Monday, November 23, 2009

Obama launches "Educate to Innovate" STEM campaign

Today, the White House launched its new science, technology, engineering and math initiative, "Educate to Innovate." Backed by $260 million in cash and in-kind support from companies including Intel and organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the initiative is supposed to complement the "Race to the Top" federal education spending. It has three main goals:

1. Increasing STEM literacy so all students can think critically in science, math, engineering and technology
2. Improving the quality of math and science teaching so American students are no longer outperformed by those in other nations
3. Expanding STEM education and career opportunities for underrepresented groups, including women and minorities.

The President and other partners in the Educate to Innovate campaign intend to use a variety of approaches to attack these issues. Time Warner will be sponsoring STEM after-school activities. Discovery Communications will work on science-related television programming. Sony, Microsoft, et al will sponsor game design competitions to produce STEM-related video games. A National Lab Day will push the idea of kids actually doing science as opposed to merely reading about it in textbooks. The White House will use its bully pulpit by hosting winners of science competitions.

Of course, I think it's great that this issue is getting attention, and it would be great if American students could top international comparisons in math and science. I just want to bring up a few issues that I'm not sure are going to be addressed by all this:

1. Much of the talk is about "motivating" and "inspiring" young people to learn math and science. But I'm not sure the problem is a lack of inspiration. As discussed in this Scientific American piece (which quotes me), some 85 percent of American kids said in a Lemelson-MIT survey they are interested in science and math, and 80 percent said their schools had prepared them for a career in science. This is absolutely delusional. Barely half of kids are even prepared for college! You can think math and science are as cool as you want, but until you learn the tools, you won't actually be able to do anything truly cool at all. Sometimes the tools are boring. I absolutely love writing, but learning the rules of grammar still wasn't exactly fun. So what?

2. Many parts of the initiative are aimed at improving math and science education among under-served, or under-represented groups. For instance, Intel sent me a press release about the initiative that said "Intel will develop new models for student research programs in rural, inner-city, low-income and high-minority classrooms across the US that encourage hands-on science and math learning." This is great; much math and science education in America's less-privileged schools is truly awful. Per the president's priorities, I would also love to see more minority (and women) scientists and mathematicians.

However, this focus on under-served kids seems based on the widespread assumption that America's rich white kids are doing just fine. This isn't true. See this column I wrote for USA Today about how our top 10% would fare, internationally. The answer isn't pretty. America's place in the middle-of-the-pack, internationally, is not necessarily because of an "underclass" problem. Closing the gap between black and white students, and between poor and better-0ff students would improve things, but not nearly as much as people think it would. Any effort at making America top-of-the-world needs to face the harsh reality that even America's well-to-do suburban schools with their helicopter parents and loads of homework are, in fact, not cranking out armies of graduates ready to compete on the international stage. We live in an increasingly competitive world. The sooner we truly recognize that, the better.


SwitchedOnMom said...

Thank you for not leaping wholeheartedly onto the rah rah STEM bandwagon. And can we just say, if these future scientists can't communicate, can't write a decent sentence and make a compelling, persuasive reasoned case, well that's not going to get us very far now is it? So please let's not devalue the humanities as we rush to boost STEM careers.

Heather said...

I feel both hopeful and dismayed. We need to teach kids innovative thinking in ALL realms not just STEM. And I agree--we need to teach ALL kids.

Tim Holt said...

I hope that this simply does not become a big marketing campaign by these companies. For instance, Discover Education, INSTEAD of creating new content, could, right this minute, place al of their United Streaming/Discover Education content online for free. That would show some commitment eh?

Anyway, I have blogged about it here:

Tim Holt
El Paso

mariposa said...

Well, this is better than nothing. In a culture where sports heroes & media celebrities are worshiped unabashedly and science and math geeks are well, geeks, there's strong social pressures for kids to 'dumb down' and 'buff up'.

In contrast in Asia, the closer connection to poverty makes people more 'pragmatic' in the sense that there is tremendous respect for disciplines that meet the basic physical needs of people, like the biomedical sciences, engineering, etc.

This hasn't been the case throughout China's history though. In ancient days, poets & literary scholars were the revered ones who went on to hold the most sought-after positions in Chinese society. They were viewed as pursuers of the 'high arts.' Professions dealing with the physical nitty gritties of life were looked down upon. This probably contributed to China's scientific backwardness which was in stark contrast to Europe's scientific progress in the 19th century. It was only in the 20th century, perhaps after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that Asia as a whole fell in with this relentless pursuit of the scientific supremacy America had that made it so strong..

How ironic.

YY (Grew up in Singapore, living in Canada).

mariposa said...

SwitchedOnMom said: ""..if these future scientists can't communicate, can't write a decent sentence and make a compelling, persuasive reasoned case, well that's not going to get us very far now is it? So please let's not devalue the humanities as we rush to boost STEM careers. ..""

Well I received my entire education in Singapore (Chinese-majority southeast Asian nation, one of those Obama recently visited), my postgrad degree was in the medical field and I studied the humanities up to only grade 8 level. I believe I have managed to string together some coherent sentences, haven't I? :-)

My point is, just because STEM is something lagging that needs to be addressed, doesn't mean that humanities will have to give. Logistically, STEM subjects require more in terms of infrastructure and funding than the humanities (think labs, practicals, experiments, projects, and sometimes the odd cadaver).

We're trying to re-establish a balance here that has swung too far to the other extreme. And it isn't even an imbalance between the humanities and the physical sciences; it's the imbalance between short-term glitz (Wall St greed or screen cool) and long term unglamorous education.