The STEM challenge

25 October 2012

SAVANNAH, Ga.–Sitting in front of me are 150 people who hold our future in their hands.

They’re teachers from the Georgia Engineering Teachers Education (GETEA) association, and they have asked me to speak at their annual conference here about the Drive for Innovation.

I want to hear from them as much as they want to hear from me what’s going on outside their little piece of the country.

Once the cradle of cotton and textiles, Georgia is desperately trying to beef up its technology education to attract tech businesses and create jobs.

A few years ago, the state adopted a track-based approach to high school education–whether it’s farming or engineering–you pick the track as a freshman, and that’s your emphasis for the next four years.

GETEA’s been around for decades and the state chapter of the Technology Student Association (the TSA that doesn’t pat you down) is one of the country’s most active.

But it’s a battle.

Inspiration, dedication

On a soft warm fall Saturday outside of Woodville Tompkins High School, I tell them about our year-long journey, emphasizing what we saw at colleges and K-12 programs around the nation.

I tell the educators about Baird Soules at the M5 maker center at UMass-Amherst; the Penn EV team; about the four Arizona State Engineering students who spend their “free” time mentoring grade school kids about technology and math as part of SAE program. I tell them of the integrated program at High Tech High in San Diego.

And I joked about Don Morgan, the teacher-inspiration behind our first high school stop on the trip as we drove through quiet little Quitman, Ga. Morgan is a force of nature in these parts, and he asked me to come talk of our adventures.

My message: As technology increasingly feeds on itself, it makes the tools of innovation easier to use and available to a non-traditional audience. This means teachers need to not only to build nimble, problem-solving minds but put technology in students’ hands and say, “Here, go break this and tell me what you learned.”

But these fine folks face so many obstacles, not the least of which is that funding cuts mean more car washes and bake sales. There also are turf battles and mind-numbing bureaucracies that often hog-tie teachers, crimp their creativity and ability to do more with less.

One veteran educator works in a school where principals roll through on an average every 18 months. One watched in shock as a state education official came to his classroom, clipboard in hand, to note that he was out of compliance because the mandatory “word wall” was not quite what it was supposed to  be. He was teaching engineering the day of the official’s visit.

Still others talk of a tension between engineering curricula and programs and other STEM areas. The TSA, I’m told, often butts heads with other student associations, such as the Future Farmers of America.

I don’t know how they stick with it, but they do, because of their passion and a desire to build the future and see the fruits of labors come up and shake their hands some day in gratitude.

Regional challenge

It’s easier, I suspect, on the coasts because many parents are involved in the technology industries. A lot of you, I know, spend nights and weekends volunteering on maker projects with your kids and grand kids. But in places like Georgia, which is hungry for transformation, there’s no similar base. It must be built from the ground up.

Companies often help out, but they’re not in the education business even though their futures depend on educated, innovative workers.

Guys like Don Morgan and his 149 colleagues in the auditorium can only do so much and find only so much solace in the fact that they’re not alone.

It’s a major problem and it sticks like barbecue sauce under your nails.


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