Last Word - To Ensure Our Future

Every student need to be technology-savvy, and engineering educators should teach them

By Teresa L. Hein

Illustration by Peter HoeyIt's 1999-do you know where the college students of the next millennium are? They're sitting in elementary and secondary school classrooms, being taught by people who may know nothing about engineering and have little or no training in math, science, and technology.

Do college and university engineering educators have an obligation to foster science and technology literacy? Does that obligation extend beyond engineering-bound and engineering students to include all elementary, secondary, and postsecondary school students?

The answer to both questions is  a resounding "yes" and the reasons are considerable. We all have a stake in improving science, mathematics, engineering, and technology (SME&T) education. The recent National Science Foundation report, Shaping the Future: New Expectations for Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology, emphasizes the idea that all education is linked: "So these sectors have mutual obligations to each other, and the fulfillment of these obligations is essential for the health of the whole.

A Call to Arms

So what should we do? K-12 teacher education is a good place to start. We need to institute more collaborations between education schools and SME&T departments. We need to bring together experts in the specific content areas with experts in effective pedagogical development, cognition and learning, and learning styles to make sure tomorrow's K-12 teachers not only understand SME&T but also know how to teach it.

We must also take a bigger role in improving and enhancing nonengineering undergraduates' science and technology literacy. The United States is a technology-driven society, and the pace of technology's growth shows no signs of ebbing. It's generally accepted that many of today's high school and college students will, in the coming decades, be doing work that has not yet been invented!  It's very possible that even the least SME&T-related fields will still require basic science and technology literacy at the entry levels. Undoubtedly, higher levels of scientific and technological literacy will be necessary in order for all individuals to function as productive members of society.

How can SME&T educators make knowledge about these new technologies available and readily accessible to all students? The NSF report further suggested that:

    What we in undergraduate SME&T education must do is to concern ourselves with all students, not just those who historically have been represented in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. Such a breadth of concern has important educational benefits as well, as it will force us to think more about how individuals learn and recognize what research has made clear: that there are differences in learning style that profoundly affect achievement. And let us not forget that increasing student achievement in SME&T education is exactly what is needed.

Again, collaboration between educators is the key. One way to make SME&T education available to all students, and particularly to nonscience majors, is to make room for it in the general education core. Every student should be required to take one more science and technology literacy course, ideally to be taught collaboratively by an SME&T instructor and another faculty member. It is one thing to offer students an elective-type course on a topic such as "SME&T and Society"; it is quite another to require such a course (or series of courses) as part of the university's general education core and graduation requirements.

Engineering educators need to be more involved with educating nonengineering students. We all have a stake in the education of these young people.  Providing the nonengineering student with a solid undergraduate experience that includes science and technology literacy is vital to the engineering profession as well as to society.  As more students learn and become aware of how SME&T impacts their own lives, they will become better able to understand the importance of what engineers do.

This is an exciting time to be involved with SME&T education. Collaborations between SME&T faculty members and those involved with preparing future teachers, as well as those involved with preparing students in nontechnical majors, could provide the necessary catalyst to ensure science and technology literacy for all students in the next millennium

Teresa L. Hein is an assistant professor of physics education at American University and a member of ASEE's Board of Directors.

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