By Pete Monfre and Maggie Bencivenga
Dr. Miya Bialik, looking bookish in her black rimmed glasses seems surprised by the question delving into her childhood school experience. “I was interested in science [as a kid] but didn’t think science was for me. It was very hard for me, and I thought because something was hard, then I wasn’t good at it.” Best known for her television roles as Blossom and as Amy Farrah Fowler on CBS’s Big Bang Theory, Bialik went on to earn a P.h.D. in Neuroscience in spite of her early experiences.
It turns out, her experience with the educational system isn’t unique. I was convinced at a young age, that mathematics was something I simply could not learn. This belief changed the course of my life and led me from business school (which required passing calculus) to art school. Like Dr. Bialik, I’ve made it work. But most kids never get there.
According to a study by the Business Higher Education Forum, 60 Percent of students lose interest in science and mathematics between 1st and 8th grade with a precipitous drop in 5th grade.
“As it turns out, everyone from main street and the White House to America’s leading companies are waking up to the fact that the supply of innovative, educated and inspired workers is a shrinking pool,” says Reid Whitaker, creator of STEMScopes, an interactive science program currently used by over 1.2 million students in Texas. Whitaker adds, “And it happens sooner than we thought.”
This decrease of interest is echoed by Karen Flammer, co-founder of Sally Ride Science who says “National surveys have shown that when we polled the interest of science and mathematics among 4th grade girls and boys we found that 66 percent of girls and 68 percent of boys were interested. When we took the poll among 5th graders both girls and boys interest fell below 50 percent.”
It’s Not Just About Jobs
According to an Economics and Statistics Administration Issue brief in July of 2011, in the last 10 years, growth in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs has been three times faster than non-STEM jobs.
But it’s not just about the jobs. This issue is about producing enough innovators to continue to drive our quality of life in America and around the world. India and China have very high rates of STEM achievement, and are producing a very scientifically literate workforce. However, America’s strength is in creative innovation. We don’t just need technical people. We need people who see solutions to real human problems – and Americans have always led the world in this arena.
Reid Whitaker agrees, stating “There is a sea change happening not only in how we educate our students, but what we expect from them. I started STEMScopes because I felt we were not meeting the expectations of this most wired generation in history.” Whitaker continues, “The fact is, kids learn differently today than twenty years ago. With video games, television and social media, they are connected to a vast world of fast paced information. They know technology and expect the classroom to be equally as stimulating.”
Corporate Stakeholders Are Getting Involved Earlier
This issue is resonating with companies outside the education field. Reggie Jackson, K-12 Business Development Manager with Panasonic, tells us, “The disconnect between information outside the classroom and inside the class is like night and day. Kids are experiencing digital content everywhere else, but in the classroom they have traditional instruction.”
Corporate America has long been supportive of high school and college prep programs for science, often pouring tens of millions of dollars into robotics leagues, scholarships and incubators. But, if the polls indicate that the problem has already set in before kids are out of middle school, this approach seems too late.
Justina Nixon-Saintil,Verizon Foundation’s Director of education helps us understand, “I think what happens is that companies want to see results right away. So that’s why they focus on high school. They were trying to get kids to graduate and go into college, but what they’re finding now is that it has to start much earlier.” The Verizon Foundation believes that investing in elementary and middle school will pay dividends well into the future – not just for Verizon, but for people around the world.
So what can we do to keep our kids interested? As Ted Wakeman from Game Desk put it, “We’re fighting the Boredom Monster. It’s been eating our kids, eating our schools, and eating our neighborhoods and we’ve got to do something about it.” My own research has shown that kids don’t think science and math are boring, they think the way their teachers present the subjects are boring.
David Lapides, Director of Education for Smart Systems goes on to say, “Somewhere along the way educators are losing the parts of learning that are delightful and fun and when they do, they are less likely to use the technologies.”
Educators are Still the Key
Most agree that educators are crucial to overcoming this challenge. While it is easy to blame teachers, it’s just not that simple. Alan Greenberg with MediaCore elaborates, “We have to understand it from a teacher’s perspective. One of the big challenges for teachers is actually finding the relevance. There is a lot of great content out there for teaching and learning, but how does a teacher curate the bit that’s relevant to them to share with their students?”
The elementary and middle school educators I spoke with for this article were all enthusiastic, hardworking teachers who genuinely cared about the educational outcomes of their students. But they also agreed that many elementary teachers are intimidated by the topic of science.
“I feel like I’m expected to know all the answers” says Gloria Jerome an elementary educator from Oklahoma. “My background is in English.”. Educators also face reductions in preparation time, often taking on additional duties and classes as schools tighten their belts. “And where does this extra time come from?” asks Jack Jeansonne a fifth grade teacher in Texas. “It comes from our preparation time.”
Educators are working to adapt to this technological revolution in education but with limited time and new expectations, this transition is proving difficult for many long established educators.
As younger, more tech savvy educators enter the field, this issue is becoming obsolete. Wakeman is a teacher who leverages gaming in the classroom and says he uses this technology along side his instruction, “There is math and science, social studies and media arts and all kinds of rich content that exists in these games that kids are already engaged by, that is just waiting to be pulled out. Waiting to be translated into a language that teachers can use to educate kids.”
