As you may have already heard, Suzanne Deffree from EDNand I were both keynote speakers at the IEEE ISEC (Integrated STEM Education Conference) in Ewing, NJ, last week. Imagine my surprise at receiving the invitation to speak from IEEE PCJS SSCS Chair Nagi Naganathan back in January. All this time I had been living under the belief that the letters CEO, VP, or PhD needed to follow one’s name to do such a thing! But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I didn’t want to turn down this opportunity to share the new information I’ve learned about mentoring with a room full of really engaged academics. I tamped down my normal shyness and agreed.
Preparations were made and the big day finally arrived. Suzanne and I tooled from our hotel over to The College of New Jersey and followed the signs to ISEC and the co-located Trenton Computer Festival. We had met Susan Donoghue, General Co-Chair of the conference, and Allen Katz, President of The Trenton Computer Festival, at dinner the night before. Along with Nagi and Ashutosh Dutta, the other General Co-Chair, they gave us a warm welcome to the show and we were off and running. There were presentations of some absolutely incredible STEM programs going on right now and I promise to tell you about many of them in the next few weeks.
I chose to start off my keynote, titled “The Importance of Mentoring in STEM”, with a question to the standing-room-only group of academics: What would your ideal STEM program have? I expected to hear wishes for hardware, software, and myriad other learning tools. What these educators asked for was more collaboration and recognition of the importance of the science, technology, engineering, and math programs they teach.
Surprised and feeling more than a bit chastised, I filed this new info away and vowed to come back to it later. As I went on with the keynote, I shared thoughts from surveys, questionnaires, and discussions with educators, parents, and mentors on the state of technical education in US schools today. The gist of it was that, though our schools are working hard to provide students with engaging STEM programs, more needs to be done.
Some examples: When asked whether schools were doing enough to interest students in pursuing careers in electronics, Laurie Futterman, a Middle School Science Education teacher in Miami, FL, answered emphatically, “No way!! We need curriculum, specific coursework made available to middle school AND high school students. Get them hooked early.”
John Morgan, a very involved parent and engineer in Pennsylvania, felt that his local school was preparing students well, but said, “Due to budget issues, I can see changes occurring. I am fearful that by the time my youngest is in high school, the same opportunities will not be available that were available to my oldest.”
As an inspirational story of a teacher’s success despite many odds, I told of Brian Fuller’s discussion with Don Morgan and Don’s desire to show students that, without ideas and the technology to make them reality, we would all be “out in the yard cold, naked, and hungry.”
After describing the LED Challenges that I run on Innovation Generation, I shared my concern that, despite all the efforts technical adviser Jon Titus and I made to help the teams complete the Challenge successfully, some still were not able to finish. What was the difference between the teams who succeeded and those who didn’t?
You guessed it: Mentors. Partnerships with people like Wayne Rust, Bill Mars, and John Escobar seemed to be one big difference between a team that floundered and one where the students caught the engineering bug and really got excited about the electronics. Sure there were teachers who produced some amazing projects without mentors, but they seemed to be the inspired exception to the rule.
So, how could these teachers find mentors for electronics programs? Parents are a good place to start. Another way is contacting local colleges and universities. One teacher I interviewed had had the terrific idea of contacting the IEEE student chapter of a nearby college. Companies are also becoming more and more willing to lend assistance to local schools. And retired professionals are a great source of knowledge.
With partnerships between the engineering community and educators, STEM programs can continue to be vibrant and perhaps even manage to provide the tools teachers and students need but are not always able to get through traditional methods.
As Doug Ripka, an Engineering Technology Instructor in Pennsylvania, says, “One teacher can do STEM, yes, but when you bring in people with different strengths, different backgrounds and different specialties and get that teamwork, I think you get a better quality of STEM.”
I’ve talked to the teachers, now my message to the engineering community is: Jump in! If someone from your local school asks for help, by all means say “yes!” Get out there, volunteer, engage, encourage, inspire. The next generation is in school now: Share the buzz you get from electronics – I guarantee that it’s contagious.
I took a lot of geology while an undergraduate. Some of the most fun I had was going to local schools and talking to young people about rocks when they got to that part in their curriculum. I made this observation (from the mid-eighties):
The 4th-graders were very enthusiastic, highly participatory, and a joy to be around. They even wrote thank-you notes, and I still have those.
The 6th-graders lounged back in their chairs, rolled their eyes, kept quiet, eschewed participation of any kind, and wrote no notes. I only did one of those and felt absolutely no desire to do another one...
So I totally agree about the target age, and that hormones and cynicism (I fear the latter more than the former, though) kick in and actively interfere with sharing the excitement.
But, about the working together vs STEM parts...they need to be worked out at the same time. Current STEM people cannot afford to bootstrap STEM for 10 years, waiting for changed attitudes to percolate all around. Valid solutions require concurrent development, so to speak.
Why is it that some people can only think of covering their own butts? Better STEM education is about far more than "engineering labor". People who have a general understanding of science, technology, and math are less likely to be swindled by technobabble. Politicians who understand it are more likely to make good decisions for our countries future. Manual labor and manufacturing jobs are disappearing, minimum wage and technical jobs are growing (which would you rather have). Researchers develop the knowledge that provides tomorrow's technology and therefore tomorrow's new jobs. The more researchers, the better. That is an issue of both supply and demand. There aren't enough of them AND we aren't trying to allocate enough resources to acquire them. Industry seems to be about a better month end report. STEM is about a better future. Do you want your grandchildren to have good jobs or to live in the largest third world country in the world? Improving STEM is about them, not us!
Education and working together fueled the boom of the 50s - 70s. STEM is the education part, for the next boom. We also need to figure out the working together part, or the class divide will tear it apart. But that is a separate piece, not a flaw in STEM.
And we are not starting early enough. Middle school is too late. By that time, the hormones and cynicism are kicking in and efforts to get kids interested will meet the "get real" response. We need to get them interested in 3-5 grade. Maybe they won't all become engineers or scientists. In fact, who would want them to. But a policy maker who can see the potential, and knows good science from bad, is every bit as valuable as the next Einstein.
And good STEM education will make BOTH of them.
Why do we have to push people into science and engineering while law schools and other professions have to set limits to keep their population down? Why is that few engineers stay as hands-on engineers for their full career when lawyers and doctors commonly do so? Clearly this action to promote engineering benefit Government and Industry to supply cheap, disposable engineering labor.
Join our online Radio Show on Friday 11th July starting at 2:00pm Eastern, when EETimes editor of all things fun and interesting, Max Maxfield, and embedded systems expert, Jack Ganssle, will debate as to just what is, and is not, and embedded system.