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

  • Are STEM grad students depressed about their future?

    University of California, Berkeley, is one of America’s highest-rated public universities, so naturally its graduate students are excited about their work and prospects for the future.

    Not so, according to a study of 790 of the school’s graduate students by Galen Panger, who is going for his Ph.D. at Berkeley’s School of Information.

    Panger asked master’s and Ph.D. students 30 questions about life satisfaction and depression. For example, students that are satisfied with life feel good about their career prospects, living conditions, and finances. Students who edge towards depression might have issues with sleep, overall health, and academic engagement. While these are not clinical diagnoses, they give a reasonably good snapshot of student emotions.

    The survey found 47 percent of Ph.D. students and 37 percent of Master’s students reach the threshold of depression. Ph.D. students feel less upbeat about job prospects, less on-track academically, and less prepared for future positions. They also feel less valued by their departments, and less likely to have the space and resources to succeed.

    Depression varies widely across majors. Students studying arts and humanities are the most depressed (64 percent), while those studying law (37 percent), social sciences (34 percent), and business (28 percent) are the least depressed.

    STEM students (biology, physical sciences, engineering, and “other professional”) rank in the middle, between 43 and 46 percent.

    Surprisingly, law and business students rank their advisors as worse than STEM students. Arts and humanities and social science students rate their advisors the highest.

    The magazine Science collaborated on the study. It looked more closely at STEM graduate students.

    STEM students were barely optimistic about their post-graduate career, averaging 4.5 on a scale of 1 to 7 (slightly more than the middle value of “4”).

    STEM grad students averaged 4.4 when asked about engagement with day-to-day work, somewhat less than the 4.9 for other Ph.D. students.

    Students in engineering and physical sciences averaged 4.7 on career optimism, higher than 4.1 for biology majors, who were also more depressed.  

    You can download a copy of Panger’s study at http://bit.ly/1GKNruk. The Science article is at http://bit.ly/1S1F4DS.

  • Boys, girls show wide gap in STEM interests

    There is a vast gap between the number of high school boys and girls interested in STEM, and the type of careers that attract the different sexes, according to Julie Kantor, Chief Partnership Officer or STEMconnector and Million Women Mentors.

    Kantor found the gap by sifting through data from one STEMconnector’s partners, My College Options. The website helps high school students pick colleges based on their interests. Kantor was able to tap 13 years of data from paper surveys administered as well as a 100,000 student survey that tracked whether student interests changed between freshman and senior years.


    First (above), she found a big gap between the number of boys and girls interested in STEM. Among students slated to graduate this year, 42 percent of boys and only 16 percent of girls showed interest in STEM careers. You’ll note that younger boys are even more interested than older boys, while younger girls are somewhat less interested.

    The gap was surprising consistent among whites, blacks, and Hispanic students.


    Perhaps the most interesting chart Kantor showed in her article compared the STEM interests of boys and girls. Boys gravitated to engineering and computer and information science, while girls favored biology. Engineering grads earn significantly more than biology grads.

    The other source of worry is the high number of girls who pick “science” as an interest compared with boys (17 vs. 6 percent). This lack of specificity suggests that girls do not have enough information, for whatever reason, to choose a specific discipline.  

    You can view Kantor’s article here.

  • What makes a quality STEM program?

    Everyone has his or her own idea about what makes a good STEM program, but it is certainly worth listening to Mark Elgart. Elgart is president of AdvancED, a non-profit organization that conducts on-site reviews at 32,000 schools and school systems in order to improve performance and outcomes.

    Recently, Elgart wrote an opinion piece in The Huffington Post that suggested what parents should ask to see if their school has a quality STEM program. Those questions reflect AdvancED’s own view of what works in STEM. Among the questions:

    Is the program interdisciplinary and problem based, and does it encourage deeper learning through real-world projects? Elgart likes programs that teach STEM knowledge, and also collaboration and communications skills needed for success in life.

    Does the program demand authentic assessments? Elgart believes that student projects, plans, and presentations should demonstrate their competencies and mirror the type of work they will need to do in higher education and jobs.

