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7 posts categorized "Education"

November 05, 2013

Reminding Ourselves of the Importance of Basic Scientific Research

In a post entitled Fostering Genius, I discussed a number of research and academic organizations in and around the Princeton, NJ, area. The organization to which I devoted most of the post was The Institute for Advanced Study, a research center most famous for once having counted Albert Einstein among its members. He isn't the only genius that has called the Institute home. Over the years some 33 Nobel laureates have worked there and, since 1936, its members have claimed the majority of math's top prize — the Fields Medal. One of the things that distinguishes the Institute is that its focus is basic research rather than applied research. Its members are trying to understand the fundamental principles that make the universe tick. The Institute's current Director, Dutch mathematical physicist Robbert Dijkgraaf, told reporter Eliza told Gray that seeking to expand the boundaries of science "may be a luxury that America can no longer afford — or at least appreciate the importance of." ["The Original Genius Bar," Time, 22 July 2013]

As evidence that scientific research no longer holds a cherished place in contemporary America, Gray notes that the Institute's "influence in Washington has fallen, as has Washington's interest in science." She goes on to report:

Basic Science"Over the past 25 years, the U.S. government's spending on physical-science research has dropped by half. Sequestration — the $1.2 trillion in spending cuts in the discretionary and defense budgets over the next decade — has accelerated that, slicing budgets for agencies that support science research, like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health."

Even without sequestration, Congress' interest in science was waning. Gideon Rachman traces the growing lack of interest in science back to Ronald Reagan. He explains:

"Traditional conservatives disdain populism and respect knowledge. They believe in balancing the government's books. And they are pragmatists who are suspicious of ideology. Reagan debased all these ideas – and modern American conservatism is still suffering the consequences. The most damaging idea propagated by the Reagan myth is the cult of the idiot-savant (the wise fool)." ["How Reagan ruined conservatism," Financial Times, 1 March 2010]

To continue reading this post, click on the link to the new Enterra Insights site.

November 01, 2013

SAP Discusses the Future of Business, Part 2

In Part 1 of this two-part series, I indicated that I divided the facts presented in an interesting SAP slideshow entitled "99 Facts on the Future of Business" into thirteen separate categories. In that post, I discussed the first five categories: Big Data; Business Leadership; Customer Service/Experience; and Education. In this post, I'll discuss the remaining eight categories, namely: Emerging Markets; Innovate or Perish; the Internet of Things; Risk Management; the Supply Chain; Targeted Marketing; Urban Growth; and a Miscellaneous category. SAP introduced the presentation by explaining:

"Business Innovation is the key ingredient for growth in the future of business. Changes in technology, new customer expectations, a re-defined contract between employees and employers, strained resources, and business and social networks are requiring businesses to become insight-driven businesses. In this presentation, we have gathered 99 facts that represent the changes taking place in the world today. Each fact represents a key insight and suggests where we need to focus and change to become viable, sustainable and growing future businesses."

As noted in Part 1, I placed these facts into thirteen categories to help paint a more coherent picture of the future as seen by the analysts at SAP. In the first post, I included the first five categories: Big Data; Business Leadership; Customer Service/Experience; and Education. In this post, I'll discuss the remaining eight categories, namely: Emerging Markets; Innovate or Perish; the Internet of Things; Risk Management; the Supply Chain; Targeted Marketing; Urban Growth; and a Miscellaneous category.

99 Facts

To continue reading this post, click on this link to the new Enterra Insights site.

October 31, 2013

SAP Discusses the Future of Business, Part 1

In an interesting slideshow entitled "99 Facts on the Future of Business," the folks at SAP paint a picture of the future to which businesses should pay attention. The company introduces the presentation by explaining: "Business Innovation is the key ingredient for growth in the future of business. Changes in technology, new customer expectations, a re-defined contract between employees and employers, strained resources, and business and social networks are requiring businesses to become insight-driven businesses. In this presentation, we have gathered 99 facts that represent the changes taking place in the world today. Each fact represents a key insight and suggests where we need to focus and change to become viable, sustainable and growing future businesses." I've placed these facts into thirteen categories to help paint a more coherent picture of the future as seen by the analysts at SAP. In this post, I'll include the first five categories in this post. They are: Big Data; Business Leadership; Customer Service/Experience; and Education. The remaining eight categories will be provided in the next post.

