    Third, community colleges offer an alternative path to success. From chefs and construction managers to programmers and technicians, community college grads have earned middle class jobs. Reeves argues for more pluralism in education to achieve more pluralism in our opportunity structure.

    Fourth, community colleges generally do a better and more flexible job of serving older students. “As lifelong learning becomes more important, this will become even more valuable,” he writes.

    Brooks also likes community colleges, but notes that 66 to 80 percent of students drop out before they get a degree. (Not a surprise to anyone who remembers what happened when New York’s City College decided to enroll any city resident.) So, instead of spending money for free tuition, Brooks would like to spend it to help students complete school.

    Brooks starts out by noting that most poor and working class students already get a break on tuition thanks to Pell grants and aid. In 2012, 38 percent of community college students paid no tuition, and 33 percent spent less than $1,000. Obama’s plan, he contends, would help mostly middle and upper middle class families, not the poor.

    Instead, he suggested spending the money on infrastructure to support struggling students. For example, tuition comprises only one-fifth of a community college student’s living expenses. Students who take jobs to make up the difference are more likely to drop out.

    Community colleges also need more guidance counselors and mentors to help them make the transition to higher education (since most cannot turn to parents for answers). They also need to be coached up, since half of arriving students are unprepared for college work. Without remediation, which some states are dropping, even more students will drop out.

    Not only are more community college students adult, but about one out of four college students (and even more community college students) have dependent children. Yet less than half of two-year colleges have daycare.

    Clearly, this is a complex issue. But the discussion – any discussion – is good, because it throws a spotlight on the ability of community colleges to prepare students for both STEM and other careers.

  • When engineers teach STEM: Frustrations

    What frustrates engineers who teach the subject in high school and middle school?

    We asked Alabama high school teacher Mark Conner and Maryland middle school educator Ken Williams. You can view the video at http://bit.ly/1vWp0pP.

    Conner’s greatest frustration is that, despite the hands-on nature of his class, some students are not active participants.

    “I have students who don’t want to invest in the opportunity. They think that just by being there, doors will open instead taking advantage of what’s before them and digging deep and making the most of it,” he said.

    Williams agrees, and works hard to reach his students.

    “One battle teachers have is gaining interest of students by developing relationships where students will tell them what dreams are, whether they are far-fetched or based in reality. Being able to do that helps,” Williams explained.

    Of course, that does not always work. Williams tries to encourage participation by creating small project groups of two or three students.

    “If you add a fourth, one is going to put is feet up on the desk and allow the other three to labor,” Williams said. Conner agreed.

    Both work hard to involve parents. Often, those parents had no idea their children could do engineering. Yet students need encouragement.

    “If they can have those discussions at home, that makes a world of difference to the students,” Conner explained.

    Both Conner and Williams participated in Critical Thinking, Critical Choices: What Really Matters in STEM, a dialogue with 12 STEM education leaders moderated by award-winning journalist John Hockenberry. (To learn more, go to http://bit.ly/1rYg9XE.)

  • When engineers teach STEM: What it takes to succeed

    Mark Conner and Ken Williams both teach public school engineering, but they have something else in common: Both have engineering degrees and entered teaching from the outside, so they see things a bit differently.

    “Part of what lets Ken and I do what we do is our background. We come into it with content expertise in a particular science or engineering field. This is really important – really import. It gives us op to have discussion with students that we might not have if didn’t have that background,” Conner said.

    Conner directs the in-school and online engineering programs at Hoover High School in suburban Birmingham, Alabama. He is a Ph.D. mechanical engineer with 18 years’ teaching experience.

    Williams left his graduate biomedical engineering program at University of Florida to join his family in Maryland. He began teaching seven years ago, and has taught middle school engineering for the past two years.

    Both Conner and Williams participated in ASME’s Critical Thinking, Critical Choices: What Really Matters in STEM, a dialogue with 12 STEM education leaders moderated by award-winning journalist John Hockenberry. (To learn more, go to http://bit.ly/1rYg9XE.)

    In a follow-up video interview (http://bit.ly/Zng1nG), Conner and Williams discuss some of the themes that came up during the dialogue.

    They talk about that “Ah-ha” moment, when students get it. For Williams’ middle school students, it was when they designed their own smartphone cases. For Conner’s high school students, this experience often comes when they see the same lesson from a different perspective, such as a math class or later in college, and everything clicks because they’ve seen it before.