Texas Instruments is another major company on the forefront of changing how educators present science subject matter. Melendy Lovett, President of Texas Instruments Education says, “Our technology was a key component of an initiative showing that students learn best when they have the mathematics in their own hands, when they can interact with it and when they can be the owners of their own learning.”
Abigale Fern, Director of Marketing for Lego Education tells us, “One of the things we think about a lot is that we need to remove this stigma of failure. It’s actually ok for kids to fail.” Fern is right, as our education system increasingly relies on standardized testing and it’s requisite “pass/fail” dichotomy, kids believe failure is not an option. Fern adds, “Scientists and engineers fail everyday across the world. Not only them, but in real life, people fail all the time. The important thing is that you try again, and again, and again, until you have those Eureka Moments.”
Enter The Stakeholders: Big Tech
Technology companies are obviously at the forefront of benefiting from expanding the STEM educated workforce. So what are companies today doing to combat these issues? Nixon-Saintil sheds a ray of light, “The technology by itself is not what is transformative, it’s how it’s used and it is an investment for our future workforce. Not for just Verizon, almost ever company you talk to now say they need the same thing. They need students that can come in, think critically and take the lead in coming up with innovative solutions for the future.” She’s right, and luckily, companies are hearing the outcry and there are new developments in this hope for young American innovators.
For example, Panasonic has created a program that is designed to leverage video production to teach STEM skills that will be delivered to elementary, middle and high school students. The program includes educator training, curriculum and cloud-based video storage space. Another example is Hyundai, who allows kids to come tour their factories to see first hand how an engine works. They cut an engine in half and explain each part’s function as a whole. This type of real life experience is crucial to showing young students specific applications of STEM skills.
Google is using its extensive platform to support educators and STEM outcomes by hosting the Google Science Fair and inviting kids to come see what it’s like to be an engineer at Google. They are committed to offering an open source platform to develop coursework that blends with video assessment for educators.
Bram Bout, Google’s new Global Director of Education says, “We really see tech as a tool more than anything else. It’s really the educator that is going to have to make this happen. Making sure educators are equipped to use technology in a way that they are comfortable with and is innovation – that allows kids to learn in new ways.” It’s important both for the educator and the students to be consistent in their education, using tools such as Google Apps for Education.
Innovation from Within
STEMScopes, developed in collaboration with Rice University is a prime example of what some are calling “Next Generation Science Education”. “STEMScopes uses the familiar 5 E model of education…” says Jarret Reid Whitaker, Founder and Director of STEMScopes at the Center for Digital Learning and Scholarship at Rice University.
Whitaker continues, “This approach to learning is proven to work, but STEMScopes takes it a step further by allowing teachers to really customize per student with two additional tools, Intervention and Acceleration. Teachers can use Intervention for those students who are having trouble grasping the concepts. They are also armed with tools for Acceleration if a student really does seem to understand, so as not to stop the learning process.”
This customization in teaching is what is going to let our future innovators truly learn. Whitaker says one of the key problems in our current approach is teaching “breadth not depth”. He explains ” …[this approach] forces a teacher to teach broadly on numerous concepts without the ability to drive-in a few concepts. The problem is that when we are focused on test preparation, memorization of facts and non-authentic learning we disengage them.”
Whitaker continues, “It’s important that we remember students are already using the technology for non-educational purposes. Whitaker explains, “We have to be able to prepare our teachers for the oncoming wave of students that know more about mobile application, know more about technology and how to utilize that in the classroom more than some of our teachers today.”
The Decline of the Textbook
Certainly, there are many more facets to this complex issue facing us as Americans and world citizens. But in my purview, as executive producer of Exploration Nation, a digital video instruction program, there is no shortage of innovation in the education industry itself. While the old guard publishers struggle with “going digital” it is becoming abundantly clear that smaller, more agile companies are coming to the table with real solutions to educator problems.
STEMScopes and Exploration Nation won’t make textbooks obsolete in the near future, but these young companies are not constrained by traditional ideas. Text book publishers will continue to think in terms of text books. Media companies will see the world through the lens of entertainment. A new class of digital natives see the problems faced by educators and students in fresh, new ways.
“Today’s kids have the sum of humankind’s knowledge at their fingertips, everywhere they go.” says Reid Whitaker. “What will this mean for society? I’m not sure anyone really knows the answer. One thing is for sure; it’s having a massive impact on learning.”
As leading corporations like Verizon, Google, Panasonic and Hyundai discover the value of investing and intervening in younger grades, a natural cycle will emerge where all stakeholders involved receive value. Corporations gain from an expanded workforce, educators gain from the expertise and support of companies, students gain by achieving a better education and you and I gain by having access to the innovations that are surely to result from new approaches in education.
Sheryl Bolton, CEO of Sally Ride Science sums it up: “If you find one thing that can ignite real passion in a child, then you’ve got them.”
Learn more about these innovators in science education:Scientific American on Twitter @SciAm and @SciamBlogs. Visit ScientificAmerican.com for the latest in science, health and technology news.
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- Teaching & Learning