99 Facts

To continue reading this post, click on this link to the new Enterra Insights site.

October 18, 2013

Self-education and Deep Learning

One of things that really stood out to me while reading James Gleick's wonderful biography of Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman (entitled Genius) was that people like Feynman possess an intellectual curiosity that has to be satisfied. They don't wait for teachers to give them answers to questions they pursue those answers on their own. In Feynman's case, it was a particular kind of knowledge that attracted his attention. He wanted to know how the world worked — how it was put together. As Gleick explains, "pragmatic knowledge was Feynman's specialty. For him knowledge did not describe; it acted and accomplished."

You couldn't call Feynman a renaissance man because, "unlike many of his colleagues, educated scientists in a cultivated European tradition, Feynman did not look at paintings, did not listen to music, did not read books, even scientific books." The remarkable thing, Gleick notes is that Feynman "learned anyway." He explains:

Feynman Richard
Richard Feynman by Nataly Meerson

"[Feynman] pursued knowledge without prejudice. During a sabbatical he learned enough biology to make a small but genuine contribution to geneticists' understanding of mutations in DNA. ... He taught himself the tricks of mental arithmetic, having long mastered the more arcane arts of mental differentiation and integration. He taught himself how to make electroplated metal stick to plastic objects like radio knobs, how to keep track of time in his head, and how to make columns of ants march to his bidding. He had no difficulty learning to make an impromptu xylophone by filling water glasses. ... When he was engrossed in the physicists' ultimate how-to endeavor, the making of the atomic bomb, he digressed to learn how to defeat the iron clamp of an old-fashioned soda machine, how to pick Yale locks, and then how to open safes — a mental, not physical, skill. ... He made islands of practical knowledge in the oceans of personal ignorance."

When Feynman wanted to learn about something, he went all the way. Robert Frost once wrote a poem about people walking along the shoreline looking out to sea. "They cannot look out far," he wrote of those standing on the beach. "They cannot look in deep." ["Neither Out Far Nor In Deep"] That simply wasn't Feynman's way. He was able to see far and, when he couldn't, he dove in deep. During a sabbatical in Brazil, he taught a basic course in electromagnetism at the University of Brazil in Rio. Feynman found the experience disturbing because the Brazilian educational system was based on memorization rather understanding. Gleick writes that, in Feynman's eyes, what they were doing was teaching "words about words." Gleick insists, "Feynman despised this kind of knowledge." He continues:

"[Feynman] resented more than just the hollowness of standardized knowledge. Rote learning drained away all that he valued in science: the inventive soul, the habit of seeking better ways to do anything. His kind of knowledge — knowledge by doing — 'gives a feeling of stability and reality about the world,' he said, 'and drives out many fears and superstitions.' He was thinking about science meant and what knowledge meant."

Feynman would have undoubtedly been disgusted by the "No Child Left Behind" approach to standardized learning. Naveen Jain, Entrepreneur and Founder of the World Innovation Institute, probably captures Feynman's feelings as well as anybody. He writes, "No two children are alike — nor do they learn best the same way. Some children learn logically, some learn conceptually, some learn visually and some learn experimentally. Put simply, our education system is currently teacher-centric, as opposed to student-centric. And please don’t get me started on 'No Child Left Behind.' It might as well be called 'All Children Left Behind.' This system of standardized, rote learning that teaches to a test is exactly the type of education our children don't need in this world that is plagued by systemic, pervasive and confounding global challenges." ["School’s Out for Summer: Rethinking Education for the 21st Century," Wall Street Journal, 27 June 2013]

When Feynman was growing up, there were not as many distractions for children as there are today. There were no televisions, no iPods, no tablets, and no smartphones. Children's natural curiosities and imaginations were the driving forces behind both education and play. For immigrant children, like Feynman, education was seen as the best way to get ahead in the world. And the men we now call geniuses threw themselves into gaining knowledge on their own. At a recent conference I attended in Jersey City, NJ, called "The New Know," Dr. William Byers, a professor emeritus of mathematics at Concordia University in Montreal, called the kind of self-education that Feynman enjoyed "Deep Thinking." He believes that the only way that anyone will have one of those glorious "ah-ha" moments is by engaging in deep thinking. Unfortunately, with all of the distractions mentioned above, getting students to engage in deep thinking is becoming increasingly difficult.