    When asked about their wish list, Williams opted for more community involvement. “There are a lot of individuals who need to play a role,” he explained. “Not just me as a teacher, my students, and my students’ parents, but also business owners and community colleges and colleges,” he said.

    Conner wanted to get more scientists and engineers into schools: “The background they have coming into the classroom is huge.  I think the traditional school of education is outdated. We need to allow for lateral entry for people out of industry, though that’s a tough sell with current pay scale.”

  • Girlstart: fun, participation the keys to involving girls in STEM

    Why do girls need special STEM programs? Girlstart executive director Tamara Hudgins has a ready answer: “Because every girl under-represented in STEM.”

    Hudgins calls her group “both-sex friendly,” but notes that when girls and girls participate in project-based learning, the girls tend to pull back and not engage fully. “We create an environment where girls feel safe and can take risks and learn together,” she added.

    It’s also fun. “We don’t believe academic rigor is necessarily inconsistent with having a good time. We think it is important to meet girls where they value us, so our programs will appear as pink and fun and sparkly and dynamic. And that’s a great way to keep girls engaged, so that they stay engaged. Then,  during course of their experiences, they say, ‘Hey, this is for me.’ We encourage girls to the be the authors of their future,” Hudgins said.

    So far, it seems to be working. Founded in Austin, the organization has begun to branch out beyond its Central Texas roots. Over the past five years, it has increased its after-school programs to 46, from 9, and now reaches 1,000 girls each week. Its summer camps have quadrupled to 25 in four different states.

    Girlstart’s summer camp and after-school programs both passed the Change the Equation’s STEMworks vetting process for high-quality STEM education programs. It also named its summer camp program as one of only four programs “ready to scale.”

    Working on robots at a Girlstart program.

    One reason the classes scored high on the STEMworks assessment is that Hudgins keeps projects active and interactive.

    “You never see tables and chairs,” she explained. Our girls are always engaged in hands-on activities. They’re on the floor and other non-traditional places, and that breaks down barriers so girls can have a good time. We get them working together in small groups, and that essential human element is what girls see as being for them. And when we surveyed them, 91 percent of the girls who come to after-school feel they can be themselves.”

    Hudgins also tackled the scaling issue. Many programs start with a committed core of star academic performers, but lose steam when they have to recruit outside that group.

    Girlstart has kept course quality high by using an open model that values what teachers, community volunteers and students say. It also partners with institutions of higher learning and recruits college students to teach after-school classes.

    “They are really fantastic messengers,” Hudgins said. “Among our students, 97 percent say they would like to go to college, but 55 percent be first generation college students. When we have a college student coming to their school every week to teach them, it shows them what that would look like.”

    That might have made a difference in her life. “My dad was an engineer,” she recounted. “His brothers were engineers. Their dad was an engineer. I grew up in an environment that should have been very engineering-friendly.

    “But when I was young, I did not have role models around me that showed me what it would look like when I was an adult and was an engineer. I did not comprehend what my life would be like, what my house would be like, what kind of dogs I would have, what are the trappings of being an engineer.

    “That is one of the complicated issues we have to get at when we speak with girls, because girls are beginning to formulate ideas about what their life is going to be like, and it includes very complicated things about what they see every day. I they can’t see what life is going to be like when they are an engineer, or what they will be doing, or how they are going to make a difference, then they are not going to be able to opt into those majors and those careers,” Hudgins said.

    Hudgins could not see the connection, one reason she gravitated towards the arts. But when she worked for international non-profits, she saw how engineers could use their smarts to change communities and lives. That led her to rethink how she felt about engineering.

    Hudgins hopes to one day earn her own engineering degree. And through Girlstart, to give girls a chance to see what a career in engineering would look like.

    To see Tamara Hudgins talk about Girlstart, click here.

  • Why STEM is like a moonshot

    Neil Armstrong, first human on the moon, photographed Buzz Aldrin, the second, stepping off the Lunar Lander 45 years ago.

    Neil Armstrong's one giant step  was a moving moment for humanity “made possible by an utter paradox: the audacity to dream coupled with the precision of technology,” writes Noha El-Ghobashy in Fast Company.

    That’s what’s needed to re-create STEM education in America. It took “weeks, years, sometimes decades of study and failure” for the moon program to triumph, she says. We need the same commitment and persistence to make STEM education work.

