Jul 7, 2013

Coming Around Again--This Time With STEM

Now that my stint at St. Kate's National Center for STEM Elementary Education is over, I'm able to focus on the doing rather than the administrating again! .

Every 4th of July, I like to watch 1776 to remember the circumstances regarding the birth of our nation. Yes, I know it is a dramatized version of the events (with some artistic license since I'm pretty sure that all members of the Continental Congress were not great singers and dancers); however, I am always amazed at how the desire to define a new nation pulled together folks from different classes, perspectives, and walks of life.

An interviewer recently reminded me that we are at a similar juncture today regarding STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). So many are united on the importance of STEM for the people in the United States.They also seem to agree that in order to be competitive and "keep jobs in America," solutions need to tap into the potential of all our individuals whether they come from rural or urban areas, from working class or academic families, or from the myriad of races, genders,and ethnicity.

In true American fashion, the progress has been rather federalist in nature: solutions are seasoned by local, state, or national perspectives. The good news is that government is working with industry and small business, as well as communities. With all hands on deck, there is a good chance of success.

If my personal experiences and endeavors are any indication, we seem to be deepening the general endeavor to create an educated citizenry, but this time, we are aiming for a STEM-educated one to complement the literacy and civic one that was the aim of our educational forerunners. I intend to provide affordable and useful resources as my contribution to the effort.

Pattern finding with shapes is
a part of mathematical development
Republican Motherhood was the movement in the very early days of the United States to ensure that girls were educated as needed to raise future (male) citizens. Having them educated in more heady topics such as literature, the arts, and mathematics (compared to manners and deportment) would ensure that they could prepare their children to be the leaders of the republic's future.

The idea that a child's education starts early is a key part of today's STEM movement as evidenced by the National Center for STEM Elementary Education and organizations like Talent Management Alliance (TMA) who asked me to present "Opening the Pipeline: The Impact of Starting STEM Early" in their August summit to address what can be done even before children enter kindergarten.
  • Early STEM is a webinar series that I will be releasing soon for early childhood teachers and proactive parents who want to develop the traits that create the foundation of STEM professionals. The good news? Most good early educational practices already do this. The webinars will point out the STEM-aspects of these and give tips on how to provide more growth opportunities.

Horace Mann was Massachusetts Secretary of Education in the 1800's and led educational reform with two main concepts: The "common school" which had all students learn similar topics (thus creating equal access to them) and the "normal school" which prepared teachers to teach students on those topics.

Today, many STEM innovators, including advisers to the White House, realize the power of preparing teachers in STEM. The impact of a single teacher teaching STEM well can extend to many more children throughout that person's career. Because teachers are the front line for identifying and preparing STEM potential, I decided my keynote speech for the Minnesota Independent School Forum (MISF)'s STEM Teacher Seminar would be "Tips for STEM Talent Scouts Like You," using the 8 traits outlined in my book, Engineering for the Uninitiated. Dedicated teachers get the importance of STEM; now they need practical tools to do what they do so well.
  • Besides creating a revised edition of Engineering for the Uninitiated and continuing this blog, I will be coming out with the STEM. Literature. Life. curriculum. Inspired by my literacy colleagues and the interest in GoldiBlox, I am finally putting together STEM lessons that relate to popular classic and modern books used in schools today. STEM is not an add on, but is a part of real life (see No broccoli in my brownies, please). Little House in the Big Woods will be the flagship classic book, and the first modern one will likely be The Hunger Games. Brief lesson outlines aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) will be provided along with webinars explaining more of the lesson in detail. 

The creation of land-grant universities in the latter part of the 19th century was a way that labor unions felt they could better themselves while leveraging their hands-on skills. As a result, these public universities specialized in "the teaching of practical agriculture, science, military science, and engineering" as opposed to the more abstract curriculum of the liberal arts institutions. In a way, this was the start of the STEM-specific education movement.

And the job is not yet done, even at the college level. A recent survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media's Marketplace showed that while Science/Technology employers greatly valued public universities, they felt the job applicants were "lacking most in written and oral communication skills, adaptability and managing multiple priorities, and making decisions and problem solving." With over half of all employers saying they couldn't find qualified candidates for the openings, a change is needed in the land-grant institutions (at least) to provide the practical education needed to make all its students more employable.

In STEM, I have found that well-designed projects are good ways to develop skills like project management, team skills, or communication with non-technical audiences; however, they also need to be taught. Not teaching them but creating a situation that requires them sets students up for frustration or even failure, with only those who developed them elsewhere to succeed.

I have seen this frustration in students' faces when they muster the courage in conventions like the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) or the Grace Hopper Convention (GHC)to ask the panel of successful VPs how to manage difficult team situations. I also saw it in future employers when I participated in a post-semester Senior Design meeting.
  • Based on my years of teaching computer science and engineering students projects and the requisite soft skills, the webinar series, Expected But Not Taught: Soft Skills in a STEM World, will be for proactive students who want to develop these for both their sanity and their success. The first webinar will be "Team Triage: What to Do When You Sense Disaster" and will move to more positive topics like "Project Management Basics", "Preparing a 6-minute Update" and "Creating Your Job Portfolio." Students I taught who are now in both start ups and Fortune 500 companies indicated that these skills were what got them their jobs, despite the tight job market.

With the retro feel of these initiatives, some may feel jaded, believing that going down the same road in our educational system. I like to think of the work as I do engineering projects: We are just iterating to a better solution.

Watch this blog for notifications on when these resources become available.