Monday, August 15, 2011

Changes in the American Economy

Our economy and its interaction with the rest of the world is rapidly changing. In response to concerns expressed by several of the national academies and my interest in near space, I am preparing a research project that incorporates science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM.

The United States no longer produces the majority of its wealth by manufacturing products for local markets. Instead, services, information, and innovation are our largest sources of revenue. Even when the US does create new products, much of the manufacturing eventually moves overseas. And increasingly, more research is moving overseas as Chinese and Indian students receive good educations

In order to work in occupations involving information and innovation, future employees, that is, our students, must be adequately trained in STEM. For several reasons, this is not the case. One reason students don’t receive a strong STEM education is that there are many teachers not adequately prepared to teach an integration of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Even when teachers are well prepared to teach STEM, they lack the real world activities that incorporate STEM. The activities they select must be stimulating in order to prevent students from tuning out.

Rising Above the Gathering Storm: A Report
In 2005, the national academies of science and engineering, the institute of medicine and the national research council were tasked to determine issues and solutions to US prosperity in the 21st century. The commission determined there are two overarching goals to meet if we want to maintain our national prosperity

First is to create more high tech jobs.
Second, to develop additional energy sources that are clean and reliable.

To create more high tech jobs and create additional supplies of clean and dependable energy of the 21st century, The commission developed recommendations in four broad areas. To meet those recommendations, there are 20 specific actions the US needs to take. The four recommendations involve the following areas.

1. K through 12 education
2. Research
3. Higher education
4. Economic policy

I will focus on the K through 12 education recommendations and its actions

The commission concludes it will take 10,000 additional, highly qualified math and science teachers every year to create STEM literacy in the majority of the US student population within the next ten years. It takes time to train college students to become teachers. However, right now, we need 250,000 teachers able to teach challenging subjects. One way to reach this goal is to teach these teachers (in summer classes) how to teach Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate subjects back in their schools. The United States could consider creating national STEM programs and standards. These standards would need to be taught to currently active teachers (again through summer classes). Finally, the US must invest in the classroom to create more students prepared to take STEM majors in college. The truth is that our future scientists and engineers begin in 6th grade

I want to address one way we may be able to help students prepare now

Before students can become STEM smart, they need to study STEM subjects. And they need to study them diligently. So what makes students want to study difficult subjects?

Myers and Fouts in their study “A cluster analysis of high school science classroom environments and attitude toward science” state that positive attitudes to subjects are associated with higher levels of student involvement in those classes. In other words, students must have a positive attitude toward STEM subjects in order to want to spend the time necessary to acquire a high level of STEM knowledge.

Osborne in, “Attitudes towards science: a review of the literature and its implications” states that one reason students don’t like science is that they see their science class as a history of great ideas. There aren’t enough in-class applications of how science is being done today. To them, the science class is boring. Osborne also states that three of the many factors influencing students’ attitudes towards science include the following.

1. Their enjoyment of science
2. Their past achievement in science
3. And the nature of the classroom environment

In a school district were meeting state standards is the most critical part of the school year, good extracurricular activities become a more important vehicle to positively influence student attitudes towards STEM. That’s because the regular classroom doesn’t have the time for exploration or open-ended investigation. By good after school activities, I mean those that model real world science in action, that are enjoyable, and have high levels of successful completion.

Some good STEM activities in use today include FIRST robotics, BEST Robotics, and Project Lead the Way.

So in a nutshell, the nature of the American economy is changing and has been changing fast for the last 50 or so years. If our students want high paying, stimulating careers, they need to be prepared for STEM occupations. Schools in many cases could use some help finding meaningful and interesting STEM activities. This is one reason resort to robotics. However, it seems to me that the science and mathematics aspect of robotics is lacking. Based on my experience, I have propose there is a better vehicle than robotics for STEM education.

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