How Will You Help Create the Next Generation of STEM Professionals?

With thanks to Bright Elementary School teacher Catherine Hardt for weighing in on the importance of this topic, I want continue by giving a rather startling glimpse of how big the challenge will be to respond to the title question.  In fact, perhaps we can’t answer that question until we have an idea of what it actually takes to produce a single STEM professional, in this case a research scientist, at the end of a long educational process.  Here is Norman Augustine again in Is American Falling Off the Flat Earth?:

“We, of course, did not get into our intensifying plight overnight. Correspondingly, if we should fall decisively behind the leaders of the rest of the world, particularly in the prosperity drivers of science and engineering, it will take decades to catch up, if it is possible to do so at all. Consider the matter of producing one additional research scientist who can help to generate the knowledge from which future innovation and jobs will spring. Rather convincing empirical evidence suggests that most children who are ‘turned off’ by mathematics and science have already arrived at that conclusion by the time they are in fourth grade. The die is usually cast by a teacher who finds teaching science and mathematics an unwelcome and intimidating burden or by a parent with a disinterest in or disdain for these fields.

One of the unusual characteristics of a technical education is that by eighth grade a student must most often decide whether to preserve the option to pursue such a career, for example, in science or engineering, by deciding whether or not to take algebra to be prepared for higher-level science and mathematics courses in high school. That is in distinct contrast with the decisions faced by those who might wish to preserve the option to become lawyers, bankers, accountants, or medical doctors. The reason for the disparity is the hierarchic nature of an education in mathematics that serves as the foundation of science and engineering. One cannot usefully study trigonometry until one has mastered algebra . . . one cannot study calculus until one has learned something of trigonometry… and one cannot study differential equations until one has studied calculus. So fundamental is mathematics that it is in essence the language of science and engineering.

Assuming that a person has completed the requisite courses during 4 years in high school and has successfully completed 4 years of undergraduate work (the average for engineers is now closer to 6 years), the person is prepared to begin a 6- or 7-year pursuit of a PhD, after which a creative research career can presumably begin. A few more years may in many cases be devoted to postdoctoral endeavors.

As one might suspect, there is a great deal of leakage along that extended educational highway. To begin with, about one-third of U.S. eighth graders do not receive a high-school diploma. And of those who do, about 40% do not go on to college. About half who begin college do not receive a bachelor’s degree. Of those who do receive such a degree, two-thirds will not be in science or engineering. And of those who are U.S. citizens and do receive degrees in either science or engineering, only about 1 in 10 will become candidates for a doctoral degree in those fields. And over half the doctoral candidates drop out before being awarded a PhD.”

“The point is that it takes a lot of third-graders to produce one contributing research scientist or engineer and a very long time to do it.”

And the path begins in primary school!

Without teachers who have the background and excitement about science, children don’t have the wealth of intriguing experiments that can be conducted in a science class, nor do they pick up the real-world applications in science and math. They never get to see themselves as future scientists and mathematicians and engineers.

We owe it to them and to ourselves as Americans to cultivate our own knowledge and excitement for these fields, so that our students have the opportunity to do the same. But I’m betting that iTEAMchicago teachers already have both and are well on their way to acquiring more of that good stuff through their passion for inquiry and their dedication to their students.  Some have already expanded beyond our program to pick up additional professional development in science since the start of this current school year.  Talk about “the right stuff!”

Teachers, you are the key. The need for your skills, your knowledge and your commitment has never been greater! And the rest of us need to provide you with whatever you require to ignite the spark in kids that will help them become the future scientists, technology innovators, engineers and mathematicians they have the innate curiosity and talent to become, given half a chance.

So, I’ll ask again . . . what challenges, teachers, do you face in creating those STEM inspired kids?  And how can we help you and help each other achieve success in this critical endeavor?

~ Penny


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