Intel Foundation: Changing Attitudes Is Key in STEM Education

Wendy Hawkins of the Intel Foundation discusses the state of STEM education and what challenges exist.

The Intel Foundation hosts annual science and engineering competitions, such as this one in 2011 when President Barack Obama viewed experiments. Executive Director Wendy Hawkins says it is critical to engage students in STEM education.
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Several studies have reported that during the next 10 years, there will be millions of open jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields – also known as STEM – and not enough educated workers to fill those positions.

President Barack Obama has said on several occasions that the nation's educational system needs to make a greater push to train students to have the necessary skills to pursue careers in these fields. But as many states are facing severe budget cuts and are struggling to adjust to new educational standards, such as the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards, more companies, foundations and nonprofit organizations are partnering with schools and communities to provide more opportunities for students.

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The Intel Foundation, for example, is an organization founded in 1988 that funds annual competitions and science fairs that encourage innovation in STEM education and provide a venue for students to showcase their accomplishments. The international events together host more than 7 million students from 80 countries around the world.

Wendy Hawkins, executive director of the foundation, sat down with U.S. News to talk about the state of STEM education and what progress still needs to be made. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

What are some issues facing the progression of STEM education in the United States?

What's been really fascinating to me is, here in the United States, we do a lot of breast-beating about how terribly we're doing on [international] tests and that our students are, in fact, losing interest in STEM careers. But when I go to countries that we use as the shining examples of what we should be more like ... they're just as worried as we are. They're seeing that same drop-off in interest. They're concerned that in many of the cases, China in particular, that they're teaching their students to do well on the tests but they're not teaching them to be innovators. They don't have any Nobel Laureates, they don't develop the new ideas, and so they're very eager for figuring out what we do in the United States that's different.

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They keep looking at us and saying, "You're the ones that have the highest numbers of patents, you're the ones with the Nobel Laureates, you're the ones with the invention and Silicon Valley, and how do we get that?" Frankly, I don't think we know how we have that. And I don't think we know what our secret sauce is, but there are things about entrepreneurship, and there are things about curiosity. So figuring out what that secret sauce is and making sure that we don't kill it, whatever it is that we do, then we can nurture it and spread it all the better.

How has the landscape of STEM education changed in the United States?

I really am enthusiastic about an underlying sense that we need to spend less time doing that little, thin, inch-deep, mile-wide, learn everything a little bit, and instead dive deeper. What we have seen through these science competitions, is that kids really engage when they have the chance to choose what it is that they really want to pursue. That has a really profound difference and I think it really shapes brains and it shapes thinking, as well as developing enthusiasm and really a much much deeper understanding of the subject. I think that makes a really profound difference in their long-term commitment and enthusiasm, as well as what they actually learn and can draw upon in years to come.

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When you go into schools and look at what's actually happening on the ground, there's still a huge gap: that schools don't have the schedules that allow teachers to do hands-on experiments. That takes time. In many cases ... they don't have the equipment or the space that you could do that kind of work in.

We talk a lot more about STEM education than most schools really have the capability of delivering, and we've got a real gap in terms of teacher skills too. Most teachers don't know science well enough to feel really comfortable enough when their students go off in a [different] direction. All of those are challenges that we need to be doing a better job as a nation.