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How We Should Imagine the Future of STEM Education

December 16, 2014

In the spring of 2015, Greenville will play host to an innovative event organized to showcase and celebrate the future of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). iMAGINE Upstate is a week-long program that will include presentations, workshops, student challenges and special events designed to inspire students, families and young professionals across the Upstate. This series of community sponsored and student driven programs will capstone with a family friendly festival in Downtown Greenville.

(iMAGINE Upstate Execuitve Director Ryan Heafy)

iMAGINE Upstate Executive Director Ryan Heafy recently took some time to answer questions regarding the current challenges facing students and educators—the significant motivators behind the organization of iMAGINE Upstate.

What are the current challenges facing STEM education centers?

“One of the biggest obstacles we have to face is ending the perception that every student must attend a four-year college to be successful. Currently, one of the best resources for students to gain knowledge in high-paying STEM-related careers is the two-year degree path at technical colleges. While no doubt effective, the challenge with this option is that there is an unfortunate stigma associated with technical colleges and trade schools. We need to break down those barriers and show students and parents the vast number of opportunities available outside of traditional four-year degree tracks. The reality is that these four-year degree programs aren’t right for everyone—and can actually be detrimental to their career path if not utilized.

If a student who clearly demonstrated a proficiency for working with his or her hands or in technology pursues a four-year degree because of societal and parental pressure without having clear direction and an identified career path, they may end up with a degree in a field they aren’t passionate about, with excessive student loan debtand little opportunity for a positive and enjoyable career path.

Imagine if that same student pursued a two-year degree in machine tool technology after high school, taking advantage of local scholarship opportunities. He or she could attend a local technical college and by the time they are 21, have a valued degree, little to no debt, and real world work experience. As an experienced candidate that student can now land a career in manufacturing at $16 to $22 an hour, with the potential to participate in a corporate program that would compensate and reward the student for continuing his or her education. This same student has now gone from being a high school graduate to a CNC programmer in a high tech manufacturing facility, has significant hands on experience, and makes more than the entry-level mechanical engineer out of a four-year program—who is also entering the workforce with over $100,000 in debt. I know which path I would choose.

The key to solving this problem is demonstrating these opportunities to the community in a way that both students and parents are aware of, while also showcasing it as “cool” to pursue options other than a traditional four-year degree path.

To effectively do this we need to start engaging students and parents at a younger age and getting them excited about manufacturing, technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship. If students don’t know what options are available to them, how will they be empowered to make effective decisions in determining a future career path?”  

What role can educators play in fostering this change?

“Educators and parents need to be sure to be attentive as to how their students learn best. It’s also critical for educators to understand the various options available to students. For far too long, the system has failed to clearly demonstrate the countless career paths students can take—especially in the world of STEM-related professions.

If you were an 8th grade student and your guidance counselor asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, there’s a strong likelihood that you would say something along the lines of ‘professional athlete, actor, singer, etc. Most students at that age are going to say what they can relate to, rather than a career path that may be more ideal for them. This is at no fault to the student or educators—there is just a lack of understanding of career options available

The student just doesn’t have a good understanding of what career options are available because it’s a challenge to get students engaged and aware of these opportunities, while still addressing traditional curriculum requirements. We have to find ways to break down that barrier and start exposing students at a very young age to the opportunities available.

Another challenge we face is that parents, educators, and guidance counsellors often struggle with the best way to structure curriculum to prepare students for these STEM-related careers. Like the students, educators aren’t exposed to modern manufacturing processes and technology in the field. We train our educators to teach, but without direct experience in a variety of STEM-related careers, how can a teacher know how to best prepare a student for success?

To address these issues, it’s important that we break the mold and create opportunities where we can bring students, educators and parents together to experience and interact with applications of STEM-related careers. That’s what iMAGINE Upstate will work to accomplish; helping the next generation workforce learn about the great number of possibilities they have right in front of them.”

How can manufacturing/businesses become more involved in STEM education?

“It’s important for the private industry sector to help drive workforce development through investment in STEM education and the development of their own pipeline. Some of the most effective programs ever created are those that come out of public/private partnerships where large manufacturing or technology companies are collaborating with, mentoring and participating in project based learning with students at all levels.”

What skills must the modern labor force have? Why?

“Communication, collaboration, creativity and analytical thinking are a few of the key assets the modern worker needs. Today manufacturers are looking to make products as efficiently as possible using advanced technology. Employees with varying skillsets are coming together in the office to collaborate in teams where marketing and engineering sit side-by-side in product development, and sales and manufacturing have developed a continuous market feedback loop helping to ensure success.”

What can manufacturers and educational centers do to make students interested in manufacturing?

“The simple answer is that they need to get more involved. Imagine if every company required all of its employees to get involved in showcasing their business to local schools, and rewarded them for doing it.

Until students get to experience a more engaging, hands-on learning environment, most information will go in one ear and out the other. Think about what you remember from school: Dissecting the frog, field trips orplaying with dry ice in science class. We need to create more opportunities to get our students involved in the types of work they will eventually do.”

iMAGINE Upstate will be held March 28th-April 4th . Individual and organizations looking to participate or host events are invited to register at: http://www.imagineupstate.org/register-event/

TOPICS: Upstate Thoughts