Deep thinking is a type of critical thinking. Wikipedia defines deep thinking as "a way of deciding whether a claim is always true, sometimes true, partly true, or false." The article continues:

"The list of core critical thinking skills includes observation, interpretation, analysis, inference, evaluation, explanation, and meta-cognition. There is a reasonable level of consensus that an individual or group engaged in [the] strong way of critical thinking gives due consideration to establish:

  • Evidence through observation
  • Context skills
  • Relevant criteria for making the judgment well
  • Applicable methods or techniques for forming the judgment
  • Applicable theoretical constructs for understanding the problem and the question at hand

"In addition to possessing strong critical-thinking skills, one must be disposed to engage problems and decisions using those skills. Critical thinking employs not only logic but broad intellectual criteria such as clarity, credibility, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, significance, and fairness."

The best opportunity we have of getting students engaged in deep learning that leads to understanding is to involve them in projects that require them to look far and dig deep. That was one of the reasons that I recently helped found a non-profit organization called The Project for STEM Competitiveness. In a previous post [Teaching STEM Subjects Using a Mission to Mars], I discussed how the organization is supporting a program at my child's middle school. Education is a serious subject and deserves serious attention beyond the endless budget and tax debates that inevitably arise. That's one reason that I have chosen to make education a recurring topic on this blog site. One of the best things about education is that it never ends. We never stop learning. You don't need a formal classroom to engage in the process — geniuses like Feynman taught us that. Feynman summed up his philosophy in the title of his book The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman. We need to let our children discover the pleasure of finding things out. When they do, they will be lifelong students.

September 23, 2013

Teaching STEM Subjects Using a Mission to Mars

In a recent two-part series entitled "Getting Kids Hooked on STEM Subjects" [Part 1 and Part 2], I discussed how important it is to get children involved in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects as early as possible and examined some recommendations about how STEM education can be improved. In the latter of those posts, Alan I. Leshner, Chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, stated that STEM education must start early. He also believes you can't teach what you don't know. For that reason, he recommends that "the educational community needs to exploit the scientific community's desire to help. There are many, many retired scientists and engineers who'd love to go into the schools and use their knowledge and experience to assist the regular teachers." Personally, I wouldn't limit the search for help to retired individuals. I know from personal experience that actively employed scientists and engineers are just as eager to help.

In that same post, Paulo Blikstein, an education Professor at Stanford University, stated:

STEM NFS 02"We want kids in school to have that experience of seeing how science and math lead to making things. In a controlled study conducted in our lab we found a statistically significant increase of 25 percent in performance when open-ended exploration came before text or video study rather than after it. We'd like kids to learn how to solve hard problems and what it takes to pull off a complex endeavor, how to plan, collaborate, fail and not give up. In other words, we want them to see what science and math can do when they are used by a creative mind."

That's really the philosophy behind an approach that I've been supporting at my daughter's middle school — the Newtown Friends School (NFS). The NFS STEM initiative combines real-world challenges with a space exploration in a "Lift Off to Mars" program. The program will involve classroom study, lectures by subject matter experts, experiments assisted by world-class scientists, and exciting field trips. The initiative is being organized by a new non-profit organization called The Project for STEM Competitiveness and is being supported by local business leaders and scientists. In addition to my company, Enterra Solutions, other supporting organizations include Lockheed Martin and the U.S. Department of Energy's Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. The immediate goals of the initiative include:

  • Learning and using science and engineering process skills.

  • Understanding and using mathematical skills and concepts, such as proportions and ratios, graphing data, multi-digit computation, functions.

  • Applying knowledge of science concepts, such as speed and power, motion and stability, forces and interactions, and environmental sustainability.

  • Understanding concepts such as systems, patterns, structure and function, and logical thinking.

  • Understanding the role of troubleshooting, invention and innovation, and experimentation in problem solving.

  • Planning and managing activities to develop a solution or complete a project.

  • Demonstrating creative thinking and constructing knowledge using technology.

  • Using digital media and environments to communicate and work collaboratively.

The long-term goals of the project, which are in line with STEM education goals identified by the National Research Council of the National Academies, include:

  • Growing community partnerships that provide middle school students with mentors, opportunities, and real-world experiences in STEM disciplines.

  • Expanding the number of students who ultimately pursue advanced degrees and careers in STEM fields and broaden the participation of women and minorities in those fields.

