Reflections on STEM education in US: Have we lost our focus as a nation?

Moon Landing

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

President John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962, at Rice University, Houston, Texas


President Kennedy’s challenge to the United States helped launch our nation into one of the most exciting seasons of growth in science, engineering, and technology.   This was a season of bold national leadership.    As a young American citizen, I am proud to live in one of the greatest nations on earth.   Why?   It’s a nation where people can dream big and make it happen.

In 1969, the United States landed on the moon.    In 2013, how is the United States leading the world in science, technology, engineering and math(STEM)?    What is our bold national mission that captures our imagination and challenges us to become better people?

Last night, I had the great pleasure of attending a panel discussion hosted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) of Atlanta.    The panel explored our national challenge of inspiring young people to become great US  scientists, engineers, and technologists.    Yes, We still have US based innovators like Google, Microsoft, and Apple.        The US, however, can expect to lag behind other nations in innovation and technology because we have failed to inspire the next generation to care about our craft of science and engineering.   This issue has a direct local impact on stimulating job growth and our economy.

The STEM education panel included thoughtful community leaders from Middle GA.

  • Dr. Wade Shaw – Dean of College of Engineering, Mercer University / Academic Perspective
  • Joe Marks – Director Material Systems, TIMCO / Local Industry Perspective
  • Maj. Gen. (Ret) Bob McMahon – CEO, 21st Century Partnership / Military Perspective
  • Melissa Spalding – Director of Education, Museum of Aviation, Warner Robins / Non Profit STEM Proponent Perspective
  • Dr. Gilda Lyon – GA Dept. of Education, STEM Coordinator / Academic Perspective

So, how do we inspire young people to care about STEM education?   Why should they care?   I wanted to share some of the key insights I took from the panel.

  • Where are our heroes?  General McMahon challenged our nation to find people who can be heroes in science and technology.    In 1969, astronauts were seen as mentors and role models for generations of US innovators, scientists, and technologists.   Who are the great role models for students today?
  • How can industry support STEM education? On average, students do not feel that science/engineering is “trendy” or cool.  In some cases, students fear the responsibilities associated with STEM skills.  The panel encouraged industry to partner with local schools or youth mentoring organizations.   Ideas discussed included shadow programs or speaking in local schools.   Young people need scientists, engineers, and technologists from their community to be mentors.
  • Attack the STEM education issue from an emotional point of view: Dr. Shaw made a great comment about engineering marketing.   As we market our craft of engineering to others, we often focus on the “widgets” that we build.    Look at the cool “X” we built!  Don’t you want to do this too?    Dr. Shaw suggested that we need to help young people see the profound social impact engineers and scientists have on ALL aspects of our lives.   We need to communicate to our nation that STEM education can have profound positive impacts on our communities.
  • Inspire young people early and often:  Melissa Spalding suggested that a key time to inspire young people is not college or high school.    We need to inspire students to consider STEM education as early as 4th grade to middle school.   These are critical times when students start to decide what they will enjoy in their life time.
  • Project based learning and simulation:   Melissa challenged teachers to inspire students using simulation and project based learning.    What if students could pretend to be engineers and scientists?   The panel acknowledged that the average teacher would be challenged by this goal since teachers are experts at teaching and not a technical craft.   I believe this is why great collaboration between industry and institutions of education is critical.   How can scientists and engineers support our teachers/students with fun and engaging learning experiences or simulations?
I love General McMahon’s central question during this discussion:  “Have we lost our focus as a nation?”  How do we encourage the type of leadership that encourages our students, teachers, and nation to thrive?
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