Worth it every year
Our fourth time participating in the U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference was our fourth time coming away with new friends and potential partners, new ideas to think about, and new energy for helping make engineering part of more students’ K-12 learning experience. It’s just a great meeting, all the way around.
This year in San Diego, the mix of people, sessions, and topics was as rich and stimulating as could be imagined. STEM education thinkers and doers from business, non-profits, government agencies, and educational institutions from PreK to higher ed were in attendance, bringing expertise and energy in abundance.
A flexible format
The meeting featured interesting prepared presentations, but in greater numbers than before, speakers engaged in open-ended discussion panels and informal exchanges. This format allowed depth and space for the speeches and, in the discussion sessions, it gave people room to offer an amazing range of opinions and experiences on a great diversity of topics.
Access and diversity in STEM
In their presentations, speakers explored the common theme of engendering greater access to STEM pathways for more and different kinds of students.
The opening keynote featured a series of senior academic administrators discussing the connections between STEM education and future workforce needs. A concern among all of them was creating opportunities and pathways in STEM for low-income students.
Andrew Moore, dean of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science, noted that higher education has largely missed the mark:
“This is very, very serious. We are genuinely worried that we are responsible for being part of an ongoing hegemony of the rich and wealthy – those being able to afford to live in the places where they can teach their kids” about STEM disciplines.
Hall of Fame inductees emphasize purpose and relevance
The STEM Solutions Conference is the scene of inductions into the U.S. News STEM Leadership Hall of Fame. Among the inductees this year was Ioannis Miaoulis, President and Director of the Museum of Science, Boston. Miaoulis has long been making the case that engineering is appealing and relevant to K-12 students and deserving of a place in their education, both as dean of engineering at Tufts University and in his current position.
In the Hall of Fame discussion session, all inductees emphasized the need to connect STEM learning to ways kids might grow up and change the world for the better. As new Hall of Fame member Susan Hockfield, MIT president emerita, noted, “People are motivated by mission and purpose rather than what they're made to do.”
Paths leading into STEM are many
What do football, the Maker movement, and community colleges have in common?
They all can serve as launching pads for students to pursue STEM education and work paths.
- Football has led the way for professional sports to make the case for STEM to their youngest fans. New York Jets lineman Kelvin Beachum has been among the most active players bringing the STEM message to kids, and he spoke about how to connect kids’ existing passions for sports to STEM lessons and opportunities. Beachum’s message boils down to his often-repeated mantra, “Everybody can't go pro in football, but everybody can go pro in STEM.”
- The Maker movement has tapped into the enthusiasm of people young and old for technology-assisted DIY activities. Connecting this enthusiasm to the more-formal learning structure of STEM education was the focus of another headline session. Like the appeal from sports, the effort to leverage the popularity of “making” seeks to meet kids where they are already engaged and guide them towards academic opportunities that can lead to future career opportunities.
- The potential of community colleges to connect STEM-interested students with employers drew the attention of a panel composed of corporate executives and one dean of engineering. Albert Pisano, from the University of California, San Diego, touted the value of internships as a complement to either two-year or four-year STEM studies, able to give students a concrete grasp of what real work in their chosen field might actually feel like.
The rest of the program
Among the nearly three dozen panel discussions, speakers dipped into nearly every imaginable topic related to STEM education: diversity and outreach; partnerships with for-profits, non-profits, government agencies, and others; ties to afterschool, career and technical education, and the arts; and implications for higher ed and workforce pathways. We especially enjoyed the sessions on engineering in K-12 curricula and STEM ecosystems.
But clouds above
Darkening the tone of things, as it has over all current education policy discussions, was the specter of the Trump administration’s budget request, which cuts education funding by over $9 billion. As we’ve noted, people really don’t like the White House budget request, which zeroes out funding for STEM education, afterschool programs, and teacher development programs.
Based on an appearance in front of Congress this week by Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education, the likelihood of these cuts actually going through is nearly nil. But the request for cuts sets a tone. It signals moves to come by the administration, budget-related or otherwise, that will be challenging for educators and advocates, especially those associated with public education.
Planning for next year
STEM Solutions is a highlight every year on the STEM education calendar. It moves back and forth every year between the east and west coasts. If San Diego was too far to travel, keep the end of next May clear for the next, more nearby opportunity to attend.
Did you go to the meeting this year? What did you learn? What was your favorite part? Please feel free to share with interested colleagues or friends.
Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEnginNow.
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