    Are students working the way scientists and engineers work? In other words, the program should get them to ask questions that lead them to discover solutions, then figuring out ways to apply what they have learned independently and with others.

    Does your STEM program engage business, industry, and local colleges, as well as families and community organizations? The best programs break down school walls and show students how real scientists and engineers work.

    Does the school reach out to girls and minorities? Effective schools, Elgart wrote, have a plan to reach out systematically to underrepresented students and measure how well that plan is succeeding.

    Does your school ensure that teachers and administrators become STEM learners so they are better able to lead STEM programs? STEM educators, they argue, need to seek out ways to remain current and expand their programs.

    Elgart has written a timely and useful article, and he provides lots of examples of schools that get it right. You can view it at on HuffingtonPost.com.



  • Good news for 2015 college grads – especially STEM grads

    After many years of bleak economic news, the skies are clearing for College Class of 2015 graduates, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. NACE’s data comes from employer surveys about hiring plans and salaries.

    Hiring is up. NACE’s Job Outlook 2015 Spring Update found companies planning to hire 9.6 percent more college grads in 2015 than 2014. That’s up 1.3 percent from the fall 2014 survey. Two-thirds of those surveyed said they planned to maintain or increase hiring for 2016 graduates.

    Salaries are strong. Last fall, NACE found mean starting salaries for college graduates were up 7.5 percent. According to revised numbers, the mean salary for 2014 graduates was $48,127. Engineering students scored highest, at $64,891, far outpacing business majors ($49,807) and liberal arts/humanities majors ($38,604).

    If those salaries sound higher than you thought, it is because they probably are. NACE bases its numbers on the larger companies that it surveys. The good news is that they are heading in the right direction.

    This year’s grads have been pleasantly surprised. College Class of 2015 graduates have gotten a very nice graduation present – they are getting higher salary offers than expected.

    Take engineering students, for example. They expected about $56,000 for starting salaries. Instead, offers are closer to $65,000.

    Computer science majors are also making out. Instead of the $51,000 they expected, salaries are above $62,000.

    Chemistry and math majors expected about $37-38,000. Instead, offers are ranging from $53-58,000.

  • STEM rates high on best jobs

    What are the best jobs? According to CareerCast.com’s Job Almanac, nearly all of them involve STEM professions in some way.

    Best means different things to different people, of course. For CareerCast, in include a mashup of income, work environment, stress, and hiring outlook.

    This year, four of the top six jobs involve math. They include actuary, mathematician, statistician, and data scientist. Among those four jobs, the average income ranges from $80,000 for statisticians to $124,000 for data scientists.

    Health-related fields are also winners. Among the top 10 are audiologist, dental hygienist, and occupational therapist.

    Also on the list are biomedical engineer (No. 5) and petroleum engineer (No. 19). Biomedical engineers average about $89,000 annually. Petroleum engineers – thanks to the laws of supply and demand during the big fracking boom – make even more, just over $132,000, but the position is more stressful and the work environment not as cozy.

    You can visit CareerCast.com to view the whole survey and inspect the company’s ranking methodology

  • Schools Prefer Women for Tenure Track STEM Positions

    Are university STEM departments getting the message about under-represented women and minorities? Two new reports suggest they are, and are taking steps to change their hiring practices.

    According to a new study by Cornell University psychologists Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci, schools are twice as likely to hire a highly qualified woman for a tenure track STEM faculty position as a man with similar credentials.

    A second study led by Mark R. Connolly, an associate research scientist at University of Wisconsin’s Center for Education Research echoed this finding. It found that black and Hispanic doctorate holders were 51 percent and 30 percent more likely to receive tenure track jobs than their white counterparts. Women were 10 percent more likely than white men to receive an offer, while Asians were 33 percent less likely.

    Let’s look at the Williams and Ceci study first. It focused on behavior. They invented three candidates for an assistant professor position: an extremely well-qualified man and woman and a slightly less qualified man. They then wrote up an applicant report that included a search committee’s impressions, quotes from letters of recommendations, and an overall score for the candidate’s job talk and interview.

