Today I attended the "Igniting Young Minds Through Space" Symposium at SciQuest, a hands-on science museum in Huntsville, Alabama. The purpose of the event was to bring together educators, students, members of industry, and others to discuss what can be done to increase the number of students studying science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects, thereby improving the "pipeline" for STEM careers in Northern Alabama. I was there on my own as a writer/blogger and guest of IronSclad Solutions, Inc. (My thanks to Jeff Irons for getting me in the door).
The Importance of Science and Technology in Culture and Education
The plenary session was moderated by Steve Cook, former Ares Projects Manager and now Director of Sapce Technologies at Dynetics. Panel members included Todd May, assistant to Marshall Space Flight Center Robert Lightfoot; Dr. Doug Deason from the Missile Defense Agency; Brenda Terry, Executive Director of the Alabama Mathematics, Science, Technology, and Education Coalition (AMSTEC); Tim Pickens, Chief Propulsion Engineer and Commercial Space Consultant for Dynetics; Dan Satterfield, Meteorologist for WHNT News 19 and environmental science teacher at Calhoun Community College; and Jim Halsell, former astronaut and now an ATK executive.
Cook introduced the plenary session by focusing on how Huntsville is affected by STEM. While Huntsville has a well-deserved reputation for being the "Rocket City," it is also home to military technology firms, medical technology, and others. As I've lamented many times on this blog and on Science Cheerleader.com, U.S. leadership in STEM disciplines is falling behind and in some cases already has been surpassed. One of the introductory speakers at this event noted that around 50 percent of the economic growth in this country comes out of STEM. So why aren't students flocking to these types of high-demand, high-paying careers? And more importantly, what can we do about it? This was the topic of the all-day event, and the emphasis was on problem solving. The top two fastest-growing careers in the nation right now are STEM related (biomedical engineering and environmental engineering). By 2025, Cook said that Northern Alabama would have a 20,000-person shortfall in STEM professionals of all stripes. He said this was unacceptable and that "we need to keep the pipeline filled."
The first question put to the panel was "When did you know you wanted to work in a STEM field?" Most of the panelists mentioned experiences they'd had with their parents, ranging from flying aircraft to doing projects at home to experiences at school. All of them seemed to agree with the notion that you should "do what you love," and that the money would come from there. These personal experiences all led to the panel speakers applying themselves more seriously to learning STEM subjects. Dan Satterfield had a good point, which he repeated more than once during the day: "The nation needs citizens who are technologically and scientifically literate." Exactly the point Dar and I stress in our work.
The plenary panelists were also asked why they thought there was a lack of interest in STEM among students and what might be done to change the culture in that direction. One message that came through loud and clear was that "we need to reevaluate our priorities." For instance, if a state tells its students that STEM is important but then pays a football coach more than it pays the governor, that's a problem. Other nations are not making this mistake. Pickens noted that a purely academic solution isn't necessarily the answer. Students are more engaged when they're "making stuff." There was a lot of concern expressed about the competitive nature of schooling today and how kids can be overscheduled and focused on obtaining edges in specific activities (e.g. sports) to the detriment of inquiry and creativity. "There's more to life than book work," said Cook, quoting his father. One report cited during the discussion was A Nation at Risk, which came out in 1993, and which articulated many problems that are still prevalent today. There was also some discussion about the pressures teachers face to "teach to tests." Teachers also require professional development opportunities and access to hands-on and online STEM resources for the classroom.
Opening things up to written questions from the floor, Jim Halsell was asked how much of what he learned in college he still uses. He replied that he uses a significant amount, though the content has changed. Over his career, he's shifted from a learner (student) to a "doer" (engineer/astronaut) to a manager. He emphasized the importance of communication skills: "You can be the smartest person in the room, but if you don't have the communication skills, you're the same as the least-important person in the room."
Cook asked one of my questions for Brenda Terry, which was "Do you have the opportunity to relate technology literacy to basic civics?" Terry thought that was important, along with communication skills. Basic aptitude tests focus on math, science, and English. History is important for knowing why things happen. "Everything should be tied together as much as possible." This didn't quite answer my question, so I talked to Ms. Terry afterward to explain what I was looking for, which were resources for explaining why citizens need technological literacy. She referred me to the National Center for Technological Literacy, which is an initiative of the Museum of Science in Boston. She also suggested I check out the National Academies and the National Academies Press.
Someone asked Dan Satterfield how he overcame his aversion to math. He said he found math "elegant" and that it was "the language of science."
When specific hands-on STEM learning opportunities were asked about, Pickens suggested Science Olympiad and the FIRST Robotics competition, as well as reading Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and Make Magazine. Satterfield noted that a group of graduate students created their own project when WHNT wanted to know if their new radar could pick up debris from tornadoes. They dropped trash from a balloon in front of one of the radars and developed an algorithm to detect the debris. Pickens also mentioned that sometimes educators need to reach students in their own environment. For example, he developed a way to control a rocket using an Xbox controller, which is already familiar to most young people.
