Why STEM Matters: Educators and Experts Sound Off

Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District superintendent Daniel King speaks to graduates from Options High School, College Career & Technology Academy and Teen-Age Parenting Program High School during their graduation ceremony December 16, 2010 at the San Juan Middle School Auditorium in San Juan, Texas.
Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District superintendent Daniel King speaks to graduates from Options High School, College Career & Technology Academy and Teen-Age Parenting Program High School during their graduation ceremony December 16, 2010 at the San Juan Middle School Auditorium in San Juan, Texas.

“STEM,” an acronym for “Science, Technology, Engineering and Math” is a term that is becoming increasingly common across education circles. It is often followed by the word “crisis.”

There is a growing sense that students are not getting a strong enough STEM education, developing an adequate interest in STEM subjects nor embarking on the kinds of STEM careers that will ensure a comfortable economic future. In Texas, the state has struggled to meet its goals for conferring STEM degrees and certifying teachers for STEM subjects.

Last week, Dallas played host to a STEM conference with a mouthful of a name: “U.S. News STEM Solutions 2012 — A Leadership Summit.”  According to the website for the event, the aim was to “bring together business, education and government leaders who have long recognized the need to connect the dots between STEM education and careers.”

We spoke with a handful of the Texas-based participants and — along with excerpts from a recent legislative hearing — compiled this virtual roundtable on the issue of STEM education, why it matters and how experts are working to improve it.

Steve Zipkes, founding principal of Manor New Technology High School: We have a STEM crisis.

Mary Ann Rankin, former dean of the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin and current CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative: In the era of Sputnik, there was this urgency around math and science and achievement in these areas, which sparked everybody’s interest and commitment. It inspired a lot of young people. Somehow or other, we’ve lost that. And maybe it’s because there are lots of opportunities in other directions that are exciting, but we need to refocus on that.

Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes, addressing lawmakers at a recent hearing: You’ve heard about shortages of welders. You’ve heard about shortages of truck drivers and construction workers. We also have a shortage of engineers. We have a shortage of basic scientists, particularly in the physical fields, chemistry and physics. We have a shortage of physicians, a shortage of pharmacists and we’re projecting a shortage of veterinarians who treat large animals. We have shortages in high skilled fields across the board.

Tom Luce, former United States Assistant Secretary of Education for Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development and current chairman of the National Math and Science Initiative: It’s not just a Texas problem. It’s really clear that it’s a national problem. We’re falling behind the rest of the world in math and science. Every test shows it. That catches up with you.

John Ellis Price, president of the University of North Texas at Dallas: In the areas of math and science, I believe [the U.S.] ranks somewhere around 31st and 23rd respectively, when we used to be No. 1 in both.

Rankin: These numbers are a disgrace, honestly. We wouldn’t tolerate it if it was one of our sports teams competing internationally. The whole country would be up in arms. The lifeblood of our country is innovation and the creation of new knowledge and technology.

Luce: This is more than just about the shortage of engineers and scientists, although that is also true. We are falling behind the world in highly skilled manufacturing jobs, all of which require workers to be STEM capable. We have about 3.5 million unfilled jobs in this country at a time of high unemployment because we don’t have enough skilled workers. If you want to be an automobile mechanic today, you’ve got to be computer literate. You have to read technical manuals. You have to be proficient in algebra. We just don’t have any jobs anymore that rely upon a strong back.

Steve Smith, interim vice president of instruction at El Paso Community College: It’s important to catch students well before they get to college to bring them in to the STEM fold. We’re reaching down into the eighth grade to pull students into our STEM program at our early college high school. We may need to go even earlier than that, but that seems to be a good point right now to get those students interested in STEM fields.

Zipkes: STEM, really, to me is not just math and science. It’s really about a pedagogical shift and how we actually teach students now. We need to come up with real world problems, authentic projects, hands on activities, where the students not only learn the content — that’s all we’re talking about these days is content, content, content. But the reality is, when I talk to my business partners — being from Manor, my business partners are the semiconductor companies — they are telling me what they need is not just content but they need individuals that know how to collaborate, how to problem solve with critical thinking, that have a strong work ethic, that know how to communicate both written and orally. These are stills that we have not taught.  When you talk about STEM education, you are talking about incorporating those 21st century skills in content that is integrated.

Paredes: We promoted, at a coordinating board meeting several years ago, a program called IGNITE, which combines science and math in the senior year into an applied course. Students actually learn how to build rockets — I’m not talking about firecrackers, I’m talking about rockets that go 1,000 or 2,000 feet in the air — with the idea that the students involved in this program, because it’s applied and practical and relevant, will think about careers in STEM. They can get involved in engineering technology. They can become engineers themselves or computer scientists or mathematicians, because they have to figure out how to use math to predict where the rocket will not only reach its maximum altitude but where it will fall, and they have to do sophisticated math to do that. We support those kinds of programs.

Smith: Although I would be hesitant to say it’s too late, it certainly is really late to catch them when they’re graduating from high school and try to get them into a STEM field. By that time, there’s so much remediation that needs to be done — in math especially — that for them to be able to catch up and become engineers or IT guys or computer science majors — those critical fields — it will take them two years to get caught up in math in order to even start their major.

Price: From my perspective, higher education has probably done a lousy job in articulating and explaining to young people the relevance of a college degree, because we haven’t connected the dots between a high quality education, a good job, and a good quality of life.

What we want to do [at UNT-Dallas] is have some degree programs in STEM disciplines that would allow our graduates to do internships in those areas, and we would join with the employers in those STEM fields to help shape the curriculum in terms of their workforce needs.

Rankin: I think we need a focus on how both state and federal education dollars are spent so that they are really effective in bringing about change. There’s a lot of money that’s spent with good intentions, but not really with a high impact.

Zipkes: The students we have today are not the students we had five years ago. Think about it. Five years ago, the iPhone was just invented. The students we have today do not know a world without technology. And yet, most schools are still teaching in the same way they have for the last 50 years. Students can get an answer faster than we can give them one. And it will even be more up to date. Teachers are no longer the keepers of knowledge. So, what we’ve got to do is create an environment where they want to be at school and at the same time embrace that outside blended learning.

Luce: We have a culture in this country that says, “Well, Johnny’s not good at math and science, so don’t make him do it.” We can’t afford this anymore. The world has changed.

Zipkes: If all we focus on, though, is math, math, math, science, science, science, I’m not going to get any students to my school. But I’ve got a 97.4 attendance rate. I can’t get them to go home. They don’t even know they are in a STEM school. They are in a project-based learning school, but at the same time, they are getting five math credits, six science credits, and two years of engineering. I like to call STEM at our program the invisible curriculum. Why aren’t more people doing it this way? The pressure of state tests, there’s no doubt. The pressure from districts to their teachers, saying you’ve got to get these scores, it’s got to be this, this, and this. You know, some people aren’t going to give that up for anything. You’ve got to step back and think, why are we doing this? It’s not for me. It’s for the kids. If you expect kids to sit there in a row and listen to you lecture, we’re going to lose half the kids. STEM is about closing those gaps and getting students excited.

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