Let's talk to each other about STEM

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In early December a conference was held  at John Jay College in New York entitled “The  STEM Education Summit, Future of NYC Jobs with Key Business Leaders & Noted Experts,” an annual event presented by U.S. News and World Report and publisher Mort Zuckerman. The conference featured a who’s who of corporate America including Mort Zuckerman, Eric Schmidt from Google and a number of senior university administrators who focused on why American students are not qualified for the 21st Century job market. The accepted wisdom is that these jobs require workers who can solve problems and make products using skills in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Attendees report a fascinating set of conversations and interestingly that there were notably few teachers in the audience.

That same week, in a meeting room at Pace University in New York, a group of the top STEM educators from public middle schools and high schools gathered to talk about the challenges they face as STEM educators. They teach math and science in under-resourced classrooms and nonexistent labs, frequently to students for whom mathematics is a bewildering foreign language. These are teachers who are among the best in the business; in many cases lab trained scientists themselves, educated at top universities, passionate about science and math, often having left more lucrative positions in the corporate world because of their desire to make a difference in American classrooms.

All three groups agree on the severity of the crisis and its root causes. After all, STEM angst has a long history in our national dialogue and we have become very adept at pointing out the very notable shortcomings of our students, our schools and our long-term prospects as a nation of scientific innovators when benchmarked against the educational systems in other countries. Math is the underlying language of the STEM disciplines, as well as of business, and a generation that doesn’t get math puts the United States at a serious disadvantage.

Notably, these conversations between employers, teachers and legislators took place in the silos where they always do; think tanks, hearing rooms and hotel conference centers. Each group is justifiably concerned because, as leaders, they are being held accountable for reaching goals for which they don’t have the necessary tools. There is a lack of resources for teaching, training and, perhaps most importantly, for inspiring a generation – and an emerging workforce – that is widely perceived to ‘just not get’ math and science.

While the teachers in the STEM Collaboratory session at Pace University described challenges that would make less committed individuals give up, they also described many opportunities to inspire students in their classroom. Identifying those sources of inspiration can only be achieved by transforming the conversation from a focus on the problems with STEM education and American K – 12 students to one on the possibilities for success. That conversation will only occur when all of the stakeholders, industry, educators and legislators leave the silos where old, tired conversations on the problems with STEM take place and are moved to a new environment where new contexts for success can be envisioned and developed.

The STEM Center Collaboratory at Pace University in New York has been conceived as a place where inner city K-12 educators, Pace University professors, industry executives and practitioners, with state, local and national officials can establish a sustainable dialogue that conceptualizes and applies new techniques and theories that will improve the STEM education experience for students, teachers and parents. Improving students’ skills and comfort with mathematics, the foundation of all STEM disciplines, is a key part of this endeavor. Making science topical, approachable, applicable, innovative and exciting and even cool is the other key aspect of this project.

Ultimately, a nation where a renewed appreciation for the time on task and detail-oriented work that is scientific experimentation – estimating, testing, trial and error, picking ourselves up after an experiment fails and relishing the accomplishment of a hypothesis successfully tested will be a benefit to the American discourse.

Birney is the director and Hill is the co-director of the STEM Center Collaboratory at Pace University in New York City.