  • Expanding the STEM-capable workforce and broaden the participation of women and minorities in that workforce.

  • Increasing STEM-literacy for all students, including those who do not pursue STEM-related careers or additional study in the STEM disciplines.

The NFS initiative hopes to change student perceptions of STEM subjects being boring. We hope to stir up their creative juices at the same time. In addition to traditional classroom learning, each supporting organization will bring something to the table.

Enterra Solutions, LLC will provide students access to its Cognitive Computing environment which will perform artificial intelligence-based computational analytics on the Mars program – modeling and simulating the real-world aspects of the mission.

Representatives from Lockheed Martin will provide students with an exciting look at its Orion Program. Engineers from the program are building the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, NASA’s first spacecraft designed for long-duration, human-rated, deep space exploration. Orion will transport humans to interplanetary destinations beyond low Earth orbit, such as asteroids, the moon, and eventually Mars, and return them safely back to Earth. Michael Bradshaw, CIO of Lockheed Martin’s Mission Systems and Training business, described the corporation’s interest in the Lift Off to Mars Program: “Advancing STEM education is a critical focus of Lockheed Martin. Anytime we have the chance to inspire students with real-life, exciting examples of opportunities in the STEM field, we eagerly participate.”

The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) will mentor the program from its long experience in STEM education and will make its world-class research and scientists available to students throughout the project. PPPL is instrumental in supporting the creation of the curriculum, integrating other governmental agencies, such as NASA, and providing experimentation structure, guidance and support for the program.

Andrew Zwicker, Head of Science Education at PPPL, explained his organization's interest: “The best way for students to learn science is to do science. This new program is a unique opportunity through its project-based learning approach to begin to develop the skills needed to be a part of the 21st century scientific workforce.”

Phys.org, a leading European web-based science, research and technology news service, wrote in a recent article, "In a high-tech and rapidly globalising economy, science and mathematics education is more important than ever. ... At the same time, high levels of creativity and innovation, often and mistakenly seen as the antitheses of science and mathematics, represent equally important assets." ["Science, mathematics, creativity and innovation, when it counts most," 6 September 2013] The article goes on to assert, "The place to start is in early childhood education." The more creative we can become in teaching STEM subjects (and the earlier that teaching begins) the greater the likelihood that we will get more of our children excited about careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It's not just their future that is at stake, it is the future of our country, and our planet. The challenges that society now faces are going to require new solutions and approaches and those solutions must be founded in good science.

To learn more about the launch of the Liftoff to Mars program, read the following local articles: "Newtown Friends to pilot STEM education program," by Crissa Shoemaker DeBree, phillyBurbs.com, 24 September 2013; "STEM pilot program lifts off at Newtown Friends School," by Regina Young, Bucks County Herald, 3 October 2013; and "Newtown Friends School, Lockheed Martin, US Dept. of Energy thinking about life on Mars," by Cary Beavers, The Advance, 3 October 2013.

September 12, 2013

Getting Kids Hooked on STEM Subjects, Part 2

In Part 1 of this two-part series, I discussed why it's important to get students involved in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects as early as possible. In this post I want to discuss some more ideas about how STEM education can be improved.

STEMClaudia Dreifus asked 19 distinguished scientists, educators, and students, "If you could make one change to improve science education in the United States, what would it be?" ["Ideas for Improving Science Education," New York Times, 2 September 2013] Carl E. Wieman, a Nobel laureate in physics, told Dreifus, he would "require that universities become more accountable about how they teach basic science and math to undergraduates." The interesting thing about Wieman's response is that he wasn't really thinking about college students when he gave his answer. He was thinking about the students who would be taught by "this country's future K-12 teachers" who are now receiving "a deficient understanding of the basic sciences" in their undergraduate classes. Wieman was also concerned about the quality of teaching. As noted in first segment of this series, many students don't get involved in STEM subjects because they believe the subjects are either too boring or too hard. Wieman believes that better teachers could change that perception. He told Dreifus:

"Because of poor teaching, we're giving [undergraduates] a very negative view of these subjects — negative in the sense that they see them as uninteresting, irrelevant and unnecessarily hard to learn. After they take the typical undergraduate basic-science courses, they have more negative feelings toward the subjects than they did before. The good news is that we know how to make introductory science courses engaging and effective. If you have classes where students get to think like scientists, discuss topics with each other and get frequent, targeted feedback, they do better. A key element involves instructors designing tasks where students witness real-world examples of how science works."