    El-Ghobashy knows. She heads Engineering for Change, which supports engineers who pioneer technologies that can change the lives of people in less developed nations. When she tells middle and high schoolers about students who invented affordable incubators or an African teen who built a generator for his village from scavenged parts, they jump out of their seats with excitement.

    But how do we connect them to engineering? Many young people are drawn into the maker movement. But our formal STEM curricula have holes that would prepare them for a STEM career.

    As El-Ghobashy notes, the last update on U.S. science curricula came 20 years ago. It doesn’t include the NASA’s mission to Mars – or the Internet, nanotechnology, the genomics revolution, smartphones, AI, or engineering as part of the curriculum.

    That’s why the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are so important. They connect student enthusiasm for making a difference to the knowledge that enables us to move communities.

    You can read more at http://bit.ly/1tYhxcz


    Join us for a STEM Twitter Chat today at 2 pm ET. #ASMEdialogues


  • Why STEM? Video forum now live!

     Join noted journalist John Hockenberry, 12 STEM leaders, and ASME for a critical look at what we should expect from STEM education.

    The video follows two ten-year-olds, one from a prosperous district, the other from a low income area, as they enter middle school. It asks why should STEM be a priority in their education, how STEM teachers can reach them, and what is our ultimate goal. It also looks at whether there is indeed a STEM crisis.

    To discuss some of these themes, return to this page today, Tuesday, June 10, at 2 pm.

  • Delight: The Key to STEM Motivation

    Delight is a powerful motivator. Children (and adults, for that matter) see something they don't understand, perhaps something that turns the rules they know on their head (like the fire that does not consume the dollar above), and they want to know more.

    So how do wet build delight into curricula and use it to motivate students?

    This might sound like a stretch, but in STEM, delight is so easy to achieve. Especially when we put away the textbooks and look at the world around us.

    Delight was clearly visible at April’s mammoth USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, DC. Schools brought thousands of students, who stared wide eyed as demonstrators set fire to dollar bills that did not burn and listened to a Tesla coil as its sparks played the “Star Wars” theme while dancing between electrodes.

    The children tried their hand at everything, from guiding underwater robots to playing a keyboard made of bananas. The adults also got into the act, typing messages on a WW II German Enigma secret code machine, and checking bulletproof glass (you would be amazed how thick it is). One older man even took off his shoes and socks to jump across a bed of gel that looked like tofu in water.

    Many of these experiments could be done in classrooms, often without exotic materials. And they speak directly to our natural curiosity about how the world works. We delight in viewing its unexpected mysteries, and exalt when we understand and master them.

    These feelings are as natural even in babies. I remember going shopping with my infant son. He would drop things from the cart onto the floor, and laugh when they fell. And why not? It was a “Eureka!” moment for him. His experiment had proved his hypothesis:  things always fell down and not up or sideways.

    We all have those moments. So here is the question: How do we translate that curiosity and delight into curricula?

    This is why I like the idea of project based learning, especially for younger grades. After all, haven’t children always learned by doing? I have talked with thousands of engineers. Many of them started by taking apart a bicycle or radio, or trying to fix a toaster or a broken appliance.

    You don’t have to be a future engineer to get it. I volunteered to teach a fifth grade class about inventions on science day.  The school had left out sticky rolls for the presenters, so I pulled one out and asked, “How would you make one of these.” Several students volunteered how they might do it.

    Then I asked how we would make tens of thousands of rolls in a factory. What amazed me was how fast everyone jumped on it. They realized they could not make rolls the same way, and came up with several approaches, some much better than my own answer.

    Then I asked them to pick a problem. They wanted to design something to pick up dog hairs. The result was an attachment for a vacuum that might have worked with some modifications, though we didn’t have time to build a prototype.

    But what I learned was how involved and focused the kids became as the session went on. And they were not academic achievers, either. They were one of the lower classes. They didn’t do great with textbooks and memorization. But it was clear that some of them had an aptitude for visualizing problems. They were great problem solvers.

    Others have noticed that projects bring out the best in many “average” and “under-average” students. One is Mark Conner, a high school STEM teacher from Birmingham, Ala., talked about it at ASME’s April forum, “Critical Thinking, Critical Choices: What Really Matters in STEM.”

    He noted that academically mediocre students often excel in projects because they are willing to experiment, fail, and learn from their mistakes. Better students, on the other hand, are often looking for a recipe – the steps – they can follow to get the “A.” They are often frustrated by the open ended nature of projects.