The plenary panel ended with a question from Cook: "Who would be more successful in a STEM career: someone who's formally educated or someone who's naturally curious?" All of the speakers agreed that both traits were useful and necessary. Academic training provides the grounding to do the serious work, while curiosity leads to inquiry and innovation.
During lunch I sat across from the speaker, Steve Heard, Executive Producer from The Futures Channel, which produced an excellent series on the Ares Projects here at Marshall. I told him why I was there and what some of my interests were (specifically, technological literacy for informed citizenship). He referred me to author Greg Pearson, who wrote Why All Americans Need to Know More About Technology. This pairs nicely with Dar's "Science Makeover," which was based on the book Why Science? So I have more reading ahead! : /
During his talk, Heard showed a rapid-fire montage of video clips from the various careers The Futures Channel have covered. He described TFC's mission as answering the question, "Why do I need to learn this stuff?" The common denominator for all of the jobs profiled was STEM, and they ranged from food science to design to space exploration. The point of the video profiles is to get the viewer to say, "I can do that!" Last year, over five million students are estimated to have viewed TFC videos.
Connecting Space with Education and Culture
The symposium had three breakout sessions. I decided to go with "Connecting Space with Education and Culture." The participants in this panel included Satterfield, Heard, Dr. John Olson, President of Athens Bible School, Steve Moseley, an 8th grade science teacher from Monrovia Middle School, and Randy Adams, a guidance counselor from another local school(?).
Adams emphasized the need for students to do beneficial work, work that was interesting to them, but also work that would enable them to earn a living. Moseley indicated that, at the 8th grade level, the problem wasn't with "turning them on" to STEM, but avoiding turning students off from it. Heard opened by discussing his experience with pioneering the "micro-documentary," which began with chronicling the work of California teacher Jaime Escalante. Satterfield explained that he worked around "a bunch of news weasels" all day and that he was usually the only STEM-literate person in the room. As a result, whenever a science-related question comes into the WHNT studio, he's usually called upon to answer it. He also teaches environmental science at Calhoun Community College, and considers teaching the "best profession out there."
Olson started the conversation by asking the students in the audience why their peers weren't pursuing STEM subjects. The answers were well explained, though a bit disheartening. They included:
- Kids are looking for what's easy, more "practical"
- Math and science are considered "hard" or "boring"
- A lot of them don't realize how broad the STEM field is and (thus) how vital STEM-related skills are
- There's a perception that STEM-related careers require a lot of experience to break into them (my biggest problem)
Heard, looking at things from the entertainment perspective, pointed out that most of what's "cool" in the culture is generated by young people. STEM is urgent, but it's pushed by older people, which inevitably generates resistance. On the flip side, though, very few older adults get into Facebook or other new activities. Someone else noted that the things people think are cool--fast cars, private jets, etc.--are developed by engineers, so the "geek" image needs to change or die.
Olson discussed the need for motivation, indicating that it included persistence, choices of challenges, help from adults, and an emotional component.
When the panel opened things up to the floor for general questions, most of the students and teachers asked about career guidance and resources for helping figure out where young people should go to learn about STEM careers. Among the resources or recommendations were:
- The National Academy of Engineering
- Dictionary of Occupational Titles
- Occupational Outook Handbook
- Take the widest variety of classes that you can to broaden your knowledge
- Work hard
- Keep looking, don't stop, opportunities keep coming up
- If you're serious about particular subjects, look for schools the specialize in your passion (e.g. the Alabama School of Fine Arts or the Alabama School of Math and Science)
- General Aptitude Test Battery (GATB)
- Aptitude and Interest Test
- Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery (AFVAB)
- Study hard for the ACT and/or SAT (months in advance); good scores there can lead to a scholarship
- Get a subscription to a magazine in a field that interests you
- Find somebody in the field you want to work in and learn what they do; follow blogs in fields that interest you
- Project Lead the Way
- Brain-Based Learning
There was some concern about specialization. Several students and teachers nodded in agreement when an audience member indicated that it wasn't enough to choose a major, you had to pick an area of concentration. Someone asked "How do you keep students from becoming too narrow?" One of the panelists said, "You're focusing too much on a career. Pick a field. Get the STEM for basic knowledge." Without saying so, the panelists seemed to be favoring a more general education, despite the tendency of the educational system to try to channel students into very specific fields. However, there was also an acknowledgment that the science disciplines are starting to think more systemically now, with geologists studying atmospheric chemistry or atmosphere specialists investigating biology to understand living systems' effects on global temperatures.
There was some discussion about what teachers should be teaching. The good (and bad) news out there is that science and technology (and web resources supporting them) have become so broad that it's impossible to cover them all. Elementary school teachers were told told they should teach students that science was not about answers but about the process of finding answers--that approach promotes discipline, curiosity, and persistence.
