From Seed to STEM: Part 1

Part 1 of 2: The NSTMF explores some of the Laureates responsible for extensive STEM advocacy

In the 1990s, educators yearned for a better word to illustrate the relationship between four crucial subject areas: science, mathematics, engineering and technology.

Meanwhile, they balked at “SMET,” the acronym in use at the time.

“People thought it sounded too much like ‘smut,’ so we changed it to STEM,” said Richard Tapia (NMS 2011) and member of the National Science Board when the new term was coined.

Dr. Tapia receiving the 2011 National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama

To say it caught on would be an understatement.

What started as a catchy abbreviation evolved into a movement that mobilized a nation to address its global competitiveness.

It’s the reason students returning to school this month will benefit from more engaging curriculum, new standards for teaching, and opportunities that their parents, who graduated decades earlier, couldn’t have imagined.

But these changes – which also pose new challenges for educators – didn’t happen overnight.

They began, some say, in 1957 after the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite sent from Earth.

For the first time, America – and its global dominance as an innovative power player – felt threatened.

As the so-called “space race” ensued, President Dwight D. Eisenhower called the nation to action:

“We need scientists in the ten years ahead,” he said. “They say we need them by thousands more than we are now presently planning to have.”

Academia got to work, producing a record 80,000 graduates per year in engineering by the mid-1980s, according to the Engineering Workforce Commission.

This surge – while promising – wasn’t sustainable long-term, said Bruce Alberts, a biochemist who won the National Medal of Science in 2012 for, in part, improving science education.

Decades ago, he explained, STEM subjects were taught at breakneck speed. Teachers, resorting to the standard lecture, covered as many topics as possible in a short time period.

This, Alberts said, proved to be a major flaw.

“You want students to struggle with the problem before you tell them what science has learned about the answers,” he said. “Education should not be defined as something you forget a year later. That’s not education.”

Alberts used the example of a cell, which students encounter in middle school science.

“A cell is the most amazing thing in the universe,” he said. “It’s this tiny chemical system that can make more of itself, and it’s done it millions and millions of times.”

Generations, he said, have graduated high school without fully understanding this miracle, thereby decreasing the chances of those students pursuing biology as a career.

Dr. Alberts providing guidance to a young STEM student.

“This is a cell, here are all the parts, memorize it, and spit it back on an exam,” Alberts said. “We’ve taken this amazing phenomena and we’ve completely destroyed it for kids. It’s become a chore to memorize things.”

Though this teaching style still lingers – engrained in public schools where government funding is tied to standardized test scores – the image of an instructor regurgitating a textbook is slowly disappearing.

Today’s classes feature more inquiry-based science where students self-teach through problem-solving.

Where this doesn’t exist in classrooms, extracurricular opportunities like camps and workshops fill the gap. Take, for example, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation’s offerings.

WARF (NMTI 2003) was established in 1925. The nonprofit supports research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison by providing funding and helping scientists patent their discoveries.

In 2010, through a public-private partnership, WARF helped open the Discovery Building Town Center, which hosts hands-on activities for all ages.

“It builds confidence,” said Laura Heisler, WARF’s director of programming. “It builds this sense of engagement –  being able to see yourself doing something that is challenging but rewarding.”

All of WARF’s programs follow the Next Generation Science Standards, guidelines for teaching science created by a consortium of 26 states and education associations.

Released in 2013, NGSS emphasizes student-conducted investigations over lectures and teachers posing open-ended questions, instead of queries with only one right answer.

Through WARF, kids leverage these principles to learn about 3-D printing, stem cells, and other topics that mirror the work of real scientists in the university’s laboratories.

WARF scientists doing their lab work.

After all, UW-Madison is a research university – a relatively new concept, said James Duderstadt, recipient of the 1991 National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

“Prior to the second World War,” he added, “there wasn’t much research going on at universities.”

Duderstadt, who served as president of the University of Michigan from 1988 to 1996, credits engineer Vannevar Bush with the research programs that allow undergraduate and graduate STEM students to engage in real-world experimentation.

During the war, Bush – a 1963 National Medal of Science laureate – headed the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development, the government agency responsible for nearly all military innovation.

In 1947, the organization dissolved, but Bush pushed for research to continue with his landmark report, “Science – the Endless Frontier.”

After years of debate, Congress passed a law, signed by President Harry S. Truman, creating the National Science Foundation. One by one, federal agencies like the Department of Defense began to take Bush’s advice, funding university research related to their missions.

“The University of Michigan does $1.3 billion a year worth of research, and most of it’s sponsored by the federal government,” Duderstadt said. “If you look at our portfolio of activities, education is a big one. Of equal size is research.”

There are other changes afoot in America’s universities – especially with engineering, he added.

“If you go back into the early part of the 20th century, engineering was regarded as a profession,” said Duderstadt. “Engineers were like doctors – except rather than cure disease, they built bridges.”

This attitude contributed to engineering programs largely based on “too much technical crap,” Duderstadt said.

As disciplines expand – and new disciplines spawn from cutting-edge discoveries – Geraldine Richmond, awarded the 2013 National Medal of Science, sees similar complications when it comes to cramming too much into a 4-year education.

“As new fields arise, you keep adding to the pile of things to learn, and you don’t take anything away,” she said. “There’s a real struggle to have realistic expectations for what the content of any course should be.”

Dr. Richmond receiving the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama

A field like neuroscience, she said, must incorporate cognitive science, biology, physics and chemistry.

Students must go through endless basic courses, often losing interest before being introduced to the exciting, emerging fields.

This strategy – “teaching in silos,” Richmond said – also leaves little room for a well-rounded education.

As a result, more universities are upping their requirements for credits in liberal arts, which teach students crucial communications skills and prepare STEM majors for the business world.

Dartmouth, for example, offers a program for students to pursue a liberal arts-heavy Bachelor of Arts in engineering, along with a professional Bachelor of Engineering degree.

But there’s still more work to be done as the number of STEM graduates stagnates.

In 2014, 34 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in America were in science, technology, engineering and math fields, compared with 33 percent in 2004, according to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse.

The key to improving these numbers, Duderstadt said, is simple: keep the student body engaged.

“Right now, we’re preparing students for their first job but it’s not preparing them for their last jobs – chairman of the board or a major leader,” he added. “We’re missing that broader education.”