    Educators are still trying to figure this out. Conner is a strong believer in structuring projects very tightly, so they accomplish specific aims and use what students learn in the classroom. Yet I’ve also been in classes were projects fell just short of sheet pandemonium. There was learning taking place, but it was uneven. And I could see why some teachers – especially teachers evaluated on test scores of their pupils – hate projects.

    So we have a long way to go. In the higher grades, we need to find the right balance between classroom learning and do-your-own-thing problem solving. We need to train teachers to do projects effectively.

    In the younger grades, the path seems straightforward. Focus on problem solving. Let children learn about their world and delight in achieving mastery over it, the same way they delight in mastering the monkey bars in a playground, a karate kick, or a piano. Let’s create projects that build on that delight, because through mastery, children will develop the motivation to learn the math and science that unlock even greater mysteries.

  • STEM Programs Create Engineers of the Future

    Whether it is CH2M Hill partnering with Denver to give minority students an engineering experience or GM helping to fund Project Lead the Way in Michigan, the private sector is teaming with government and academia to get students more interested in engineering.

    Above, a scene from University of Wisconsin’s Camp Badger, which has given more than 2,600 youngsters a taste of real world engineering and design. Click to learn more.

  • Bots for tots

    Research from MIT shows that young children, even in preschool, can grasp programming concepts.

    Meet Bo and Yana, a pair of robots  meant to give children as young as five their first taste of programming.

  • Viral subtraction problem highlights flaws in math education

    Who would have thought math would go viral and become part of the culture wars?

    But go on the internet and look up "Common Core" and "math" and "stupid," you will find several thousand references to a homework problem brought home by the seven-year-old son of Jeff Severt, an electrical engineer from North Carolina.

    The letter and reaction to it say a lot about how we teach math in the United States.

    The math problem, which is an example of Common Core math. It asked Severt's son to write a letter to "Jack," a fictional student, explaining where he wrong when he used a number line to subtract 316 from 427.

    Number lines are one way to understand place value. If "Jack" had done it correctly, he would have first drawn a line to represent the number 427. Then he would have begun subtracting hundreds, tens, and ones.

    First, he would have subtracted the three hundreds in 316 one at a time. This would have lowered the value of 427 to 327, 227, and then 127. Then he would have subtracted the ten in 316 to lower that to 117. Then he would have subtracted the six ones in 316 to get 116, 115, 114, 113, 112 and 111, which is the answer.

    Where did Jack go wrong? He kept subtracting tens rather than switching to ones, so he wound up with 57.

    Severt wrote the letter to Jack. He said he was an engineer who had studied differential equations, but could not figure out how to answer the question correctly. "In the real world, simplification is valued over complication," he said.

    He then wrote down the problem the way we all did in school (427-316 = 111) and solved it in under 5 seconds. He added, "The [number line] process used is ridiculous and would result in termination if used."

    Severt later wrote that he never intended these remarks for a larger audience, but they went viral on Facebook and via Glenn Beck. Those who oppose Common Core took the problem and Severt’s answer as evidence that Common Core was designed by a bunch of idiots to make students stupid.

    That’s obviously not the case. So why teach math this way?

    This point came up several times during "Critical Thinking, Critical Choices: What Really Matters in STEM," the ASME Decision Point Dialogue help last month in Washington, D.C.

    Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Foundation, cut to the heart of the issue when he said: "We speak two languages in this country and around the world. One is words and the other one is numbers. Everybody has got to be fluent in numbers."

    Levine is right. Most high level jobs, even in non-STEM fields, involve manipulating numbers in some way. It might be managing a budget, projecting sales, or trying to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a product portfolio. In our lives, we use math to weigh mortgage options, judge investments, and calculate shopping discounts. In STEM professions, math is often the language of choice.

    The problem is that to many U.S. students, math is a foreign language.

    They rush through many math concepts every year. All too often, they learn how to do the right type of procedure, but not why they need to do it. So when it comes time to master more difficult concepts, like fractions, they lack the fundamental understanding of how math works to fall back on. And according to the National Research Council, their inability to multiply, divide, and manipulate fractions keeps them succeeding in algebra and calculus.

    Many countries that score high on standardized global math assessments do things differently. Decision Point Dialogues panelist Pat Wingert, a former Newsweek education writer now at Columbia University's Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, said Americans had a misconception "that in Singapore, the kids are sitting there and teachers are just shoving information into them."

