James C. Banks

Thoughts on the STEM Forum

In Uncategorized on June 18, 2011 at 2:21 pm

The Office of Naval Research knows how to host a conference–or at least how not to disappoint.  Along with the regular rubber chicken platter, they served up clams and seafood; a rarity at social gatherings in Washington.  A fine testament to the efficiency of America’s armed forces.  Having said that, I must say that their forum on the future of science, technology, engineering and mathematics education was conventional and anti-climactic.

Nothing new emerged from the proceedings.  Specters of the usual villains were brought forth so that the elite masses could hurl their collective derision upon them: school boards wh0 want to maintain local autonomy, politicians who refuse to raise taxes, Hollywood producers who cast Barney Fife rather than Brad Pitt as a microbiologist.  Most of these explanations either are not based in reality or are beyond the scope of policy to change:  The country spends more on education now than it ever has before, yet the more it has spent, the less it has done; and if this is not an attempt to sex-up science, I don’t know what is.

A more fundamental problem I see with the overall scope of the conference, though, is that it is difficult to gauge precisely how many STEM employees America will need in the future.  American innovation and prosperity has more to do with a free people’s demand for consumable products than with a highly educated workforce.  Furthermore, there are a great many STEM-educated individuals who are out of work.  This is probably less the case with engineers, but the demand for biologists and chemists ebbs and flows depending upon the stability of the healthcare or pharmaceutical markets and other factors.

An under-educated population is cause for countless troubles in a nation like Portugal, but there are also former Soviet republics that have too many over-specialized individuals–many of whom become postdoctoral fellows in American institutions.  There is no obvious career for a STEM professional whose specialization has grown irrelevant due to technological progress.

The U.S. Navy and other STEM educators are working much harder than is necessary to solve the problem.  The solution is not to go out into the world and find students who might, at some point down the line, be interested in STEM careers but rather to find those who are already in STEM careers and enhance their expertise.  The armed forces are full of technicians and mechanics with extensive job training and no fear of machines.

Based on this fact, try a thought experiment: About how long would college take if there were no academic breaks, no remedial classes, no electives . . . just basic and advanced science or mathematics classes?  Since the first two years are, more or less, occupied by remedial classes and external electives–since our education system (correctly, I think) requires university students to learn literature and history as well–it is possible to eliminate two years of classes right off the bat.  Then, there wouldn’t be summer vacation either, so, at a bare minimum, it is possible to teach a student an undergraduate degree’s worth of physics in eighteen months through total immersion (for instance, a recruit’s workday could be a mixed eight hour period of classes and research.)

This would probably require some internal drafting in the military, but most soldiers are not asked if they want to do a tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan before being assigned to these theaters.  If finding qualified STEM recruits is so challenging that the military is having difficulty filling the workforce, then it is time to stop searching for them and start making them.  It will require rethinking our education system and re-evaluating credentialing systems, but the university system–which attempts to mass produce thinking scholars in a factory-like assembly-line style–is poorly suited for filling a STEM workforce; the university is (and will remain) great, but we need a vocational training school to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

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