Those same techniques can be applied as effectively in K-12 classrooms as they can in college classrooms to get students involved, interested, and, dare I say, excited about STEM subjects. Another educator who believes that STEM education should be problem-oriented is Mitzi Montoya, Dean of the College of Technology and Innovation at Arizona State University. She told Dreifus, "If I could change one thing about engineering education — well, actually, all education — it would be to center it around solving real problems and making things." In previous posts about manufacturing, I've cited analysts who believe that because students no longer "make things" in school, they never consider jobs in manufacturing.

Michael F. Summers, a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and another proponent of teaching problem-solving skills, believes that addressing real-world problems can help maintain student interest in STEM subjects as they transition from high school to college. He told Dreifus:

"There's an unfortunate disconnect for kids who show some interest in science while in high school and their maintaining it while they are undergraduates at college. One of the ways we are addressing that is that we take about a dozen high school and college students into my lab each year, assign them an older mentor, train them in biochemical techniques and give them real problems to work on."

Catherine L. Drennan, a Professor of chemistry and biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Dreifus that she believes too often STEM subjects are taught with a historical bent that makes it seem like "all discoveries are in the past and were made by dead white guys." As a partial solution to this challenge, Drennan says that MIT has "made a series of short videos introducing real 21st-century chemists — young, old, white, nonwhite, male, female — who talk about what they do."

Alan I. Leshner, Chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is one proponent of STEM education who believes that you must start young. He told Dreifus, "K-12 students need to know the nature of science, how scientists work and the domains and limits of science." He also believes you can't teach what you don't know. "You need teachers personally immersed in science. And to do that, you need to restructure the reward system for teachers so that K-12 teaching becomes a viable, respected career alternative for people trained in science." Leshner also told Dreifus that "the educational community needs to exploit the scientific community’s desire to help. There are many, many retired scientists and engineers who’d love to go into the schools and use their knowledge and experience to assist the regular teachers." I know that this is true from personal experience.

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, Mathematician; president, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, agrees with Dr. Wieman that education only really comes alive when it can be applied to real-world problems. He believes that teachers, as well as students, ought to be given the opportunity to apply their STEM abilities to real challenges. He told Dreifus:

"We need to create opportunities to excite students about how math and science connect to real life. Few teachers have opportunities to use their math skills outside the classroom. I would like to see more partnerships involving school systems, the corporate sector and government that provide teachers paid summer work opportunities applying their math skills to real-life problems. Right now, many students are bored in class, and they will ask the teacher, 'When am I ever going to use this?' If you say, 'Geometry will teach you how to think well,' it won't mean much to a 16-year-old. But a teacher who has worked summers in green construction engineering can show their students how they've used geometric concepts."

At a time when college graduates are straining to find jobs, demonstrating to high school students that STEM majors can obtain good paying jobs could be just that extra bit of encouragement they need. Elizabeth Blackburn, a Nobel laureate in medicine, believes that students who show an interest or proclivity in science should be immersed in science early in their educational careers. She told Dreifus:

"The way we teach it now, with an hour of instruction here and a laboratory class there, it doesn't allow for what has been my experience: that immersion is the essence of scientific discovery. Science just isn't something you can do in one-hour-and-a-half bits. Digging deep is what makes people actually productive. If I could change one thing, it would be to build this idea into the curriculum."

Like many other scholars, Rita Colwell, the former director of the National Science Foundation, believes that STEM subjects need to be taught earlier and more effectively. She told Dreifus:

"I'd like to bring graduate students in science, engineering and mathematics into the elementary, middle and senior high schools to teach the science to these K-12 students. The purpose is to elevate the science taught in the K-12 schools by providing teachers who are knowledgeable of their science, engineering or mathematics and, most importantly, love their chosen professions."

Steven Strogatz, a Professor of Mathematics at Cornell University, agrees with Colwell. He would like to "get real mathematicians who are math types to become math teachers. K-12 students need someone there with a real feel for the subject matter."

John Matsui, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, believes, at the college level, "we are wasting a lot of human potential." This is because most institutions of higher learning are designed to weed out the weak students "rather than educating anyone who’s demonstrated an interest and capacity." Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd College, told Dreifus, "I wish that STEM educators at whatever level would help all students understand that hard work and persistence are much more important to scientific success than natural ability."