    The reality is different.

    "In Japan, in Singapore, and Taiwan, when they teach those kids math, they give them an everyday problem. And then the teacher basically leaves them alone for a half an hour and lets them struggle to figure out that problem. And they will try this and that, but they get invested the longer they try. It isn't until the end of the class that they start sharing ideas and the teacher starts a discussion," Wingert said.

    She compared that to American math classes, where the teacher might give students a minute or two to solve a problem.

    "Then the teacher would jump in and say, 'Here is the trick to getting it fast." Were you emotionally invested in the answer? No. Do you even remember that trick? No," Wingert said.

    Common Core tries to emulate the most successful countries, moving through the curriculum slowly to make sure students really understand how and why operations work the way they do.

    Now, let's go back to Jack's wrong answer. Several teachers wrote great commentaries on the issue. They noted that a teacher who looked at Jack's answer would immediately see that he had trouble with place value because he didn't know when to switch from tens to ones.

    The problem also reinforced other Common Core standards for seven-year-olds, such as the ability to add and subtract using models and drawings, and to explain why addition and subtraction work. A child who can do this has the tools he or she needs to do more challenging problems and move on to fractions, algebra, and calculus. At least, that’s what happens in Singapore, Japan, and Finland.

    Another teacher noted that most American parents never learned number sense in school. They learned a series of procedures, and they are profoundly uncomfortable when it comes time to help their children with math.

    On his Facebook page, Severt backed away a bit from his letter to Jack, noting that it reflected his and his son’s frustrations. Yet he did argue that North Carolina’s Common Core standards were rushed into production without a lot of editing or thinking.

    He may be right. States are still struggling with how to develop curricula, train teachers, and write tests for Common Core. But the motivation behind it -- that U.S. students should understand the nuances of math instead of memorizing a series of tips and tricks that will only get them so far, seems like a step in the right direction.

    Ultimately, everyone should learn to speak math.

    As Wingert said, "We, as a society, have to push back against this idea that saying, 'I'm not good at math,' is an acceptable statement. You can't imagine going into a cocktail party and someone saying, 'I am just not very good at reading,' and people just accepting that. I think we, as parents, as a community, need to move away from that.”

    What do you think?

    Is Common Core the way to go? Should students spend more time learning math fundamentals? Will we lose the brighter students who get it right away?

    Log in and share your opinion.

  • Engineering salaries -- Going up!

    Engineering salaries continued to in 2013, according to a joint survey by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The survey put the average engineer salary at $104,303 (including bonus), up 1 percent from 2012 and up nearly 5 percent over the past three years. Three indications of a healthy job market: 75 percent of respondents received a raise last year; 18 percent received promotions; and 17 percent changed employers.

    To learn more, click http://bit.ly/1alRMFk.

  • Active learning stomps STEM lectures in college

    A new study shows that college students who learn STEM subjects through activities and/or class discussion outperform those in lecture-only classes. This holds true in large and small classes, introductory and upper-level courses, and across all subject areas.

    The most startling finding: students in lecture-only classes were 55 percent more likely to fail than those taking classes with some active, participatory STEM learning. (Failure is defined as dropping the class or getting an “F” or “D” grade.

    Active learning students also did 6 percent better on exams than lecture students. This may not sound like much, but it is the difference between a C+ and a B, or a B and a B+.

    Put another way, 6 percent equals about half a standard deviation. So, if you take a student who ranks in the middle of the class (50 percent) and add half a standard deviation, it would push that student into the top 68 percent of the class.

    The paper, “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics,” appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Its chief author was Scott Freeman, a University of Washington biology professor.

    The paper is a metastudy, a technique common in biology, which combines data from multiple papers, studies, and presentations. This creates a larger data pool and makes it possible to draw general conclusions from often-limited studies. For example, by combining studies about different disciplines (math, mechanical engineering, optics), Freeman could say something more general about STEM education as a whole.

    Freeman looked had hundreds of studies, eventually focusing on 225 that compared active and lecture classes. Often, those classes were taught by the same teacher and used the same exams.

     “We’ve got to stop killing student performance and interest in science by lecturing and instead help them think like scientists,” Freeman said.

    He hopes his paper will give active STEM learning a boost the way the Surgeon General’s 1964 report on smoking laid to rest questions about the link between smoking and cancer.

