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What Happened to the E and T in STEM?

April 3, 2012
Schools Today Keep Emphasizing the S and the M, but Hardly Concentrate on Teaching Engineering and Technology Areas of Manufacturing, Construction, Communications and Transportation

We received this very thoughtful response to Walt Boyes' February Editorial "STEM Education - We Get What We Deserve" from Elwood Bredehoeft, a 9-12 high school teacher. He raises some real issues to ponder, and wanted to thank him for taking the time to write, especially since he notes that because he coaches his school's FIRST robotics team, he's taken more time to write us than he's spent with his family lately.

I read with great interest your article, and it really struck a few chords with my own observations.

I am a technology/engineering teacher in a 9-12 high school, and also sponsor the faculty sponsor of FIRST Team 1018 (We're currently in competition build season, so I will probably spend more time writing this than I have spent with my family this week.)

I was trained as an industrial arts teacher many years ago, so have seen the progression away from manufacturing, materials and processes and toward the emphasis on what I call pure academics, courtesy of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and other top-down political decisions. 

Yes, I believe that all students can learn, but no, just because a decision was made concerning education by someone higher up the ladder than me doesn't necessarily make it a good one. STEM in schools, at least from my perspective, receives the typical band-wagon attention, and the term is thrown about as a status symbol or trendy buzzword.  The emphasis remains on the S and the M, leaving the engineering and technology areas of manufacturing, construction, communications and transportation largely untouched. 

The emphasis on engineering is given token attention based on its relationship to science and math and distancing itself from the areas of application. We're proud of how it relates to science and math, but don't seem to be able to carry the connection forward to the areas of our economy and culture to actually understand how it's used. 

At the risk of redundancy, I think engineering is used to the end of showing off our name-dropping of math, science and STEM, but as a school, we remain clueless of the concept that engineering and technology exist to apply that knowledge to solve problems that in turn raise our standard of living. 
But, of course, I'm preaching to the choir. The first things to go away when money got tight in the school system were elective classes, especially those in technology education. Guidance counselors and administrators rationalized that "our kids are going to college – they don't need this anymore." They failed to recognize, with their education/liberal arts background, that some students go to college to study technical subjects. 

Additionally, I think manufacturing was avoided because "I don't want to work in some factory." Students must be inspired at an early age, and totally wiping out technology classes at the middle-school level has deprived them of the joy of inventing, creating, solving problems and producing tangible products so common in the industrial arts era. 

Our state formerly required such electives at the middle-school level, but allowed that requirement to slip away. It is as though the school established a goal of turning out prize-winning writers by teaching composition, methods of developing a plot, etc., but avoiding the teaching of spelling and grammar which comprises the foundation of the written word.  

By the time the students come to high school, they are very unaware of the opportunities to be had in technology, and at the hands of clueless curriculum designers that govern class offerings, they are either shuttled into college prep tracks or sent off to vocational school for half the day.  This forces them to select a specialty plan of study instead of allowing the sampling of many facets of our world of work that technology education provides as a general education elective to all students.

I think the solution lies in applying pressure to decision-makers to again value the hands-on minds-on opportunities they took away, all the way down the "chain of command" from federal and state governments to the local school boards who sometimes are not encouraged to think for themselves.  Manufacturing has always been misunderstood in schools, by students, parents, guidance counselors, and administrators alike. 

We also will begin to endure a generation of teachers and administrators who never have been exposed to technology education as students, therefore the cluelessness to which you referred.  More and more entities outside of the school are picking up and compensating for what the schools are failing to do, and I think this needs to serve as an indicator of what schools need to reconsider. 

Of all the valuable lessons learned by students on FIRST Robotics teams, many of these were formerly a part of general education classes that were available to all students, not just a few students in an after-school program.

I thank you for your observations.  Your points need to be held up to the attention of all those who impact our education system.  I think it is a crime to trivialize the tremendous resource a common public education system has to offer, and to undermine the those efforts by diverting resources to other less established organizations attempting to capitalize on the difficulties public education must currently face. 

We need to help, respect, and cultivate the human resources we currently have as well, giving support to those who have committed their lives to doing a good job in the classroom.  As I have observed here in Indianapolis, finding the best and brightest teachers for our schools is much more complex than just running an ad on television, seeking to replace those who have already spent years to acquire the training and experience this task so desperately needs.

Again, Thank You! – and keep the discussion going!

Woody Bredehoeft,
Pike High School Engineering & Technology Education Project Lead
The Way Instructor, IED, POE, EDD (www.pltw.org)

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