This article presents the discussion on challenges, triumphs, and contradictions that were on display at Critical Thinking, Critical Choices: What Really Matters in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The forum focused on middle school, where students become teenagers and develop many of the interests and attitudes that will guide their life choices. This makes middle school a critical time for STEM educators. Critical Thinking, Critical Choices 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. Unlike typical conference sessions, the panellists’ opinions were challenged by other panellists and the moderator, Peabody and Emmy Award-winning journalist John Hockenberry. The conversation ranged from how to serve disadvantaged communities and the role of testing versus project-based learning to the contentious Common Core and Next-Generation Science Standards.
Innovation drives the American Economy, creating new Technologies, new jobs, and entirely new industries. Education in science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics-what Educators refer to as stem-drives Innovation. That means getting stem Education right is one of the most important tasks facing the U.S.
With stakes so high, it's not surprising that STEM education has become a battle-ground of ideas and philosophies. Whether it's the qualifications of the teachers, the emphasis of the curriculum, or the resources devoted to the field, hardly anyone agrees on how—or even whether—to make changes. Some experts even suggest that there are so many technically trained graduates that some may never get a good job.
These challenges, triumphs, and contradictions were on display at Critical Thinking, Critical Choices: What Really Matters in STEM, a far-ranging discussion that featured 12 leaders in STEM education.
The forum focused on middle school, where students become teenagers and develop many of the interests and attitudes that will guide their life choices. This makes middle school a critical time for STEM educators.
The April 23 event kicked off the U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference in Washington, D.C.
Critical Thinking, Critical Choices 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.
Noted education experts such as Boston Museum of Science president Ioannis Miaoulis, former Vermont governor James Douglas, Girlstart executive director Tamara Hudgins, Wilson Foundation president Arthur Levine, National GEM Consortium executive director Michele Lezama, and award-winning journalist Pat Wingert participated in the event.
The conversation ranged from how to serve disadvantaged communities and the role of testing versus project-based learning to the contentious Common Core and Next-Generation Science Standards.
Unlike typical conference sessions, the panelists’ opinions were challenged by other panelists and the moderator, Peabody and Emmy Award-winning journalist John Hockenberry. His pointed questions kept the heat on the panelists, forcing them to justify their answers and spell out the tradeoffs their choices entailed.
The following six pages provide selections from the two-hour discussion. ASME.org is broadcasting the forum online at www.go.asme/dialogues.
Kenneth Williams Teacher, Oxon Hill Middle School, Fort Washington, MD: One of the big problems that I had as a former math teacher was that before I even got an opportunity to introduce myself, the mother is already apologizing because she had poor success in mathematics. This gives automatically gives the child standing next to her a reason not to perform to my standards, because he comes from a long line of math illiterates.
Hockenberry: What do you do about that?
Williams: I have to engage him where he is at. So if basketball is his thing, I may even go to the gym, ask him to shoot 10 foul shots, and begin to talk about mean, median, and mode, or why his shot goes higher if he holds his arm differently. I also have to give some support to the mom. We have programs to help his mom learn math. I am not expecting Derek to become Isaac Newton, but I want him to have more confidence in his mathematics.
Madiha Kotb ASME Past President: Getting good grades is not enough. You have to have a passion for it. And you will, when you hear all the good things engineers do and all the differences we make in people's life. Danica, I see the excitement in your eyes. Why don’t you come and spend a day with me at work? You will see what my life is like. We touch so many different things. I’m a mechanical engineer and I have done more in my life than I could ever imagine doing. Give it a chance. Be open minded.
Hal Salzman Professor of Public Policy, Rutgers University: I think we are pushing all of these kids into STEM, thinking that there is a career option. It's great to be scientifically literate. But if we think it's because there is a job market out there, we are deluding ourselves and doing a disservice to all of us who want to see strong STEM education.
Hockenberry: Wait a minute. There is no STEM crisis? No urgency?
Salzman: We are not lacking for STEM graduates or STEM workers in this country. It is quite the opposite, particularly at the higher levels. In life sciences, it has become a lottery to get a job. Maybe 20 percent of Ph.D.s in biology are getting good job opportunities. Most of them are not going to get the kind of job they all hope for.
We need to think about our goals. Is there really a great payoff in the job market? For some kids, there is. For most of them, there probably isn’t. So we have to think about STEM for a different reason. Why do we want STEM?
Arthur Levine President, Woodrow Wilson Foundation: I think there are probably four things we should expect from STEM education. First, we speak two languages in this country and around the world, one words and the other numbers. Everybody must be fluent in numbers. Second, as citizens in a democracy, we will need science to achieve a fundamental understanding of all kinds of public issues coming our way.
Third, there is a whole set of mid-level jobs, not engineers and scientists, but sub-engineers and sub-scientists, that will require STEM skills. And finally, if we are going to remain competitive in this world, we need a critical mass of industry and a critical mass of labor to fill the jobs in that industry.
Ioannis Miaoulis President And Director, Boston Museum Of Science: The science curriculum focuses almost entirely on the natural world. And if we look at the world around us, I would argue that it is mostly engineering.
Why is engineering not part of the regular curriculum? The U.S. curriculum we teach today was decided in 1893 by the Committee of 10 at Harvard University. They left engineering out because, in 1893, most engineering was agricultural engineering and kids grew up on farms and were learning it at home.