A Baltimore middle school principal, Najib Jammal, would like to see students "work in small groups more than they do now and get to apply their STEM learning to projects that benefit their community." Deon Sanders, a fifth grader agrees with Jammal, he told Dreifus he would like to "science and math education to be more about life." A high school senior, Dianne Marie Omire-Mayor, agrees that "more hands-on projects" are needed. Another high school senior, Naomi Mburu, told Dreifus that she wants to understand STEM subjects not just be required to memorize formulas. Paulo Blikstein, an education Professor at Stanford University, told Dreifus, "I'd love to see a once-a-week day in K-12 devoted to invention — an 'Idea Day." She continued:

"We want kids in school to have that experience of seeing how science and math lead to making things. In a controlled study conducted in our lab we found a statistically significant increase of 25 percent in performance when open-ended exploration came before text or video study rather than after it. We'd like kids to learn how to solve hard problems and what it takes to pull off a complex endeavor, how to plan, collaborate, fail and not give up. In other words, we want them to see what science and math can do when they are used by a creative mind."

John Maeda, President of the Rhode Island School of Design, would like to see a merging of art and science. He told Dreifus:

"STEM teachers, especially in K-12, [need] to invite their art-teacher colleagues into their labs. At the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, they have artists all over there, and they are discovering that involving artists can improve their work radically. Great science is about thinking out of the box. And art is way out of the box, and having that kind of influence improves both sides."

Salman Khan, Founder of Khan Academy, agrees with Maeda that too many creative students are turned away from the sciences into liberal arts. He told Dreifus:

"Despite the STEM subjects' being about new ways of thinking and creating new things, many students don’t perceive them as creative. And that's because, to a large degree, the type of filters we have for these subjects are actually filtering out our most creative people. If I had one wish in this area, it would be to see that creativity and invention became the central focus of STEM courses and that the traditional skills be viewed as what they are: tools to empower creativity. This means more of the students' evaluation would be based on a portfolio of what they've done, as opposed to a score on a standardized test. This means more of class time would be devoted to exploring and inventing and less to lecturing and quiz-taking."

To learn more about Salman Khan and his academy, read my post entitled Teaching Problem Solving Skills in Math and Science, Part 2. Because the Khan Academy is free and online, parents can learn along with their children. Mariette DiChristina, Editor in chief of Scientific American, believes this kind of parent/child interaction is essential. She told Dreifus, "We need to make it easy for families to have fun with science — to ask questions about how the world works, and to explore the answers together."

Most Americans understand we have a crisis looming in STEM education. We can't wait any longer to do something about it. It's time to try some of the recommendations discussed above in today's classrooms.

September 09, 2013

Getting Kids Hooked on STEM Subjects, Part 1

"The idea that the nation faces a crisis in science education has more than hit home," writes Terence Monmaney. "Many Americans think U.S. teens perform even worse on standardized science tests than they actually do." ["How Much Do Americans Know About Science?"Smithsonian, May 2013] Monmaney also reports that a national survey by Smithsonian and the Pew Research Center "found unusually strong support for boosting math and science instruction in school." That begs the question: when should such education begin? Lisa Guernsey, director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation, believes STEM education should start much earlier than most people imagine. ["To Develop Tomorrow’s Engineers, Start Before They Can Tie Their Shoes," Smithsonian, 22 July 2013] She is not alone in that belief and she reports that "in a small but growing number of classrooms around the country, and you'll see engineering being taught in preschool and elementary school using a method called Ramps and Pathways." She explains:

STEM"In Ramps and Pathways classrooms, children explore the properties and possibilities inherent in a few simple materials: blocks, marbles, and strips of wooden cove molding, a long, thin construction material used to finish cabinets and trim ceilings. Teachers push desks and chairs out of the way to allow room for the sometimes-sprawling roller coasters that emerge. By building and adjusting inclines propped by blocks, children experiment with marbles moving along various paths. Their job is to test and retest different angles, figuring out new ways to take their marbles on a wild ride."

Anybody who has ever fallen asleep in a classroom knows that you don't learn anything if you are bored. Monmaney notes that one question asked in the Smithsonian/Pew survey queried respondents about why they thought that "young people don’t pursue degrees in science and math." He reports, "22 percent of those surveyed said such degrees weren't useful to their careers and 20 percent said the subjects were 'too boring.' By far the most common response, though, was that science and math were 'too hard,' a belief held by 46 percent of respondents."

