The Great Debate: National STEM Leaders Speak on Misconceptions and Best Practices for U.S. Education

Dr. (Harvey Mudd College)

Dr. Maria Klawe (Harvey Mudd College), Dr. Arthur Levine (Woodrow Wilson Foundation), Leland Melvin (NASA), Nina Rees (National Alliance for Public Charter Schools), Richard Middleton (The College Board), Camsie McAdams (U.S. Department of Education)

Last week U.S. News and World Report hosted its Second Annual STEM Solutions Conference in Austin, Texas, over 2,000 professionals in the commercial, public, education and academic sectors were in attendance.  With the summit tagline of: Teach. Inspire. Hire., the goal of the conference was to share best practices, identify challenges within the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) community and find ways to enact change at local and national levels.

The program’s afternoon panel titled The Great Debate: Are We Moving Too Slowly? brought leaders from higher education, K-12 education, the federal government and STEM advocacy groups.

Brian Kelly, Editor and Chief Content Officer of U.S. News & World Report, moderated the discussion. Dr. Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, Dr. Arthur Levine, President of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, a nonprofit with the mission of closing the achievement gap by race and income for Americans, Camsie McAdams, Senior Advisor on STEM Education at the U.S. Department of Education, Leland Melvin, Associate Administrator for Education at National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Nina Rees, President and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, headquartered in Washington, D.C., and Richard Middleton, Vice President for the Southwestern Regional Office at The College Board, served on the  panel.

The discussion began with panelists identifying misconceptions regarding STEM education and answering the question: “Do we need a STEM revolution?”

Dr. Kiawe kicked off the debate by noting that “not all STEM fields are created equal,” and squashed the notion that minorities and women are underrepresented in all STEM fields.

“They are not all equal in terms of the demand for graduates; they are not all equal in terms of the diversity issues,” said Dr. Kiawe.

Science majors, such as biology and chemistry, have a healthy representation of minority and female students; it is in computer science and engineering where the STEM achievement gap begins.

“If I take a look at biology and chemistry classes and majors, there are probably about 60% female and there are a lot of students of color in those classes.  Why? Because they all think they are going to be doctors. The majority of them will not become doctors, and will not even be able to use the knowledge that they learned in biology and chemistry undergraduate majors when they go into the workforce. They have to learn a new set of skills,” Dr. Kiawe told the audience.

According to Dr. Kiawe, there is a real shortage of computer science, software engineering and hardware engineering minority graduates as well as overall graduates. Most tech companies are having a hard time filling the gaps and so have turned to finding talent abroad. Dr. Kiawe predicted that tech businesses will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

“If you read the news, you know that all the tech companies are going nuts trying to get more H1-B visas because they just can’t hire enough computer science, computer engineering, electrical engineering grads that graduate…So that is the first thing, the huge demand of  today, and it is going to be even worse in the next 10 years. For software engineering, even a company like Intel, that is a hardware company, they currently hire 1/3 of college grads in software and 2/3 in hardware. Within 5 years, that ratio flips,” said Dr. Kiawe.

“Now let’s talk about diversity. ….the area where women and students of color are least represented is in computer science, electrical engineering and computer engineering. So not only are those the areas where the salaries are insane, our grads are getting minimum of $90,000 a year, of computer science grads, but it is also an area where we don’t have black people, we don’t have females,” concluded Dr. Kiawe.

Limited minority representation in STEM remains to be an issue at the forefront of our nation’s inter-city schools systems, as well as charter school programs nation-wide. Rees highlighted a few misconceptions regarding inter-city classrooms and interest in STEM education.

“I am very proud to say that the latest study we did on this topic demonstrated that at least 20% of charter schools around the country were at least focusing on the STEM area. It is music to my heart because most charter schools are in inter-city settings and there is a lot of biased so to speak, or people assume that inter-city families are not interested in STEM. The fact that so many of them are attracted to these schools is very reassuring,” said Rees.

Rees went on to suggest that there should be more online learning options for teachers and students in inter-city as well as charter schools as a new and innovative avenue to foster interest in the STEM fields.

Rees stated, “Technology, hybrid or flipped classroom models can play a huge role in this area right now at this very moment, since we are never going to be able to produce as many teachers as we might like and send them to some areas that may just not be attractive for people to want to live in for a long period of time. So you can offer high-quality content and high-quality teachers using the online learning medium immediately, and I would encourage policy makers you really take a look at online learning as really one way to deliver content to middle school and high school students.”

“That does not mean we should not focus on bringing more teachers [into the workforce], it just means that is one other way of supplementing the course content,” concluded Rees.

McAdams agreed with Rees that the U.S. should at the federal, state and district levels, take advantage of online learning tools and opportunities, but stressed that specific curriculum implementation and regulation should be left to state leaders. The federal government should take a leadership role regarding identifying where the gaps are as well as targeting what programs are working, or not working, according to McAdams.

“Make testing more about changing what we are doing with better outcomes, and less about the hammer down on the table,” said McAdams.

The U.S. Department of Education has started a program, named the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Education (ARPA-ED), molded after the success of the DARPA program. The agency will use data collected from school districts nation-wide to help local education leaders make better educated decisions about how concepts can most effectively be taught in classrooms and also fund innovative initiatives.

“As former head of a district, a lot of times it is just whatever vendor has the loudest whisper in your ear, or has the loudest or coolest display at an exhibition hall, but we are now asking all of our vendors [to say]‘here is our data’, ‘here are our trials’, ‘here are our studies.’ I think that district personnel and state leaders need to be on that,” said McAdams.

“States and districts are leading the way in implementation of common core, eventual adoption and implementation of next generation and they need to have the right tools at their disposal to make that happen,” said McAdams.

The U.S. News and World Report STEM Solutions Conference was held from June 17th through 19th at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, Texas. Break out panels includes topics such The Role of the Feds and States: Policies That Create Skilled STEM Professionals and Business and Higher Education: Responding to STEM Workforce Needs.

Read more about the morning keynote panel STEM Needs in Manufacturing, with Eric Fingerhut, Vice President of Education and STEM Learning at Battelle Memorial Institute and Eric Spiegel, President and CEO of Siemens Corporation here on WashingtonExec.


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