Tuesday, February 2, 2016

How does a nation elevate STEM education by showcasing celebrations of science backstage?

Note: This blog was written in 2014 and appeared on the website "voicesinecho.com" Stay tuned for more on the subject of STEM.

There is no doubt that there is an educational ‘war’ occurring in the United States at the present moment. Advocates for and against educational reform are striking on every ‘medium’ at a moments notice. I am not here to argue or express my opinion over the ideology or implementation of ‘common core.’ In fact, as I have said to my family time and time again, I have not really sat down and read the current reform that goes along with the implementation of ‘common core.’ Partly, because I work at a University and am concerned with the students at that educational level. This is no excuse and in light of that, I can say that I will eventually get around to investigating the issues that are surrounding the contested reform.

What I am here to state in a rather succinct manner and with an example is the lack of elevation in the press that science gets. Particularly with respect to K-12 science education. Recently, I observed a blatant example of setting a celebration of science for K-12 educational outreach ‘backstage’ which contributes to our misguided values with respect toward science education as a society and world. There is no doubt that we are falling behind with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education with consequences that are growing by the year. The consequences of not improving the education that has direct ties to the generation of technology can be devastating to the United States national security and competitiveness in the ‘workforce development.’ Considering the timeline involved with a successful change in the educational system, there needs to be greater attention and dissemination of the value and importance of science through popular platforms (government, social media, news media, private industry, etc.). Below I elaborate on the last few sentences.

An Example of a STEM Celebration Failure

Recently, I was reading ‘the New York Times’ newspaper and realized that I had just observed a failure in highlighting the celebration of STEM education which was disappointing to say the least. I was flipping through the first section of the newspaper. Generally, the news is displayed in sections with the larges reaching news being reported in the “A section” followed by the subsections that are concentrated such as “B section”–Business and Sports, “C section”–movie and art, and “D section”–more art and entertainment, etc.. The last few sections after “C section” can vary in content in such discussions as the paper chooses depending on the day of the week. For instance on Tuesday, a “science section” appears which I enjoy and his hidden in the last of 4 sections of the newspaper and can easily be thrown out if the reader is either hurried or just interested in the first two sections which covers General News, Business, and Sports.

Anyways, I was flipping through the “A section” which usually has around 20-22 pages depending on the amount of stories in the news. I noticed in the back on page A16 down in the lower left corner was an article that took up around 1/6 of the page. The title of this small article was “Obama Meets Scientists, One Age 6″. In hindsight, I would say that the value matches the size of the allotted space on the page. In addition, in that small space was a large picture of the President holding a demonstration with a potential young scientist. At this point you might be wondering why I am dragging on about the layout of the page. Read on!! On the other half of the page was an obituary” of the famous architect Massimo Vignelli . The other one-third of the page was on the top left and was dedicated to a story titled “Red Sox Announcer’s Son Gets Life Term After Admitting to Girlfriend’s Murder”. If one examined the page, the direct observation of the importance of the article in relation to the others would be completely apparent. In no way am I stating that the other two topics were not relevant and needed attention. I was just surprised at the layout of the page–one could easily just skip over the little article that should be highlighted.

Here is a picture of a child dressed up gazing up at the President holding up a model.

Source: LA Times

The excitement of the child is very apparent and this moment could make or break that kid–meaning, here is a young mind that potentially change the world with an invention or a cure that was derived from his enthusiasm in science as a young scientist and fueled by meeting Our President. Here is an excerpt from the article in which the President himself discusses the importance of the celebratory event at the White House:

“As a society, we have to celebrate outstanding work by young people in science at least as much as we do Super Bowl winners,” the president said in the East Room, just a week after he met with the current Super Bowl champions, the Seattle Seahawks, at the White House. “Because superstar biologists and engineers and rocket scientists and robot builders, they don’t always get the attention that they deserve, but they’re what’s going to transform our society.”

This excerpt should be on the front page of the ‘New York Times’–not day after day–Donald Sterling’s (the ‘soon to be ousted’ owner of the LA Clippers basketball team). That story has merit as well, but not any more than this story I would argue. Further, last Friday, the ‘New York Times’ had a front page picture of a helicopter in a dark neighborhood in Puerto Rico that was barely visible with the caption “A police helicopter during a drug raid in Puerto Rico, where traffickers are routing cocaine headed for the Eastern Seaboard.” Where are the values being placed in this Country? Undoubtedly, the drug war is an issue along with racism in this Country. Did anyone ever think that possibly if these young kids were steered toward STEM education in hope that they might possibly be dissuaded from using drugs or engaging in nefarious behavior? If more parents and children were exposed to the words coming out of Our President’s mouth, I believe that this would definitely plant the idea in their minds of the value of STEM education that needs to be improved. With this being said, all is not bad on the educational front with regard to science being dispersed to a broader audience. There are efforts within the academic institutional setting seeking to broaden the awareness and importance of science in relation to profit margins in the business world–which is a good start. Listed below is an example of such expanding awareness of science outside the STEM community.