    When they asked 873 tenure track faculty to evaluate the candidates, they found them twice as likely to tag the woman as the best qualified male – except in economics, where male faculty showed a slight preference for the well-qualified man.

    Varying the candidates’ marital status (married/single, childless/parents, working/nonworking spouse) had little impact on the results. The one exception involved parental leave: men preferred women who took a one year leave, while women did not.

    As you can imagine, the study generated a fair amount of skepticism. Rachael Bernstein of Science did a terrific job of covering this in her article on the research.

    The Wisconsin report took a quantitative approach. It analyzed data on 31,300 doctoral recipients from 1993 to 2012 found in NSF’s Survey of Doctorate Recipients.

    It found that doctoral recipients are most likely to secure tenure track positions within two years of graduation. Women and minorities considered underrepresented have the best chance of being hired.

    As noted, women were only 10 percent more likely than men to received tenure track positions. Moreover, this varied somewhat, depending on family status. Women with children under 6 years old were actually at a disadvantage in getting jobs.

    Of course, tenure track is not tenure. Most assistant professors get tenured position after seven years. Non-Asian minorities and women got there slowly, and black assistant professors were significantly less likely to earn tenure at all.

  • Reaching kids where they live (Part 2)

    The other day, I noted how MIT researchers linked an Android phone to a personalized robot to teach preschoolers about curiosity, storytelling, and vocabulary.

    Along the same lines, Shree Bose, a Harvard student who won the Google Science Fair at 17, has come up with a great way to reach kids where they live -- and teach them how to build some elementary circuits.

    The solution is so obvious, it make me want to slap my head and say, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

    Shree and partner, Mark Pavlyukovskyy, make it part of the game Minecraft.

    Minecraft is a virtual word where people start out breaking and placing blocks to stop monsters and eventually begin collaborating to build incredible structures. Nearly 20 million people have purchased the PC/Mac version of the game, and it is also available on Xbox, Playstation, and other gaming systems.

    So, what Shree and Pavlyukovskyy did was embed engineering challenges within the game. You start by sending a robot to a new planet. To control the robot and mine the planet, you have to build physical circuits.

    Their system is called Piper. It consists of a case, LED display, Raspberry Pi (a low-cost, single-board computer), Minecraft controller, mouse, and a variety of electrical devices. The kit comes with 10 hardware projects, though Bose says students can build their own devices.

    Bose and Pavlyukovskyy plan to sell Piper for $299. So far, they have raised $280,000 from 1,375 backers on Kickstarter to bring their vision to market. You can learn more at http://kck.st/1AN8VrK.

  • DragonBot reaches kids where they live

    Everywhere we go on the net, personal customization is the name of the game. By tracking our movements, websites and advertisers can customize what we see to fit our interests.

    We have seen only a hint of that with educational technology, chiefly math programs that drill students, monitor their progress, and feed them questions that strengthen their weaknesses and build on their skills.

    MIT’s Personal Robots Group would like to take the next step. In 2011, it introduced its DragonBot personalized learning companion for preschoolers. It was to help kids learn.

    Now the lab is lowering the cost and stepping up its gain.

    Cost is key. The original DragonBot cost about $1,000. MIT lowered that by switching to an Android phone. The phone provides processing and sensors, and its screen doubles as a face. It also connects to the cloud, so DragonBots can tap the knowledge gained by other bot-child pairs.

    So what can this new bot do? Evan Ackerman of Spectrum identified several interesting research results

    For example, DragonBot can spur curiosity by showing the types of behavior you might expect in naturally curious people -- excitement about learning and interest in exploring a situation’s possibilities (which engineers would call, “breaking things”).

    Sure enough, children who played with the bot showed increases in curiosity-related behaviors.

    Another DragonBot played a storytelling game with children. Both used a tablet to map the movements of the characters in the story. A study found that children improved their storytelling ability and vocabulary after playing the game eight times over two months. The robot was also able to improve their vocabulary.

    In both these tests, adults controlled the robots remotely. (The technical term for this is Wizard-of-Oz, or WoZ, control.) MIT is now working on an autonomous robot that could show these behaviors. It is also creating two new social robots, Tega and Jibo, which will take these behaviors to the next level.

