Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Future scientists and the future of science

One of the hats that I wear outside of my job is as a STEM volunteer and (cringe) activist. Unlike Stem Cells, it’s not a very controversial position, but it does require overcoming huge amounts of inertia.

STEM is the (fairly recent) TLA given for K-12 education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. The idea is that certain professions (and thus society) will be in trouble if we don’t give our children the basics, keep them interested through adolescence, and expose them to real science and the career opportunities. The NSF, Department of Education and others are making (limited) efforts to correct the problem.

As with last year (and most years since 1989), today I spent the whole day (as I have annually since 1989) as a judge for the county science fair, now known as the Synopsys Challenge after its sponsor. As an IEEE member, I was part of a team of a dozen or so judges that gave out awards on behalf of IEEE and other organizations that outsource their judging to use (due to our superior processes and scale efficiencies).

Among the junior/senior high projects I saw, perhaps the most exciting was an improved efficiency wind turbine blade where the 12th grader applied for a provisional patent earlier this year. (I also suggested a provisional patent for two Cupertino students, although they are probably more than a year away from a prototype that would justify the cost of a full patent application.)

Mostly I looked at computer science or computer engineering projects, including three by 11th grade boys. One Palo Alto student measured the robustness of the SVD algorithm at the heart of the winners of the $1M Netflix challenge. A San Jose student improved on encryption strength using a different randomization technique, and solving the indeterminacy of the decryption problem. A project from Cupertino looked at solving differential equations using Nvidia’s CUDA GPU toolkit. A fourth project introduced me to DNA computing.

Today marked the 50th anniversary of the Santa Clara science fair, which is 5 years younger than the San Diego science fair where I was once a contestant and later a judge. An interest in science fairs is a theme of my K-12 efforts, having run the science fair at my child’s elementary school for 3 years.

I also try to recruit volunteer science fair and robotics judges from among MIT’s 10,000+ alumni in Northern California as the coordinator of the MITCNC K-12 outreach efforts. My next task is to help find Silicon Valley judges for the International Science & Engineering Fair to be held in San Jose May 11-14. (Apparently some of our outreach efforts are a model for a nationwide K-12 outreach effort being launched nationally by the MIT Alumni Association).

The extracurricular stuff is fun, and recognizes the best and the best of the best. But it does little to raise the understanding of science and technology by the average college student, employee or citizen — or to increase the supply of graduates for STEM-related professions.

Last week, I went to the semi-annual regional meeting of SJSU’s Center For STEM Education, to meet local K-12 STEM educators and administrators. What I heard was troubling.

The weakness of STEM education is particularly severe in grades K-5, where one estimate is that California kids get 1 hour/week of science education. There are several root causes. While secondary ed (grades 6-12) has science (“single subject”) specialists, K-5 teachers are generalists — most with a humanities background.

Worse yet, some California principals don’t care about science achievement because it plays a very small part in the standardized performance tests — by one estimate, 5% of the school’s total points. This is an example of the tyranny of measurement — perhaps not so blatant as WorldCom sales commissions, but one that has a far broader and longer-lasting impact on society.

Last Saturday, President Obama announced his intention to fulfill promises to teacher unions to water down No Child Left Behind. But the one change that I would agree with is the idea that school districts could modify the weighting criteria to include subjects such as science.

The actual technical content of improving science education is pretty straightforward. The organizational change to make that happen in more than 15,000 districts across the country is quite daunting.

I’m not sure how to get from here to there, but apparently that’s not enough to discourage me or my fellow STEM activists from pursuing such a Sisyphean task. Perhaps efforts by other alumni organizations — and professional scientific and engineering societies — will help raise the priority and efficacy of K-12 science education.

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