ASEE Prism Magazine
asee today  

President's Message

Lending a Hand to K-12

By Wallace T. Fowler

Wallace T. FowlerAt 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. Public-school 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 real-world context. Not only that, many public-school 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 public-school teachers as professionals, nor do we pay them as such. It is not surprising, then, that teachers with high-tech 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 high-tech 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 K-12 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 well-planned way."

Engineering education is an enormous enterprise. If we join with higher-education 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 well-planned" 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 public-school 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 public-school teachers represented on the task force. If you have worked with public-school 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 e-mail at fowler@csr.utexas.edu.