    Freeman tests his theories in his own classes. His largest has 700 students, and is 60 percent active and 40 percent lecture.

    He expects students to read their assignments before coming to class, and he will quiz them on the information. In class, however, the focus is on using the knowledge they learned.

     “A reading assignment on how sperm and eggs form might then lead me to ask the class how male contraceptives might work. After giving them time to come up with their own ideas and rationale, I might give them a couple more minutes to discuss it with each other, and then I call on students randomly to start the discussion,” Freeman said.

    Not everyone buys this. Inside Higher Ed interviewed former University of Kent sociology professor Frank Furedi. He said that “only an idiot” would rely on lectures entirely, and that in Europe, STEM departments that embraced active learning were often associated with grade inflation.

    Freeman’s work echoes the discussion about project-based learning at April’s Decision Point Dialogues. While project-based classes clearly motivated many students, teachers often did not have the training to implement them effectively.

    Mark Conner, a teacher in Alabama, noted that the brightest students did not always excel in project-based learning because many of them only wanted the “recipe” to getting an “A.” Students who were not as good academically often welcomed the chance to puzzle out problems without a teach imposing a solution from above.

    Perhaps that is why active learning improves retention so well: It gives students who cannot simply open a book at soak up the information another way to learn.

    What do you think?

    Is active learning the way to go? Did you learn more from your projects and labs, or from your lectures? Are both necessary, or only one?

    Log in and join the conversation.

  • Teach Me Out at the Ballgame

     Stand over a kid with a bat and he’ll study for a day. Hand him the bat and he’ll study for a lifetime.

    That’s the hope for students of the Science of Baseball program at the University of Arizona’s College of Engineering. The program, now a year old, immerses middle school students in all things STEM by teaching them through America’s favorite pastime.

    Ricardo Valerdi, a professor of systems and industrial engineering at the school, has developed a full curriculum, with toys that range from  water balloon launchers and baseball cards to protractors and heart rate monitors.

    Read all about it.

    What do you think: Home run or strikeout?

    Log in and join the conversation.

  • Surprise! Two-year STEM grads earn more than many BA's

    More than 80 percent of college seniors will graduate without having lined up a job, according to surveys by mega-consultant Accenture and AfterCollege, which helps students with post-graduation job searches.

    Surprisingly, 81 percent of STEM graduates will be looking for jobs too.

    It’s particularly tough for biology majors, and it shows up in salaries. In Virginia, the average biology grad’s first job pays just under $28,000, compared to the statewide average of $36,067 for all students, according to American Institutes for Research (AIR), a large social sciences research non-profit. Texas and Colorado show similar gaps.

    Yet AIR’s research also shows where STEM jobs are growing – and the answer is going to surprise you.

    STEM jobs are booming for graduates with two-year community college technical degrees or certifications, according to AIR vice president Mark Schneider.

    Schneider’s numbers are remarkable.

    In Virginia, community college graduates with occupational/technical associate’s degrees earn about $38,551. That’s nearly $2,500 more than the average college graduate (and $6,000 more than non-occupational associate grads).

    Schneider groups technical and occupational degrees together, and there’s a story here. Three of the top four best-paying jobs – registered nurse, respiratory care therapist, and radiology technician – are not usually classified as STEM, they certainly require biology and math. The third best-paying major was computer and information services.

    In Texas, Schneider found the top-paying associate degree was chemical technology, which paid $74,000, about $34,000 more than median earnings for Texas graduates of four-year colleges.

    Associates in drafting/design and auto mechanics also did well, though not as well as those with BA degrees.

    Unless, of course, those four-year degrees were in biology. They averaged $26,430. Math degrees, on the other hand, were worth nearly $50,000.

    Many of Texas' highest paying two-year degrees are in STEM. High salaries show that the market wants students with these skills.

    In Colorado, graduates of career-oriented associate of applied sciences (AAS) programs earned almost $7,000 more than bachelor’s degree graduates across the state.

    It seems to be a trend. So what does Schneider make of the data?

    Clearly, associates can make as much or more than four-year grads over the short term. This is because associate degrees provide training and skills for jobs that are in demand.

    Yes, research from the Center on Education and the Workforce shows that the average bachelor’s degree provides higher lifetime learning. On the other hand, community college grads do not graduate with the high debt that comes with a four-year degree.