I asked another question, hoping to hear a little bit about the culture aspect of this: what could be done to bridge the gap between STEM and the culture at large? Heard suggested using all available channels for sharing information, including Twitter, Facebook, etc. He also pointed to The Futures Channel's efforts at sharing "behind the scenes" information about STEM careers.
Asked for closing comments, the speakers provided the following:
Satterfield related a good news/bad news story about a local student he'd met who really liked math and science, but her parents insisted she go to cosmetology school--which they would pay for--they wouldn't pay for engineering school at UAH. The good news was that she eventually went to engineering school and is now working at NASA. However, Satterfield relayed this as a cautionary tale of how parents need to be better informed about the opportunities that exist. Satterfield also noted "a lot of anxiety" in the audience about career choices. He assured the students in the audience to "Just do well in your classes, you'll be fine."
Heard emphasized the need to learn math. He quoted from a show The Futures Channel did on Amar Bose, founder of the Bose radio company. He said that the things you learn in school everybody has learned before. The things you do after school are a discovery.
Moseley said that "great teachers motivate" and get students to learn what they don't know. He also said that "you'll learn more after school, but you need to be motivated."
Watson advised students to work and persist. "This is your life."
Olsen concluded with a football analogy: "We're great at huddling. but now we've got to go do."
Making It Real
After a short break, the three breakout sessions reported out to the group. First up was the "Making It Real" session, which focused on "bringing space to young minds and young hands."
The group got some good feedback on resources for hands-on learning (see above). The problem wasn't lack of activities; sometimes it was a matter of centralization--teachers and students need a single clearinghouse for hands-on activities (hmmm...like Science for Citizens, perchance?). Teachers would like a "one-stop shop" for science activities and resources. And while teachers need better communication from resource providers, students need to take some initiative in their own education as well.
The group asked the same question that the Connections session did--why aren't students interested in STEM?--and got similar answers: it's perceived as too tough, it's not seen as relevant, or students don't really get what STEM is.
Someone asked why there aren't a lot of (or any) girls in STEM classes. The answer was: stereotypes. Girls don't want to be seen as "geeky." However, one student replied, "Being geek is cool in this town." What we do about the rest of America is, of course, another problem.
Impediments and Solutions
The Impediments and Solutions session focused on the specific issue of "increasing interest and passion for STEM in the classroom and culture by leveraging space." The thought was, "If we can't do it here (in Huntsville), we can't do it anywhere." The problem is that space is up against a lot of other forms of entertainment, including sports, movies, and games. There was a general agreement that NASA is not good at marketing. There was also some discussion about the "geek culture" perception. There needs to be a better emphasis by parents and the community to "embrace smart people and STEM careers" (have you hugged a geek today?). This includes things like not letting parents who weren't good at math when they were young pass on their fear of math to their kids. Math is the language of science and nature and thus critical to STEM disciplines.
In the realm of community involvement, specific recommendations for how parents and the community can help foster STEM education included:
- Take kids to SciQuest, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, etc., not Chuck-E-Cheeze
- Get a local team to win an X-Prize
- Participate in STEM-related competitions (FIRST Robotics, TARC, etc.)
- Develop more interactive displays
- Open House at Redstone Arsenal
- Star Wars Exhibit at USSRC
- Space exhibit at SciQuest
- NPR series on technology and R&D
Steve Cook finished up the general session with some general observations: There's a lot of talk about the "geek culture" of STEM, but the cool factor on being able to go to the top of the Ares I-X rocket and put his signature on hardware that was actually going to fly was, for him, very high. He emphasized the need for STEM work to continue to be done here in the U.S., not outsourced overseas, otherwise the U.S. would truly become "a third-world country." As a starting point for advancing STEM education, we need to take advantage of the opportunities and tools existing around us right now. People need to have a passion for what they do. Parents and members of the community need to "walk the walk and talk the talk" when it comes to making STEM a priority (as opposed to, say, sports). Students need a foundation in basic skills and need to show some intiative. "Opportunities and innovation don't just drop into your lap." People need to be curious and well rounded because technology will keep changing. That means not losing your core values but being willing to throw away everything else. Mentors will be needed to facilitate this process. And finally, when you're at the top, the only direction you can go is down. The point is not to keep others down, but to keep ourselves up.
One observation regarding this event: it's so hard getting students interested in STEM in general that the topic of space was rarely broached unless it was the speaker's specific expertise. For a specific discussion of using space exploration as a way to leverage interest in STEM subjects and careers in Northern Alabama...(warning: shameless plug alert)...I'd recommend people attend the education track at the 2011 International Space Development Conference, which brings in people more specifically interested in space advocacy. I think space is such a niche market or such a small aspect of STEM that it tends to just get lumped in with everything else (computer science, biology, engineering, etc.).
My parting thought is just that we have a lot of work ahead, in Northern Alabama and in the rest of the United States, if we're going to take STEM seriously. We'd best get started.