An Example of Incorporating STEM Education into the Business World

Last week, I was pleased to find out that a professor from Babson College–a small private college for business majors in Boston has integrated a course into their curriculum to draw awareness of the environmental issues that are of increasing importance to the planet. The article was out of the ‘Journal of College Science Teaching’ and is titled “Pitching Environmental Science to Business Majors: Engaging Students in Renewable Energy Choices”. Here is an excerpt highlighting the motivation of incorporating an exposure to science and environmental issues into the educational curriculum:

To be effective and innovative leaders today, business students must clearly understand and become engaged in science and, in particular, environmental science issues (Laprise, Winrich, & Sharpe, 2008; Lester & Rodgers, 2012). Historically, undergraduate business majors have been disconnected from science education; however, many business schools are now realizing the value of incorporating science, and especially environmental science (Charski, 2008; Laprise et al., 2008). A foundation in science is viewed as important for all career paths (Heindel, 1996), and inquiry is a necessary skill that often comes specifically from the language of science (Smith, 2003). Employers are beginning to recognize the importance of coupling managerial skills with scientific proficiency to succeed in a hightech world where misunderstanding the science behind a business model can result in a steep decline in profits (Hubbard, 2005). Within the business world at large, there is growing evidence and increasing acceptance that implementing environmental technology and sustainability practices are now the main drivers for current innovation and business success (Nidumolu, Prahalad, & Rangaswami, 2009).

Wonderful, there is now a growing awareness that understanding the importance of science in relation to sustainability has a direct tie toward profit margins. At least the message is being communicated in some manner. As a chemist, I look at the issue coming from the science standpoint. But, my brother-in-law, who is in business sees the issues at large from this standpoint. Therefore, we need institutions such as Babson College to play an instrumental role to bridge the gap between two opposing views of the issue at hand–Sustainability through greater awareness of science. The reader might be wondering how exactly is awareness implemented in the above described statement from Babson College. Here is another excerpt describing the class:

Designing active learning experiences that are both content driven and appealing for nonmajor science students often proves to be challenging. To address this within the first module of the course, I created a modified rocket pitch (similar to an elevator pitch), which is a short (2-3 minute) presentation designed to clearly explain a new business idea to a room full of investors. Instead of presenting a business idea, students were asked to “sell” the renewable energy choice they selected as the best option for the future to their peers with a goal of convincing the audience to switch to their energy type. In creating this activity, I combined two methods that have been proposed specifically for engaging business students in learning science. The first is to focus on scientific research that is specifically relevant for business opportunities, and the second is to teach scientific concepts using common business approaches, such as the development of a business plan (Lester & Rodgers, 2012; Letovsk√° & Banschbach, 2011; Levin & Montvilo, 1998). Renewable energy was chosen as the subject for this activity for two reasons: (a) green technologies provide a clear space for future entrepreneurial innovation and investment and (b) renewable energy has polled as the #1 topic of interest for students in this Environmental Technology course for the past 2 years.

This is brilliant!! Forcing students in business to become aware of the ability to sell science is great. When my wife first read over this paragraph, she was disappointed in the available time given to the students to present their work. This highlights that she is a scientist. She believes as I do that a scientist should have ample amount of time to explain his/her work to policy makers. Unfortunately though, if anyone has ever had any interaction with a business person, you have around 2-3 minutes of attention span. That is not to say that the person cannot focus. Scientists need to improve their skills of delivering the importance of their work in a succinct and brief amount of time. Too often a scientist will relish in the importance and drag on and on and on and on about their work–Big deal-Right! From what I have heard from professors who have been in the field for a while and have gone to talk to policy makers — Senators, Governors, local Politicians–the time frame for ‘pitching’ an idea is around 1-2 minutes. That is being gracious.

Understanding the above highlights the need to elevate the Scientist to be more descriptive to a general audience along with elevating the business person to be able to incorporate science into his/her ‘pitch’ of a proposal. In addition, the media and other avenues of dissemination of science knowledge need to join in and elevate the press attention to science. As a World, not just as a Nation, all of us need a greater exposure to the importance of the environmental issues that confront us along with the role that science plays in providing solutions. There is no solution that will solve the problem overnight. Each of us should feel motivated to contribute by becoming more aware of STEM education and the importance of science toward combating global environmental issues. Science should have an equal priority to any other issue that occupies the front page of the Nations most frequented Newspapers

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