    STEM means many things to many people. My guess is that among four-year graduates, engineers get jobs because they are trained in valuable analytical and problem-solving skills. Those that cannot get work as engineers are snapped up by other employees.

    The same is true of math majors. In a world rapidly embracing big data, people who can do the math are wanted.

    Biology majors don’t get jobs because they have general knowledge. Many are competing with people with associate degrees to set up experiments, manage test animals, or conduct wildlife surveys. But if they want to do research, they need to go to graduate school.

    Associate degrees provide job-ready workers. Many are in the recession-proof health industry.

    In fact, here’s a challenge:

    Listen closely the next time manufacturers and business owners talk about the STEM skills gap – they’re not talking about people with bachelors’ degrees in science. They are talking about the people who install our phones and networks, fix our cars and PCs, and set up the experiments in labs and manage jobs in factories.

    What do you think? Did you find the job you want in STEM? Do you wish you had gotten an associate degree?

    Log in and share your thoughts!

  • Cupcakes and middle school STEM

     The brightly frosted cupcakes sitting on the table seem out of place in this hard-working junior high that emphasizes science, technology, engineering, and math.

    Shouldn’t these kids be working at tilted tables with T-squares?

    Or be parked in front of the latest CAD program?

    Or attempting to make a three-dimensional print of their hand?

    Nope. The cupcake making at Salk Middle School in Elk River, Minn., just outside Minneapolis, is actually a delicious chemistry lesson combined with a learn-to-bake class. Because what is dough of all kinds other than a chemical reaction?

    Salk is a magnet school that ties all its curriculum, even physical education to STEM learning. It can be challenging, in a fun way, and eye-opening for the students, says Teri Ann Flatland, the curriculum integration coordinator. She also teaches seventh grade English.

    Read Jean Thilmany's great article on how one great middle school is teaching STEM: Holding Up the Middle.

  • What really matters in STEM education?

    In middle school, boys and girls turn into teenagers, develop life-long attitudes, and either embrace or turn away from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

    That makes middle school a critical time for STEM educators. They believe that good STEM courses teach students to solve problems logically as well as by learning from their mistakes. Yet teachers often disagree on approaches and priorities.

    Their challenges, triumphs, and contradictions were all on display at the live taping of Critical Thinking, Critical Choices: What Really Matters in STEM, a far-ranging discussion that featured 12 leaders in STEM education. The event kicked off the U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, April 23.

    What Really Matters in STEM is part of the ASME Decision Point Dialogues thought leadership program, where leaders debate the complexities underlying an issue by focusing on the decisions people must make in real life. The event will be broadcast on the ASME website (www.go.asme.org/dialogues) in five weekly installments starting Tuesday, June 10 at 2 pm.

     The dialogue ranged in topics from whether there really is a STEM crisis, how to interest students in STEM classes, the best way to measure results, to how to retain STEM-educated faculty who could find higher-paying jobs in the private sector.

     Peabody and Emmy Award-winning journalist John Hockenberry, host of public radio’s The Takeaway program, moderated the event. His pointed questions kept the heat on the panelists, forcing them to justify their answers and spell out the tradeoffs their choices entailed. 

    Participants included such luminaries as Boston Museum of Science president Yannis Miaoulis; former Vermont governor James Douglas; Girlstart executive director Tamara Hudgins; Wilson Foundation president, Arthur Levine; and former Newsweek education reporter Pat Wingert.

    Hockenberry opened the conversation by describing a mock scenario featuring two 10-year-olds ready to enter middle school.

    Danica will attend a school in Metro City, a thriving, solidly middle class school district. Derek will go to West Harding, a poor district that may have its local school closed for poor academic performance.

    The given-and-take nature of the forum, a Socratic dialogue, was immediately apparent. Hockenberry described a Metro City STEM festival where companies and schools did demonstrations to motivate students to study STEM.

    "Is that something that would excite a 10-year-old girl," he asked.

     “If I were her, I would have been bored," said Girlstart’s Hudgins. “Most girls at that age are not that interested in science. That’s not a way to engage me.”

     “Should Danica just go home,” Hockenberry countered.

     “Maybe the school should find a way to engage her on a more personal level,” Hudgins replied.

    Reaching Derek would be even harder. His district had no STEM festival. Unlike Danica’s parents, Derek’s mother had been a poor math student and did not see how STEM could lead to a well-paying career.

