Back-to-School Shopping List: Pens, Notebooks, Engineers, Chemists, Architects
In bright contrast to recent doom-and-gloom news about the state of science and math education, Google announced earlier this week the winners of its first-ever science fair. As The New York Times reported, the three winning entries proposed new ideas for solving acute medical challenges, including a new possible treatment protocol for ovarian cancer.
But the Times headline wasn’t about cancer. It was about girls.
Girls, who remain under-represented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, “swept all three age categories in the competition,” according to The New York Times. Advances in science that just a few generations ago might have gone undiscovered are now coming to light because these girls gained access to STEM subjects at the highest levels.
But it isn’t just women who remain under-represented, and it isn’t just their innovations that we need. Minorities and poor students of all races are severely under-represented in STEM fields, from high-school AP classes and college majors all the way to the professions.
Just imagine what the science fairs of the future could look like if we unleash the capacity of all of our children to be innovators, inventors, and solvers of our world’s greatest challenges. What advances might we see – from curing diseases and addressing climate change to identifying renewable energy sources and responding to fiscal meltdowns – if all students had opportunities to engage at high levels in science, technology, engineering, and math?
If you’re rolling your eyes now at the Pollyanna-ish sentiment, consider this instead: Reports indicate that students are captivated by the big problems our world faces and want to solve them; they just don’t know how. The ubiquity of technology and quick adoption of new gadgets, coupled with an urgent sense of our country’s relative decline in STEM, has made this a Sputnik moment of opportunity for young people, elected officials, and thought leaders alike.
President Obama has made STEM education for our students a priority of his administration. And Carnegie Corporation of New York, along with dozens of other organizations, is working to get many more excellent STEM teachers into public schools over the coming ten years.
These are all harbingers of positive change. But if our young people in cities, rural areas, and suburbs, mountains, farmlands, and plains are to become STEM-capable, they need more than what schools can currently provide. Along with great teachers, they need the expertise, passion, and practical, future-oriented guidance that can only come from professionals in the STEM fields – and they need it in sustained, consistent, embedded ways (one-off, feel-good, “bring your kids to the lab” visits won’t cut it).
The community of adults with STEM expertise needs to think about new ways to get involved in our children’s schools. Where our schools are lacking in STEM capacity, our communities are filled with many of the world’s most talented professionals in these fields.
That’s why Carnegie Corporation of New York and Opportunity Equation have partnered with Ashoka Changemakers® to host a competition to spur new models for STEM professionals to get into schools, partner with teachers, teach their passions, and bring their talent and knowledge to a new generation.
We’re looking for companies, universities, hospitals, museums, and other organizations with STEM talent to design new ways to partner with public schools.
We are envisioning projects like the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago’s “X-blocks.” These 90-minute classes, once a week, are taught by talented local professionals, freeing up the staff to have professional learning while providing new perspectives and a window into possible careers for the students.
Other examples: learning studios designed by the National Center on Teaching and America’s Future in collaboration with NASA, or FIRST Robotics, where engineers come year after year to schools and teach students how to build robots, providing critical knowledge and skills that have led more students, especially women and minorities, to graduate and go on to major in STEM fields in college.
And we can imagine different partnerships for doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals; or analysts at financial firms and hedge funds; or engineers and chemists at biotech and pharmaceutical companies; or architects and designers; or gamers; or urban planners; or computer scientists at the myriad tech companies that are cropping up in places as well-worn as Silicon Valley and as up-and-coming as North Carolina and Chicago; or really any STEM professional to connect with real students, in real schools, to teach real STEM subjects in partnership with real teachers in a way that brings these subjects to life.
These partnerships might look simple, but they aren’t easy. Mostly, they don’t exist yet, so they require ingenuity and a certain measure of audacity. Getting into schools, designing partnerships, and figuring out staffing structures, release times, and proper incentives for the STEM professionals is tough. But if we can figure out how to do this in a sustainable way, businesses will benefit in the long-term and students will actually learn what they need to know to step up for the millions of unfilled jobs in the STEM sectors.
Participants in the Google fair received guidance from noted scientists at local institutions. If more of our scientists, mathematicians, analysts, coders, gamers, designers, architects, and engineers connected with more kids in more schools, what discoveries would they make together?
Our country has had Sputnik moments before. We’ve squandered some of them. But that first time, we sent a man to the moon. What will we do this time?
Contributed by Talia Milgrom-Elcott, Program Officer, Education & Urban Education, Carnegie Corporation of New York
Photo courtesy of Google Science Fair