Discovery Learning Research Center

STEM Branches Out

July 14, 2011

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the College of Technology's Innovation magazine. More from the magazine is available at www.tech.purdue.edu/innovation.


Not long ago, if someone uttered the phrase "STEM education," that person probably received quizzical looks. But in today's increasingly technological world, the well-known acronym for "science, technology, engineering and math" is used everywhere, from Purdue students to the president of the United States. STEM comprises disciplines that Purdue excels at, and they are four that are critical to solving many of our world's grand challenges.

Faculty in the College of Technology -- the "T" in STEM at Purdue -- have been increasingly focused on STEM education in recent years and are approaching it from new and innovative angles. For them, it's not just about making sure students choose these academic or career disciplines. They want to make sure that students understand how science, technology, engineering and math can be used to solve problems ranging from designing a better mitten to evaluating the effectiveness of a cancer treatment.

A model project

Todd Kelley, assistant professor of industrial technology, was hired in 2008 as part of the Purdue P-12 STEM initiative, which focuses on ways to get more students interested and proficient in STEM, from preschool through high school. Kelley says the issue of STEM education should be a concern for everyone.

"On the national level, you can look at institutions like the National Science Foundation (NSF), which have increasingly been funding these initiatives," he says. "Why are they funding them? Because STEM is important to our nation's ability to compete on a global scale. It's not unlike where we were with the space race in the 1960s. It was a question of whether we were going to remain a dominant leader, and it's the same issue here."

Kelley hopes to make at least some inroads in boosting STEM education with upper elementary school-age children as part of a five-year, $6.7 million NSF grant to improve science learning in rural elementary schools. He is part of a multidisciplinary team that includes four Indiana school districts and other faculty from the colleges of Education, Technology and Engineering.

Kelley says the unique aspect of this grant is that it doesn't just focus on one aspect of STEM, but all facets of it. The project will concentrate especially on helping teachers learn how to incorporate engineering design and problem-based learning into the classroom.

"Problem-based learning has great potential, not just in improving students' skills in STEM disciplines, but also in teaching them how to go about solving problems," he says. "Whether they eventually go into technology, engineering, science or even other careers like the medical field or law, problem solving is important. Those are skills you can use in any discipline and skills we will need to compete on a global scale."

The program, which kicked off this spring, will provide tools and guidance to in-service teachers, with the help of Purdue faculty and pre-service teachers. Curriculum will be created by Purdue professors, including those in the College of Technology. Helen McNally, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering technology, will work with in-service teachers to create lessons related to nanotechnology. Kari Clase, associate professor of industrial technology, will help design lessons related to biotechnology. Also assisting with lesson development are Bryan Hubbard, assistant professor of building construction management, and Jenny Daugherty, assistant professor of organizational leadership and supervision.

As part of the grant, there will be a summer program each of the five years where the group will come together to work on curriculum that fits best with the age of the students.
  
"It can be very hard for in-service teachers to adjust to new technologies and new ways of teaching," Kelley says. "That's why we are involving our subject-expert faculty along with pre-service teachers. Together, they can integrate the subjects into lessons that will work well for the classroom."

Getting STEM teachers into rural schools is a special challenge, Kelley says, which is why the grant has a focus on rural schools. Schools in the program are Plymouth Community School Corp. in Plymouth, Ind.; Taylor Community School Corp. near Kokomo, Ind.; Tippecanoe School Corp.; and Lafayette School Corp. Although Lafayette School Corp. is not rural, Kelley says it is being included because Sunnyside Middle School has a dedicated block of time where students focus on STEM learning.

After each school year, results of the new lessons will be measured through performance on math and science on ISTEP tests.

Although raising math and science scores is certainly a goal of STEM education, it is not the primary one. As Kelley points out, other countries may outperform this one when it comes to scores, and it's tough to compete with the salaries that countries like India or China pay their scientists and engineers. That's why the United States needs to think outside the box.

"The question when it comes to STEM education is how can we remain competitive on a global scale," he says. "The answer is creativity, or teaching our students to be critical, creative thinkers. We can't just be lab rats or number crunchers anymore. We must now be critical and creative problem solvers."

New approaches

Another faculty member who has a passion for STEM education is Alka Harriger, a professor of computer and information technology. Harriger has been at Purdue since 1982 and is especially concerned about how to attract females into computing careers, which have been traditionally filled by men. Harriger is in the late stages of an NSF-funded project called SPIRIT (Surprising Possibilities Imagined and Realized through Information Technology) that focuses on educating high school teachers, counselors and students about the many career options available in computers.

Although results on the effectiveness of SPIRIT are not yet fully known, Harriger believes that programs like this that educate teachers and counselors on the computer-related career options available to girls are key to changing perceptions about the field.

"Computing touches every aspect of people's lives, from kids to health care to law enforcement. No matter what field you are interested in, computers are now a part of that," she says. "People think they have to be brilliant to get into these areas, but the fact is if you are willing to work hard and have a good work ethic, you can excel in most fields, including computing."

Harriger says that STEM subjects, including computing, can definitely present challenges, but the key is for students to learn to persevere through hardship. She believes that one of the reasons U.S. students are falling behind in STEM disciplines is because people in other countries must work harder to obtain a solid education, and therefore are willing to work harder and not take it for granted.

Harriger, who was born in India but moved to the United States at age 5, tells the story of her father, who came from a poor family but valued education enough to work through all hardships and eventually earn a doctorate in math from Purdue and retire as a professor of math and computer science.

"My dad understood the value of education to be able to rise to the level that he did," she says. "A lot of students today take opportunities for granted. The fact is that when you have to work hard for something, you value it more and can truly savor your successes."

The future
  
Both Kelley and Harriger agree that it will take more than the traditional approach to attract more students into STEM disciplines and retain them. It will take nontraditional methods -- like those they are employing -- to reach more students, including those who may not have considered STEM subjects, such as underrepresented populations and women.

"Having a diverse population in STEM disciplines is critical for a global workforce," Kelley says. "We must take a multidisciplinary approach and include multiple voices to develop sustainable solutions."

Harriger believes that projects like SPIRIT are useful in attracting more females into STEM (specifically computing) because they introduce the people who advise students (teachers and counselors), along with students, to the wide-ranging opportunities in the field.

"I know awareness of computing careers has definitely increased and that we have increased the knowledge level with all three groups," she says.

In addition to finishing up the last cohort of SPIRIT, Harriger is working on a variety of awareness-focused projects, including proposals for projects similar to SPIRIT and teaching a graduate class in the spring that focuses on human resource issues in information technology.

And she and husband Brad Harriger, professor of mechanical engineering technology, are working with health and kinesiology experts on technology-based fitness games that she hopes could serve a dual purpose of attracting more students into STEM and computing as well as fighting the obesity epidemic.

"I'm always on a quest to get kids to see the value of STEM careers and work STEM into their future goals," she says.

For the next few years, Kelley's main focus will be on working with the team on the NSF grant, but he has additional STEM-related projects on the horizon as well. Though the focus of the grant is students in grades 3-6, Kelley thinks that targeting students in lower grades would be valuable as well. He has been working with preschool-age children at the Purdue Child Development Laboratory Preschool on simple concepts, such as experiments involving moving a pingpong ball, and is encouraged by what this age group is already able to grasp.

"Studies show that girls turn off to math by the fourth grade, so it's really never too early to begin introducing STEM concepts to children," he says. "I see great things with this age group, as well as K-16."

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