Lending a Hand to
K12
By
Wallace T. Fowler
At
almost every turn, we are faced with evidence that our public schools
are not adequately preparing students in mathematics and science. Consequently,
many students who could become good engineers never get the chance. Articles
in the February issue of Prism focused on the problems of mathematics
and science literacy among students in public schools. Specific articles
focused on a charter school that is successful, the trouble with math
and science textbooks, and programs where universities work with public
schools to improve math and science education.
The poor state of
math and science education is well documented. The fall 2000 report by
the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st
Century, entitled "Before It's Too Late," summarizes these problems
quite well. Publicschool math and science teachers are key to solving
these problems but they need help.
Many school districts
are in a bind. They have to use teachers who don't have math and science
backgrounds to teach those subjects. As a result, teachers are often unable
to put either into a realworld context. Not only that, many publicschool
teachers work in classrooms where students are unmotivated, undisciplined,
inattentive, and unappreciative of their efforts. These same teachers
must also perform such tasks as monitoring the cafeteria, patrolling the
halls and driving school buses.
We do not treat publicschool
teachers as professionals, nor do we pay them as such. It is not surprising,
then, that teachers with hightech skills who can easily double their
salaries, cut their hours, and have a safer and more enjoyable working
environment are leaving the teaching profession. The average length of
the career of a young teacher with hightech skills is less than one academic
year. We must find ways to keep teachers with math and science backgrounds
in the classroom. We also need to help teachers without those backgrounds
become more proficient in math and science. Finally, we need to generate
excitement among all math and science teachers about these subjects.
Over the past decade,
programs have been initiated that address specific aspects of the problems.
For example, in 1989 the National Space Grant and Fellowship Program (the
space analog to the Land Grant and Sea Grant programs) was created by
Congress with a primary focus on improving K12 science, mathematics,
and technology education. NSF sponsors projects in this area, and many
of the proposals for NASA's space science projects have mandatory outreach
components. Despite these and other efforts, progress is disappointing.
In his article "Building Tomorrow's Workforce" in this magazine
last month, Alvin P. Sanoff gave examples of programs at several universities
that were created as a result of the shortcomings documented in various
studies. Karl Reid, dean of engineering, architecture and technology at
Oklahoma State, is quoted as describing these programs as "islands
of excellence." Reid also says "We have to recognize that there
is a crisis and then attack the crisis in a much broader wellplanned
way."
Engineering education
is an enormous enterprise. If we join with highereducation programs in
mathematics, science, and engineering technology education, we represent
an enormous talent pool that understands why mathematics and science are
important. And if we add all the citizens who are educated in science,
mathematics, engineering, and technology, we have an even greater resource
pool. We need to find ways to bridge the gap between those who understand
science, mathematics, and technology and those who do not. The bridge
must be built by those in science and engineering who have all of the
tools.
I believe ASEE is
the appropriate home for the "broader wellplanned" effort suggested
by Karl Reid. One of our most neglected professional responsibilities
as engineers and engineering educators is the interpretation of engineering,
engineering technology, and applied science for the nontechnical segment
of society. There is no better place to start than by working with publicschool
math and science teachers. That is where we can be the most effective.
In early April, I
will appoint a task force to explore ways that ASEE can work with mathematics
and science teachers in the public schools. I hope to have practicing
engineers, engineering educators, science educators, mathematics educators,
and publicschool teachers represented on the task force. If you have
worked with publicschool students and teachers in the past and want to
share your ideas, or if you would like to serve on the task force, please
contact me by email at fowler@csr.utexas.edu.