    Certainly, some people will complain. After all, should we rely on robots to teach our children vocabulary or curiosity? Shouldn’t that come from their parents?

    No doubt it should. But when parents are busy, wouldn’t you rather have your child learning something accurately than sitting in front of a television?

    You can read the Spectrum article at http://bit.ly/1Ep9sy4 to learn more about the research and the MIT Personal Robots Group.

  • Retaining foreign STEM students

    The United States always had a great reputation for attracting top-notch talent from around the world, but that advantage eroded after 9/11. Recently, President Obama took two steps that could make it easier for highly trained STEM graduates to stay.

    The first, which starts in May, affects foreign workers with H-1B visas. The visas allow them to fill positions US firms say they cannot fill any other way. The new regulation allow the wives of H-1B workers to apply for employment authorization.

    The second executive action involves the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, which allows foreign graduates of US schools to work full time in the United States after their receive their degree. The original limit was 12 months, but George W. Bush expanded that to 29 months for STEM grads.

    Yet there are issues with this program too. Between 2008 and 2012, about 362,500 foreign students studied STEM in the United States. At the same time, just over 200,000 OPT participants had STEM degrees. More than one out of five OPT STEM participants had a U.S. doctorate, and more than three out five had a master’s degree.

    They seemed exactly the type of people we would like to keep on our shores, until Neil Ruiz, a senior policy analyst at The Brookings Institution dug deeper.

    He found that the majority of STEM master’s degree grads from Southern India attended for-profit, unaccredited schools. Two of the most popular with students from Hyderabad were Tri-Valley University and University of Northern Virginia. Both were shut down for visa fraud.

    How did it work? People come to the United States on a student visa, then go right to work while “attending” school and for 29 months afterwards. If they are lucky, they will snag one of the 20,000 H-1B visas set aside for foreign students who graduate from U.S. universities.

    Ruiz also notes that the OPT program has no minimum wage or salary requirements, so employers can exploit workers who commit fraud as well as legitimate grads by giving them minimal pay while they wait for their H-1B visa and green card, which would allow them to reside in the United States permanently. This undercuts the salaries of US citizens who graduate with advanced degrees.

    Ruiz makes three recommendations to reform OPT.

    First, OPT should admit only students from accredited schools. Ruiz estimates that this would include 61 percent of college students who enter the United States annually.

    Second, OPT should set wage guidelines similar to those set by the H-1B program.

    Third, Congress should allow students who graduate from accredited schools to apply directly for green cards. It should also remove the cap that limits any one country’s share of green cards to 7 percent, which contributes to a huge backlog for Indian and Chinese nationals.

    The result would make it easier to retain qualified graduates and strengthen the innovative capacity of the United States.

    You can click here to read more about Ruiz’s suggestions.

  • Common sense ways to keep women in STEM

    There’s no end to advice on how to keep girls and women involved in STEM classes and careers. Yet I found this short piece from Jane Kubasik full of common sense.

    Kubasik is founder of the non-profit 114th Partnership, which seeks to prepare all students for success by bridging the gap between education and industry. There are many groups that do that, but what I liked was her focus on things we should know.

    For example, she recommends changing our point of view. Instead of talking about the engineering talent “pipeline,” she wants to frame STEM as a “pathway” to achieving the goals of girls and women.

    She’s also big on helping girls see why engineering is useful, and enabling them to practice their STEM skills on real problems. (Susan Staffin Metz of Stevens Institute of Technology has long emphasized that this is a powerful way to increase retention of engineering students.)

    Kubasik, incidentally, has developed a series of career-based problem solving videos, which are available at www.Spark101.org.

    She makes several points that others have already suggested, like making girls (and women) feel capable by breaking down stereotypes and providing better roadmaps to take them from coursework to careers.

    You can learn more by clicking here.

  • MIT, Stanford, and Berkeley top US News engineering grad school ratings

    What are the best engineering grad schools? According to the annual US News & Review rankings, the top 10 include all the usual suspects.

    The top five include MIT, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon and Caltech. The next five are Georgia Tech, Purdue, Illinois, Michigan, USC, and Texas. These schools all have uniformly excellent engineering programs.