So they issued the report and the curriculum has never been touched. So now, kids spend endless time learning how many legs a grasshopper has, but they have no clue how a faucet works, how a car runs, or how a plane flies. I would turn the whole science curriculum upside down, introduce engineering as a core discipline, and teach it from first grade all the way up to high school.
Regis Matzie Chief Technology Officer (Retired), Westinghouse: I think many students don’t see the relevancy of some of the things they are studying. So it is important for teachers to show the relevancy of math or science by applying it to something their students deal with or play with or see every day. I think that relevancy can inspire students.
Mark Conner Director of Online Engineering and Engineering Academies, Hoover (ALA.) High School: So let me bring in an air of cynicism to this. What if the reason is that teachers don’t know how to answer the question, “When will we ever use this?” I would contend that they are a large percentage of our teaching population. They can’t bring relevance because they have never been outside of the education silo. They came through our public education system. They got an education degree. Then they went back into the public education system.
Matzie: I think we need to reach out for other resources, people from industry, parents with experience, curriculum specialists. We could bring in a bunch of resources.
Hockenberry: What technology would you buy for your school?
Tamara Hudgins Executive Director, Girlstart: A 3-D printer. First, because it is amazing to make stuff. Second, it is amazing to have the experience of getting a really great idea with a friend—a cruise ship or a Hogwarts location —creating it on paper, and then taking it into a virtual environment and seeing that idea manifest. Most children, and most adults, I would submit, find it challenging to put what is in their mind into physical reality. When you see 3-D printing make manifest someone's ideas, it is really exciting.
Miaoulis: Absolutely, I would invest in a 3-D printer, but also in a small engineering laboratory that includes other things. Greenwich Academy, a private girl's school in Connecticut, has one, and there are three times more girls trying to get into it than the laboratory can handle. I would like to see engineering be that big in all schools.
“The Common Core is Trying to Emulate What Successful Countries do, Taking Our Time and Developing a Much Deeper Understanding.”
Pat Wingert Journalist, Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media: I think that there is a misconception that in Singapore, the kids are sitting there and teachers are just shoving information into them. In reality, in Japan, in Singapore and Taiwan, when they teach math, they give those kids an everyday problem. Then the teacher basically leaves them alone for half an hour and lets them struggle with the solution. They will try this and try 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.
Most of us can remember our own math class. The teacher gave us maybe one or two minutes, then jumped in and said, “Here is the trick to getting it fast.” Were you emotionally invested? No. Do you even remember that trick? No. The Common Core is trying to emulate what successful countries do, taking our time and developing a much deeper understanding.
Hockenberry: Arthur, imagine you’re an engineer and STEM teacher whose wife lost her job. You have a job offer that pays almost twice your teacher's salary. Commiserate with Mark.
Levine: I can’t afford to keep this job. The longer I do it, the lower my salary when compared to people with the same credentials. I have a mortgage. I want to send my kids to college. I like doing this a lot, but I can’t afford to keep doing it.
Conner: I feel your pain, but this is reality. Reality is that there is nothing you can do as a teacher to bump your pay up. You don’t get paid more for doing a better job. Once you hit a certain point in your career, your salary actually decreases. Not relative to everybody else, but to what you made last year.
Hockenberry: What do you say to try to keep him?
Conner: I don’t, because I have children and a wife. If I can’t support them, it doesn’t matter how much I love it.
Hockenberry: Governor, would you sign a bill that paid teachers a lot more?
James Douglas Governor of Vermont (2003-2011): It depends on what else was in it.
Hockenberry: That's all that is in the bill.
Douglas: Our state has one of America's highest property tax burdens. We have a declining student population. Budgets are going up. There are lots of other moving parts.
Hockenberry: What about a bill to pay STEM teachers more?
Douglas: I would like to do it. But there has to be cost controls on the total cost of public education. It is out of control in our state.
Hockenberry: Not hearing a radical shift in the endorsement of the teaching profession, Arthur?
Levine: No. I don’t know if a governor around the country these days isn’t talking about economic development being tied entirely to education. STEM is at the center, but that hasn’t resulted in dramatically different policies.
Michele Lezama Executive Director, National Gem Consortium: The reality in 2014 is that if I am a middle school parent and I want access to a top public school, I have to make sure that my child scores high on the entrance exam. Period. End of story.
Look at New York City's specialized schools. Their students are more than 60 percent Asian, 33 percent white, and 2 percent black and Latino, right? Yet the school district is 50 percent historically underrepresented groups. Those schools are filled by populations that invest in test preparation.
Ancillary programs that teach to the test are the way to gain access. This is happening around the country. And to get into a top university, my child needs a certain score on the ACT or SAT, right? They have to have at least a four or five on their AP just to have access to the level of rigor they need in order to be competitive and get a job.
Irene Neequaye Graduate Student, George Washington University School Of Public Health And Health Services: We should remember that teachers need support, too. You can start by paying teachers more and giving them better resources so they can take their classes on field trips and bring better gadgets into the school.
Another thing: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a program that prepares science students to go into education and be a good science teacher. You stay an extra year, but it is worth it. You are not just saying, “I am good at science, so I am going to do Teach for America and go into an inner city school even though I don’t know how to be a teacher. And then I get in there and I get frustrated because the school system doesn’t really care about science.”
We need to really decide as a country that are we going to make STEM important. If we all decide that, we can definitely do it.