For inquiry, creative work, and scientific debate to become the bedrock of STEM education, the teaching mindset as well as the curricula must progress, Donohue says. “One of the challenges we have in the education system is that we teach kids that there is a right answer to everything. With real world problems, there is often more than one right answer. We have to get the teachers beyond that mentality.”
What’s more, Donohue contends, few K-12 students are receiving a “silo free” science education at a time when technological breakthroughs frequently arrive by way of transdisciplinary investigations that blur those traditional STEM boundaries beyond recognition.
And because technology has become so complex, traditional classroom lessons in math and science are useless without linking them to the core ideas that drive technological change, Donohue says.
Rather than start with equations and theories, it makes more sense to capture students’ attention through their fascination with high-tech gadgetry, he says. Why not begin with a discussion of how researchers developed iPods or cell phones based on core engineering principles? Donohue says, “We have to start teaching the technology and hope that kids will want to learn the math and science.”
As budget shortfalls and poor teacher preparation prove intractable, it’s up to practitioners in particular to upgrade STEM education in both affluent and disadvantaged jurisdictions, Pierre says. “I don’t see existing K-12 programs putting sufficient priority on science and engineering,” he says. “The engineering profession needs to reach down to those levels and try to make a difference in the lives of those students.”
Many engineering schools already offer summer STEM programs for students and teachers, but within academia as well, “there is a need for more,” Pierre says. “If we were not doing what we were doing, the problem would be even worse.”
Forced by the economic downturn to make painful budget cuts, Whiting School dean Nicholas Jones nevertheless arrived at a similar conclusion. “I pretty much decided that STEM education outreach is a core mission,” he says. “If every engineering school doesn’t reach out and make an effort, I think that we are going to be in big trouble.”
The dean’s resolve helped to preserve Engineering Innovation, a stimulating summer outreach program offered by the Whiting School at nine sites around the country. The course introduces talented high school students from all economic backgrounds to problem solving and design challenges that require an integrated STEM approach.
Determined to expand the Whiting School’s efforts and attract corporate sponsors, Jones hired Christine Newman as assistant dean for educational outreach.
Jones also made the strategic decision to focus outreach efforts on better preparation for STEM teachers. “There are a limited number of kids we can touch,” he says “But year after year, teachers can really reach out to more kids than we can.”
The Whiting School, through its Engineering for Professionals program, will offer STEM teachers in Baltimore the opportunity to take courses at no cost. After piloting the program in two local jurisdictions, “we will basically expand it to the entire state,” Jones says. Eventually, in collaboration with Johns Hopkins School of Education, he hopes to package four of those advanced classes with a capstone course for a STEM certificate.
For Donohue, the STEM crisis boils down to the national ramifications of a rapidly expanding service economy. As lucrative manufacturing jobs give way to minimum wage jobs in food prep, retail sales, and similar occupations, prospects are bleak for national prosperity, he says. “We cannot have the service sector growing and growing and not producing anything,” Donohue says. “It just doesn’t work. The society as a whole has got to create something of value.”
What will it take for the public to avert the impending economic calamity?
“If you look at the current crop of people 18 to 30 years old, they are the first generation whose standard of living will be less than their parents’,” Donohue says. “In all of history, with every succeeding generation, except for wartime, there was the hope and the expectation that your children’s lives would be better than yours. “
That’s not true for my kids. I think if there’s an issue out there that might get people’s attention, that might be it.”