    Most are also very large. Other than Caltech, which has only about 500 grad students, the smallest of these programs (Berkeley) has nearly 2,000 students. The others have well over 3,000 students each, and Georgia Tech has more than 6,100 grad students.

    The top mechanical engineering grad schools look very similar to the best overall schools. They include MIT, Stanford, Caltech, Berkeley, and, tied for fifth, Georgia Tech and Michigan. Rounding out the list are Illinois, Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, and Purdue.

    The publication compiles the list by subjective impressions with statistical information about faculty, research, and students. It breaks it down like this:

    Quality assessment (40 percent). This includes peer assessment by deans of engineering and graduate studies (25 percent) and grades from corporate recruiters (15 percent).

    Student selectivity (10 percent). This looks at standardized GRE scores plus acceptance rates.

    Faculty (25 percent). This weighs the ratio of students to full-time and tenure track faculty, the percentage of faculty who are members of the National Academy of Engineering, and the number of doctoral degrees granted.

    Research (25 percent). This includes both total research expenditures and average expenditures per faculty member over the past two years.

    You can see the rankings at http://bit.ly/1DuX7Hl.

  • SXSW: Bridging the Student-Employer Skills Disconnect

    Education Week recently covered a discussion at the South-by-Southwest Festival about the disconnect between student skills and employer needs. It raised some interesting points.

    These discussions usually begin with our high unemployment rates while millions of jobs are available for people with the right skills. I’ll come back to that at the end of this discussion.

    Meanwhile, let’s look at how speakers addressed the issue. Tony Wagner, an expert in residence at Harvard University’s Innovation Lab, argued that employers want problem solvers, while universities still teach content.

    He argues that innovative workplaces care about what students can do with what they know. They also value teamwork and broader knowledge. Moreover, they are willing to let students learn by trial and error while schools are more interested in compliance and risk avoidance. To change what they teach, schools need to change what they measure.

    Kristin Hamilton, co-founder of Koru, which provides career skills training, argues that college grads often lack practical work experience that would enable them to work on a variety of problems.

    She used surveys and research to identify seven qualities that employers want. Five are largely personal and not necessarily anything someone would acquire through practical work experience: grit, polish, teamwork, curiosity, and ownership. Another, analytical rigor, could be learned at school, the job, or the dinner table (if you family has those kinds of discussion). The seventh is impact, and of course, that could come from having the right academic skills or stubbornness or charm or simply being at the right place at the right time.

    Interestingly enough, she says companies are still willing to train people on their internal systems, but they expect grads to join them with good communications skills and a sense of personal responsibility.

    Zach First, a senior managing director at the Drucker Institute, argued that new grads often do not have the time-management skills to adapt to today’s high-speed world.

    Felix Ortiz, founder of Viridis Learning, touted the ability of his software to match community college students with the type of skills and courses required by local employers. Needless to say, it makes sense to do this before signing up for classes rather than at graduation.

    Once again, improving educational outcomes reminds me of the blind men feeling different parts of an elephant and then coming back with entirely different descriptions of the experience. The one who touched the tusks said it was smooth, the one who touched the leg said it was solid and rough, and the one who felt the ear said it was soft and pliant.

    In truth, the world economy is changing. While some companies want creative thinkers for their top positions, others want people they can hire at the lowest possible cost and who will not ask questions. Many companies that complain they cannot fill positions could probably attract better candidates they raised salaries.

    And thanks to today’s Internet-enabled job market, just about every firm can keep fishing for the perfect candidate with the right background, skills, and salary requirements. As long as the economy is growing slowly, they have no reason to rush.

  • Is teacher bias pushing girls away from STEM

    For decades, feminists studies showed that parents tend to praise boys for achievement while praising girls for looks. Now a new study from the Nation Bureau of Economic Research that same type of bias may exist in how teachers evaluate student math performance.

    Victor Lavy of the University of Warwick and Edith Sand of Tel Aviv University followed 3000 Israeli students in Tel Aviv from fifth grade through high school graduation.

