Why It's Time To Change How And When We Bring STEM Into The Classroom

The first moon landing taught us a lot about persistence and teamwork. Now we need to bring those lessons into the classroom.

In 1969, our natural inclination to explore literally took us out of this world.

Those who remember watching on television as Neil Armstrong walked on the moon tell us about how that moment made everyone feel that the unthinkable was suddenly possible; and yet, at the same time, we were humbled.

Even hearing about it secondhand was a moving experience for me. It was a rare moment, both personal and global—and all made possible by an utter paradox: the audacity to dream coupled with the precision of technology.

Of course, this achievement was not the product of chance, nor was any single person solely responsible. That is the telling fact about great achievements of science and engineering: They need many visionaries, thinkers, and doers to bring ideas to fruition.

Just as importantly, these scientists and engineers need time—weeks, years, sometimes decades of study and failure—to triumph.

That same persistence and teamwork are needed today to achieve advances in science, technology, engineering, and math that will ultimately save lives and provide the basis for bringing communities out of poverty all around the world.

Developing these skills begins at the earliest levels of education. Students in grades Pre-K-12, particularly in the formative Pre-K-3 grades, need exposure to the latest advancements in STEM, and they need the time and space to explore, to understand and develop the skills of collaboration and persistence.

Young students need teachers who are well versed in pedagogy with deep knowledge of their chosen field and who translate learning to real-world applications beyond the classroom walls.

However, it has been nearly 20 years since the U.S. has addressed the way science is taught in classrooms. Our children all know about the moon landing, but they’re using textbooks that predate our entire Mars program.

Keeping in mind the importance of collaboration and big aspirations in STEM education, thousands of people across 26 states developed the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Teams that included scientists and engineers, educators and parents, business leaders, and even students worked together to develop new science education benchmarks that K-12 students should master in order to prepare for future success.

A strong and consistent STEM education for every student ensures that we continue to make great strides in scientific achievement.

And while it’s important to reach for the stars, there are so many global issues that can ignite the imagination and problem-solving spirit of students around the world.

Much in the same way that we inspired children to imagine man—or woman!—walking on the moon, we need to inspire them to create a world in which no one human being goes without clean water, food, electricity, or medicine. Tackling each one of these challenges requires creativity, global citizenship, and engineering and technology innovation.

When I’m asked to speak to middle- and high-schoolers, I tell them about the Stanford University students who developed an ultra-affordable incubator to combat infant mortality in rural villages in India. I tell them about the boy in Malawi who built a windmill out of scrap parts to bring electricity to his village. Those two stories alone have boys and girls jumping out of their seats, each inspired to a career in engineering to improve the quality of life for all.

It’s also why I’m thrilled the Maker Movement is gaining momentum among young people. The notion of creating is at the heart of engineering, and we’re reigniting it.

With outdated educational standards and textbooks and a scarcity of properly prepared math and science teachers, our students are missing out on the foundation of science and engineering: curiosity about how the world works and an appreciation of how determination and excitement can help solve real-world challenges.

If we renew our investment in science and engineering education and the way we teach, the possibilities in engineering, technology, water, energy and yes, space exploration, will be endless.

Noha El-Ghobashy is the president of Engineering for Change and the managing director of Engineering Workforce and Global Development at The American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

[Image: Flickr user USACE Europe District]

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  • ladydi250

    I emphatically agree! We need passionate, we'll-trained primary school educators to lead the charge! How can we support these teachers? First, offer them top-notch training institutes with scholarships. Remember, teachers are not wealthy, so offering scholarships would honor them as professionals and they would enroll if the institutes are free and/or affordable. Then they would be well-trained. I have a lot of ideas in this area. Second, teachers need to be supplied with ALL materials they need to teach science & engineering. We shouldn't have to scrounge & beg for supplies. How about providing teachers with science stipends so they can quickly purchase supplies if an amazing, must-do project comes along? The future of science begins with our youngest children who are natural scientists.

    Written by a public school primary teacher at a science magnet

  • Totally agree! This hits the nail right on the head.

    Usually, STEM education involves career and technical education job shadowing at the high school level, and honestly by then it's too late. Students already have an idea of who they are and what they think they are capable of achieving at that age.

    That's why we're working on bringing these concepts and values into the classroom at the early childhood level and making it easy for educators without a STEM background to effectively engage these little learners: http://bit.ly/ECE-STEM.

    Children can drive change if we give them the tools to do so.

  • Totally agree! This hits the nail right on the head. That's why we're working on bringing these concepts and values into the classroom at the early childhood level and making it easy for educators without a STEM background to engage these little learners: http://bit.ly/ECE-STEM