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Kenwyn Cradock: Promoting STEM

Aug 14, 2017 by

An Interview with Kenwyn Cradock: Promoting STEM

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) First of all, for a small number of people who may not be aware, what exactly is STEM?

STEM is a widely used acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. There is a less well known acronym, STEAM (for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) that I think better captures our educational needs as society.

2) When was this acronym first used, and does anyone know by whom?

Good question. From what I can find out it was originally used by the United States National Science Foundation in the 1990s as ‘SMET’, but was changed to the familiar ‘STEM’ in 2001 (Hallinen, J. 2017 https://www.britannica.com/topic/STEM-education).

3) Certainly, with computers, people should be interested somewhat in science- but how does technology and electronics and math all fit in and go together?

STEM actually captures a vast array of possibilities:

‘Science’ captures the full range of what people generally think of – the use of rigorous experiment and observation to advance our understanding of the world around us;

‘Technology’ is really the application of scientific knowledge to technical challenges or opportunities, especially as it applies to industrial scenarios. Our smart phones, microwaves, computers, MRI, plasma televisions, etc. are really good examples of this;

‘Engineering’ is concerned with the design and building of ‘things’. These days this can include entering the realm of the exceptionally small… think of genetic engineering, or the really big, think of large airplanes, super tankers, space craft, etc.

‘Mathematics’ underpins all of the above and is essential even though it often gets short shrift in general discourse. Without mathematicians doing what it is they do none of the above would be possible. Understanding basic mathematical principles is actually essential to the understanding of the scientific, technological, engineered world we find ourselves in today.

The full list of STEM fields is too long (and would be tedious to go through) for the forum here and actually varies depending on who (or what agency) you are talking about. For anyone interested here is a link to the National Science Foundation (NSF) Approved STEM Fields: http://www.btaa.org/docs/default-source/diversity/nsf-approved-fields-of-study.pdf?sfvrsn=2

4) You have a web site for students, teachers and interested others. How did this come about ?

The website is an easy way for us to extend information to students, educators, and other interested parties. It also expands our potential reach as anyone can access it rather just those schools and educators that regularly work with us.

5) What seem to be the things that high school teachers most need and are most concerned about ?

Time and resources seem to be the biggest challenges. With so many demands form State, Federal, and other entities for testing and other assessments it is challenging for many teachers to do much more than test preparation with the time they have in the classroom. Also, due to cost and the litigation risks should an accident occur many school districts are limiting or even eliminating lab experiences and field trips. This can make STEM (or indeed) any aspect of education) very dry from a student perspective. Much of STEM is a hands on experience so removing these types of experiences does not really give students a feel for what these fields are actually all about – discovery and problem solving.

6) Let’s talk about the job market- where are the jobs going to be in the next 10, 20 years and what kinds of skills will be needed?

The job landscape is a moving target with new fields opening up on a much faster time scale than ever before. That makes the education landscape both interesting and challenging as how do today’s educators prepare students for jobs that haven’t even be conceived of yet? In a general sense there will be opportunities across the STEM fields but it is nigh impossible to say what the hot areas will be a decade or more from now. Will we be advancing towards a human mission to Mars or one of the moons around Jupiter? Will the Large Hadron Collider have opened new doors onto the subatomic world and hence new fields of physics? Will gene editing have transformed disease treatment? How will climate change be pushing the limits of engineering for coastal cities? Will honeybees and other pollinators have gone extinct or been pushed to population number so slow that they cannot adequately pollinate food crops? How will we provide food? The list of questions goes on.

Give the situation described above what skills will stand students in good stead to be prepared and adaptable?

– Reading and writing skills are essential regardless of the field of study. It is distressing to see the decline in these areas in recent years. Students need to be able to read for deeper meaning rather than just see the words as written.

-Along with this comes the skill to evaluate the source of information – while information has never been easier to access that it is today, not all source are equally credible and student need to be able to distinguish the poor resources from the high quality ones.

-For the STEM fields a strong understanding of mathematics and statistics is always useful

-Continued curiosity about the world, but especially one’s field of study. What humans know about the world is continually expanding and sometimes what we thought we knew turns out to be more nuanced and so learning and acquisition of knowledge should not end with the final set of exams.

7) What are some really good majors and minors for college students nowadays? And how would they fit into STEM?

This will really depend on the interests of the individual student. Mathematics and Statistics are really good fields at just about any time due to the flexibility that comes with these skill sets. Mathematicians and statisticians can apply their skills in multiple different disciplines giving them a wide open field of employment opportunities. Likewise physicists can often apply their skills in a wide array of fields.

Science communication is a field of growing importance that perhaps many prospective STEM students are not aware of. Most reporters and journalists are not scientists and most scientists are not particularly good at explaining their fields of research to non-scientists (or even people outside of their discipline). Give the importance and impact of science, engineering, and technology (all underpinned by mathematics) in our modern way of life there is a need for people who can bridge this gap so that there can be appreciation and understanding of how STEM impacts society. This gets back to an earlier question where I mentioned the STEAM acronym and how the creativity of the arts (in this case language arts) is important.

All of the ‘standard’ STEM fields (life science, chemistry, planetary or Earth science, etc.) have their opportunities. Given the constantly changing landscape of where the STEM fields are advancing I recommend that students do some career research as well as some self-evaluation. Students should give serious thought to what they are really passionate about and look for opportunities and pathways that follow those passions. Once this has been done students can look to what degrees or other qualifications are necessary to achieve those goals. Too many students seem to want to pursue a particular career path because they can potentially earn a high salary. While that might be true, if someone is not passionate about what they do they are unlikely to be happy and possibly they will not even be very good at it.

8) We often hear about women not going into science and math. What has been your experience, and what are you attempting to do in this regard?

This was certainly true historically and is still true in many fields today. There are multiple intertwined reasons for this and studies have, and continue to, unravel what contributes to this situation. I think the life sciences have probably made the most advance in this area in terms of having equitable numbers of women as men, although progress is still needed in other areas of equity. Gains have been made in the physical sciences, engineering, and mathematical fields as well. As a society we need to treat girls at the earliest stages of education as equally capable as boys in the STEM fields. Even today it is not hard to find situations where teachers and parents give signals (sometimes unintentionally) to girls that only boys do mathematics and science and engineering, or that boys are just better at it. In my experience nothing could be further from the truth. Some of the most talented STEM professionals I know are women.

Also, with lower numbers of women in the STEM ranks this means there are fewer female role models to show up-and-coming students that women can be successful. I think that situation is starting to change. With the internet and online communities it is easier for young women to find women mentors and role models across all fields who are successful. Part of what the HSI STEM grant is trying to do is address this situation by providing encouragement to women at the high school and undergraduate level that they can, if they choose to, be successful in the STEM fields.

9) What have I neglected to ask?

I think you covered it well with the questions above. I would just like to end with mentioning that curiosity and a desire to learn is an important attribute regardless of a student’s area of focus, and students should seek to expand their learning in multiple directions. We should all be appreciative of what disciplines other than our own contribute to society and how we might be able to use insights from one discipline in another. It is a bit of a cliché these days but I feel it is still true that we should all aspire to be life-long learners in the full spirit of the term.

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