Getting small children to have fun while exploring engineering concepts is a great way to pique their interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects. The longer you wait, the more difficult it is to incorporate play and learning – at least in today's educational environment. According to a Vanderbilt University study, "Early spatial ability — the skill required to mentally manipulate 2D and 3D objects — predicts the development of new learning and innovation abilities, especially in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)." And these skills are fairly well developed by the time a student reaches middle school. ["Middle School Test Scores Predict Tech Career Success," by Chad Brooks, BusinessNewsDaily, 16 July 2013] Brooks explains:

"Using data from a study that began in the late 1970s, researchers analyzed 563 students who had scored exceptionally well — in the top 0.5 percent — on the SATs at age 13. The researchers also examined data on the participants' spatial ability at age 13, as measured by the Differential Aptitude Test. Confirming previous research, the data revealed that participants' mathematical and verbal reasoning scores on the SAT at age 13 predicted their likelihood of producing scholarly publications and patents 30 years later. But spatial ability at the same age yielded additional predictive power, which researchers said suggests that early spatial ability contributes in a unique way to later creative and scholarly results, especially in the STEM areas."

David Lubinski, a psychology researcher and one of the study's authors, and his team "believe cultivating these skills is imperative for ensuring scientific innovation." The question remains: How do you get children excited about STEM subjects? Naveen Jain, Entrepreneur and Founder of the World Innovation Institute, writes, "Imagine education that is as entertaining and addictive as video games. Sound far-fetched? I believe that this is exactly the idea — driven by dynamic innovation and entrepreneurism — that will help bring our education system out of the stone ages." ["School’s Out for Summer: Rethinking Education for the 21st Century," Wall Street Journal, 27 June 2013] Jain can get pretty worked up about all the things he sees wrong with today's educational system. He writes:

"Our education system is obsolete. For starters, we are educating students under a system based on industrial-age thinking, where they advance to the next level based on their age, not ability. Some children are naturally good at one subject and can master it quickly but may take a little longer to comprehend a different subject. It's astounding that we are advancing children on a fixed-time basis, leaving our exceptional students to languish for a full year and our challenged students to struggle and yet advance. Further, the school year is structured to adhere to the needs of a bygone era when kids had to work on farms in the summer months. Yet less than 5 percent of Americans live on farms today. Injecting a long period of downtime into the school year, students lose critical ground during their months off from school. Also bewildering, our system is fundamentally rooted in a curriculum-based approach, rather than focusing on the strengths of individual students. No two children are alike — nor do they learn best the same way. Some children learn logically, some learn conceptually, some learn visually and some learn experimentally. Put simply, our education system is currently teacher-centric, as opposed to student-centric. And please don’t get me started on 'No Child Left Behind.' It might as well be called 'All Children Left Behind.' This system of standardized, rote learning that teaches to a test is exactly the type of education our children don't need in this world that is plagued by systemic, pervasive and confounding global challenges. Today's education system does not focus enough on teaching children to solve real world problems and is not interdisciplinary, nor collaborative enough in its approach."

Jain believes that by bringing an entrepreneurial approach to education significant improvements could be made. He believes that new skills could be identified, both for those that teach and for those being taught. He believes that new teaching methods could be developed that are as addictive as video games are for some people. And he believes that we would be able to find ways to adapt instruction to the abilities of the children being taught. Jain concludes:

"Whether our public schools ... adapt these ideas ... remains to be seen and is difficult to predict. But inevitably, they will disrupt education. ... In this new education paradigm, students will get a far better education because the rote learning will be assigned out to computers and avatars, and the teachers can focus on coaching students through the more complex challenges. For their part, students would see school the same way they see videogames — an addictive activity they just can't stop doing. I believe the future holds this in store if we listen to the best new entrepreneurial ideas and utilize technologies that bring our education system forward."

Jain is not alone in reimagining how the educational system could be changed. For additional ideas, read an article by Kat Davis entitled "Reimagining the 21st Century Classroom," UX Booth, 27 August 2013] Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot more thought than action. In Part 2 of this series, I'll discuss some more ideas concerning how to teach STEM subjects.