    First, they looked at results from a national blind-graded exam, where evaluators did not know the gender of the student. Boys and girls achieved similar scores. Then they gave a similar test one year later, but let the teachers scoring the test see the gender of the student.

    So what did they find? In Hebrew and English, the difference between blind and non-blind tests were statistically insignificant. But in math, the boys scored significantly higher.

    Moreover, the difference widened over time. By the end of high school, girls were less likely to pass advanced math tests than boys – even though they outscored boys in other subjects at all grade levels.

    The researchers then evaluated teacher bias. Girls who had more biased teachers in sixth grade had lower math grades than their peers with less biased teachers. They were also less likely to take advanced science and math classes and chose STEM careers.

    The study is at http://bit.ly/1J4yc2y.  

    Image: “How it Works,” XKCD, Creative Commons license.

  • Do tech jobs have a multiplier effect?

    According to the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA), each of the state’s 90,000 essential tech jobs in information and communications technology supports at least seven other addition jobs within Washington State.

    This is the same type of argument manufacturers make to justify government support for manufacturing. In manufacturing, it is easy to see how those numbers add up. Each manufacturing job requires support from engineers, repair and maintenance personnel, accountants, logistics suppliers, and even other manufacturers who make components and parts. Also, the wages all those people earn percolate through the economy, supporting restaurants, clothing stores, dog groomers, home builders, and scores of other businesses.

    This pull-through is called the multiplier effect. The National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) has pulled some of this information together. NNMI quotes the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), which calculates that each dollar's worth of manufacturing demand generates $1.35 in other services and production. Each manufacturing job generates about 0.6 new jobs in sectors of the economy dependent on manufacturing, plus 1.6 jobs in the general economy. (High tech manufacturing jobs do even better, generating five local service jobs each.)  

    Tech companies are often criticized, since they employ primarily high-level coders and do not generate massive numbers of jobs for the broader population.

    So how does WTIA get to a multiplier of seven? Its study first identifies what it calls “essential” IT professions. These include people like application developers, systems programmers, computer engineers, network architects, and computer science researchers.

    These are the people who have the technical skills to launch startups, tackle big problems, and support large enterprises. According to WTIA, their median incomes fall within $100,000 to $140,000 per year.

    For every one of those jobs a company adds, it also adds 1.7 other jobs. These might be lower-level tech or other positions (help desk, network technicians, sales, accountants, etc.). Each of those jobs creates an additional 2.7 jobs throughout the economy.

    The math looks like this: 1 essential tech job creates 1.7 other tech jobs. Each of those jobs (2.7 jobs in total) creates 2.7 jobs in the economy. As a result, each new essential tech job creates 2.7 x 2.7 = 7.3 total jobs.

    In the case of Washington, that means the state’s 90,000 essential tech jobs generate a total of 657,000 total jobs. (If you exclude the essential position, which is how most economists track this multiplier effect, you get 6.3 new jobs for a total of 567,000 jobs.)

    These are impressive numbers. They also leave some room for skepticism.

    As noted, the knock on IT jobs is that they tend to employ only a few high-skills people. As a result, they concentrate wealth. WTIA’s study is designed to show how those jobs have a trickle-down effect throughout the economy, and it seems to show that.

    The better question, which the report does not address, is the type of jobs these essential jobs generate in the broader economy. Are they barristers or baristas?

    Manufacturing, for example, tends to generate what I would call peer-to-peer positions. These are jobs for people making upstream and downstream manufactured goods, as well as professional and blue collar jobs for people who serve manufacturing plants.

    Yes, the tech industry does make use of consultants and outside engineers, but a lot of their expertise remains in-house. After all, that is their intellectual property. And while they may buy software from other tech firms, all but the very largest software installations generate no new permanent jobs when it comes to installation.

    It would be interesting to see someone dive deeper into this subject and compare jobs in manufacturing and IT.


    Photo credit: "Caught Coding (9690512888)" by Steve Jurvetson from Menlo Park, USA - Caught CodingUploaded by PDTillman. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Caught_Coding_(9690512888).jpg#/media/File:Caught_Coding_(9690512888).jpg

  • 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.