July 10, 2020
By: Al Byers, Chuck English, Steven Barbato, and Dave Barnes
Are you part of the 15 percent that remember Sputnik, the purported catalyst for the scientific revolution that hit the United States 50 years ago? One small satellite inspired a country to realize that it was behind scientifically and to organize ourselves, our drive and ambition, to do so much more. Schools, businesses and the government were inspired and driven to push science and engineering further, ultimately creating so much we count on today as just part of our everyday lives.
When asked why science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have not been fully embraced, some leaders say that STEM has not had its ‘Sputnik moment.’ Technology’s presence in our mainstream culture might be a comparative result, but it built so slowly that we didn’t have our moment. We are the users or subjects of technology from Artificial Intelligence to social media to word processors and spreadsheets. It seamlessly blends into our everyday lives, our interactions, even the marketing we see or hear now consistently integrates big data analysis and automated algorithms seeking patterns to project future actions. These times of COVID-19 may be the moment we need to catalyze our actions around STEM.
STEM education has predominantly been portrayed as a tool for developing the workforce pipeline and keeping America globally competitive. STEM education and STEM literacy is much more. STEM literacy is the foundation of tools we need to make sense of our world. To notice and wonder, to ask questions, to critique your reasoning and the reasoning of others are central to understanding and making informed decisions about how we tackle global problems like the spread of infectious diseases. STEM is also the tools to understand and solve energy sustainability, biodiversity, climate change, and more.
Does hand washing make a difference? Why? How much? How does social distancing work? What is the impact? Why is it said to flatten the curve? Why is this important? What policy and funding priorities will impact our situation? What personal lifestyle changes will impact our challenges?
Right now, we need to have a citizenry and culture that understands the integrated concepts of STEM to make sense of the world and consider the impact of actions. It is this perspective and understanding that serves the collective community as we move forward in these uncertain times.
Covid-19 presents a range of different problems, concerns and scenarios which are approachable and understandable with STEM practices and STEM literacy. The problems exist both within and across content areas demonstrating the natural integrative connection between science, technology, engineering and math. Masks and other personal protection equipment (PPE) are needed to help prevent spread of COVID-19. Individuals, community groups, industries, universities, and even schools started to develop, manufacture, disinfect, and distribute of PPEs to places of need. This required thinking, problem solving and practices across STEM. Science and mathematical modeling can help understand the spread of COVID-19 and how to design, engineer mask to protect individuals. Mathematics, technology, and engineering are needed to design plans and program 3D printers, as well as use engineering and technology to understand and utilize distribution networks for PPEs. Understanding, modeling, and projecting for the change in the numbers of PPEs applies mathematical and statistical practices and understandings as you model spread and changes based on variables including policy decisions. This connects the expected curve of infections to the number of healthcare specialists needed so production decisions can be made and acted upon.
PPEs, as are many other opportunities and challenges, are able to connect to the full cycle of STEM. From social distancing, to how vaccines work, to medical testing, to organizing safe gatherings all can be explored and better understood through STEM.
STEM literacy is literacy needed by each and every person. The vital nature of STEM literacy is evident in these unprecedented times which reveals how closely linked STEM understanding and tools are to both economic and community security, and the ability to make sense of, question, and participate in the world around us.
An integrative approach to STEM is vital, not only to survive but to thrive through the changes that will come from this experience. This is not a challenge of just science, discrete and separate from mathematics, or a solution strategy that will exclude the use of engineering and technology. Our problems, the ones we are experiencing now as COVID-19 spreads within the United States, are, in part, the result of us truly not grasping implications of the virus’s impact on our society and our structures. Greater STEM literacy would have helped.
This COVID-19 moment to offer and raise the value of the interdisciplinary STEM for every person to develop and be able to apply their understandings of science, technology, engineering and mathematics to our daily lives. To notice. To wonder. To ask questions. This is our moment to clearly define how STEM can support and impact our lives.
Those who understand STEM, its integration and application, they are able to participate in and lead in changes to technology and our culture and to move us forward. This moment has the opportunity for positive change in institutions that have remained stagnant. Together we can make sure that every district and school has access and support to make changes and grow, to improve, learn and support the next generation of learners as they support our collective path forward. This is never more apparent than to parents and families with kids in schools as administrators, counselors, and teachers scrambled to engage students in homebound experiences to effectively and efficiently advance learning. Will we use our ‘Sputnik moment’ to turn challenges into opportunities and build a culture of STEM literacy for everyone?
We have the opportunity for everyone’s lives to be enriched through STEM.
Al S. Byers, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and visiting scholar in STEM education at the VCU School of Education. He is also directs the Center for Innovation in STEM Education. Prior to VCU, he was an Associate Executive Director at the National Science Teaching Association, where he developed large scale sustainable solutions for teacher professional learning. Dr. Byers has served as Principal Investigator on over $40M of competitively awarded grants focused on blended teacher PD and student STEM competitions. Prior to NSTA, he was an Aerospace Education Specialist for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and an instructor for Oklahoma State University. At the beginning of his career he was a middle school teacher in Chesterfield, Virginia. He has served on advisory boards for the National Academy of Sciences, the National Science Foundation, the American Museum of Natural History, the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, and the US Department of Education. He’s an accomplished author with a recent chapter in the Harvard Press book: Teacher Learning in the Digital Age, and a guest lecturer regarding the same.
Chuck English has designed, developed, and supported new and innovative programs in schools, school districts, and informal education centers in several states. He has worked in museums as an education director and taught science and science education from elementary school through college. As education centers, especially informal education centers, are looking at new ways to engage and inspire their audience, Chuck’s work has evolved into program development, evaluation, and strategic planning. In his previous role as Director of Playful Learning at the Science Museum of Virginia, Chuck worked to create programming both inside and outside the Museum to engage families in STEM learning, with particular focus on underserved audiences. In his new role as Virginia STEM Coordinator, Chuck is working to pull together the vast wealth of opportunities and experiences across the Commonwealth associated with STEM. Many stakeholders are working hard to create enriching STEM experiences; however, they are often working in isolation. In his role, Chuck is working to ensure sure STEM efforts work collaboratively, sharing experiences, resources, and energy.
As ITEEA Executive Director/CEO, Steve brings with him, ten years of teaching Technology and Engineering Education, six years as State Supervisor for Technology Education at the Delaware Department of Education, five years in private business, and 13 years as a school district administrator as Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment with an emphasis on PreK-12 STEM integration. He has acquired several action-research grants and written articles for many professional journals. Steve is focused on providing leadership in carrying out ITEEA's mission to advance technological and engineering understanding and capabilities for all people! His ultimate professional goal is for ITEEA to meet the professional needs and interests of its all members and its STEM constituents, as well as to improve public understanding of technology, innovation, design, and engineering education and its contributions for all students. -- Technology and Engineering Brings STEM To Life!
Dave Barnes Ph.D CAE, is the Associate Executive Director for National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). Dave is a former high school mathematics teacher, university professor, and has been with the Council for past twenty years. Dave’s NCTM efforts include Illuminations, Principles and Standard for School Mathematics, Principles to Actions, and the recent Catalyzing Change series. Dave oversees the Research, Learning and Development division of NCTM which includes the Council’s Professional Develop, Research Conference, and Journal for Research in Mathematics Education. He also directs advocacy efforts for the Council including the development of partnerships with mathematics, education, and STEM entities. #MathIsSTEM!
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