    The forum addressed issues Danica and Derek, their parents, teachers, and school administrators will face throughout middle school.

    For example, while some panelists argued that schools need more STEM classes, others disagreed because that would mean cutting back on history or English to make room for STEM.

    Participants went back and forth on the value of project-based courses, where students learn theory by designing and building objects.

    Wingate, who is writing a book about STEM education, noted that there is little research on the effectiveness of project-based learning. “It’s amazing we teach science in such unscientific ways,” she said.

    Several participants pointed to Finland and Singapore, which trounced the United States in recent international science and math tests, and said America should model its STEM courses on theirs.

    Hal Salzman, a sociologist at Rutgers University, disagreed. Several U.S. states performed as well or better than those top-rated nations, and we do nothing to celebrate them or learn from our successes, he said.

    The scenario also included a story about a high school STEM teacher with an engineering degree who needed to find a better paying position because his wife had lost her job.

     “What would you tell him to try to get him to stay,” Hockenberry asked.

     “I would tell him, ‘I feel your pain. I have a home and mortgage too,’” said Mark Conner, a teacher from Alabama.

    Kenneth Williams, the forum’s second teacher, also sympathized. Both have engineering degrees and could find higher paying jobs in industry.

    Wilson Foundation’s Levine said that it is hard to replace high school STEM teachers. Education schools are graduating people who want to teach elementary school, he explained. Students who plan to teach and earn STEM degrees often abandon education because they can earn more money in industry.

    Conner agreed, and said he should be paid more because his degree is worth more on the market.

    When Hockenberry asked former Vermont governor Douglas if he was willing to pay teachers more, he said his state’s first need was to control costs. He noted that Vermont looked outside teacher colleges for teaching talent, such as recruiting former IBM employees when their facility downsized.

    The panelists also discussed Common Core standards, Next-Generation Science Standards, and teaching to the test. They also discussed whether there was really was a crisis in STEM education.

    The education of future engineers, scientists, and mathematicians is an important issue for all engineers. Tune in to the ASME Decision Point Dialogues page (www.go.asme.org/dialogues) for news, discussions, interviews, podcasts, and videos on this topic. Join the conversation and share your opinions on STEM at http://bit.ly/OfuewE

  • Americans Wary of Emerging Technologies

    What scientific and engineering advances do Americans see in the future and how do they feel about them?

    And do you think STEM education will increase or skepticism or acceptance of new technologies?

    The Pew Research Center and Smithsonian magazine asked about future technologies, and the answers showcase America techno-ambivalence. For example, nearly three out of five Americans expect future technologies to make people’s lives mostly better.

    Look closer and it is clear men are more optimistic than women (67 percent vs 51 percent). There is surprisingly little variation among age groups, but those who are better off (college educated, higher income) are significantly more optimistic. In fact, four out of five men with college degrees have a positive outlook.

    Looking out 50 years, four out of five Americans believe we will have lab-grown custom organ transplants. But they are pessimistic about teleportation, space colonies, and controlling the weather.

    But when the survey looks at emerging technologies, Americans are (to say the least) wary. For example:

    • 66% think altering DNA to make children smarter, healthier, or more athletic would be a change for the worse.
    • 65% think using lifelike robots as primary caregivers for the elderly and ill could be a change for the worse
    • 63% don’t like want personal and commercial drones flying through most U.S. airspace.
    • 53% of Americans (and especially women) don’t want a future where most people wear implants or other devices (like Google Glass) that show them information about the world around them.

    Pew also asked whether respondents would like to try some technologies that are fast approaching reality. Again, they were met with a surprising degree of skepticism. For example:

    • Half of Americans would not ride in a driverless car, but the other half (especially college students, who are among the most likely to need a designated driver), would.
    • 72 percent would not want a brain implant to improve memory or mental capacity (even if it meant spending hundreds of extra hours looking for misplaced car keys over the course of a lifetime).
    • 78 percent would not eat meat grown in a lab.

    What can we make from this?

    Perhaps it is that Americans like technology in the abstract, but they worry about technologies that are close enough to reality for them to have thought through some of their ramifications.

    What do you think?

    Should we be wary of DNA manipulation? What about memory implants? Driverless cars?

    And here’s a second question: Should STEM classes to look more skeptically at technology?

    After all, that's what movies did with DNA manipulation (Gattaca) and factory-grown food (Solylent Green).