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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Would starting STEM education at an earlier age help engage students more in the long run?

There's no better scientist in the world than a four-year-old. They approach life as an experiment, and everything is new: "How does that work? Why does that leaf look like that? Why does that animal live that way?" They're wildly enthusiastic scientists and we know from real data that you put kids in school and every year they're in school, their enthusiasm for science and their vision of themselves as scientists goes down. There's something broken there. The very youngest children should be treated and taught as if they are, in fact, experimentalists, as scientists, and that should be the best part of their school day.

[MORE: The (Not So) Simple Roadmap to Solving STEM Problems]

But most teachers, especially at the elementary school level, are not comfortable teaching science as a subject; it's not their sweet spot. So making sure teachers are supported, and given the resources and the training ... is an important first step.

What are some of the barriers women and underserved minorities face, and what are some of the things you're doing to address those?

One of the things we've been scratching our heads over to a certain extent is the role of women in science. You look at those two [Intel] competitions and women are pretty close to parity. We get 47 to 48 percent, so slightly less, but nothing dramatic that would explain the kind of disparity that you see in careers, when you're seeing 20 percent showing up as engineers and computer scientists. The young women are clearly talented, clearly able, so what exactly is the barrier and what are the things that we could do that would change that?

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And underrepresented minorities do not show up in any significant numbers at these competitions, and there's a real difference in what the barriers are between women and science careers and underrepresented minorities and science careers. They're not well-prepared by our K-12 system and the young women clearly are, they're clearly equally as prepared, if not even better prepared than the boys are. So it's something about the choice of pursing that career that's really the barrier for them, whereas the underrepresented minorities it's much more about preparation.

We've recently begun working with the National Council for Women in Technology (NCWIT). They identify a cohort of maybe a dozen girls in each state around the country each year and stay with them all the way through their graduation from college. If you look at girls who enter college and think they want to be an engineer or computer scientist, you lose 50 percent of them freshman year on average, and by the time they graduate, you lose another half of them. So you're down to only 25 percent of them that actually graduate. In contrast, NCWIT gets 98 percent of them all the way through with a degree. And 25 to 50 percent actually go on to graduate school. They pay attention, they make sure they get mentors ... they help them find internships when they're in college, they actually encourage them to do research – all the things that we know work.

We talk a lot about higher education and encourage students to pursue advanced degrees, but what role does the community college play in STEM education?

Is there a gap and a need for people with technical skills at the community college technician kind of level? Absolutely. And do community colleges play a significant role in helping to produce the engineers that go on and get degrees from four-year colleges and beyond? Absolutely. It's much more cost effective and gives a lot of kids who wouldn't be ready to go off to four-year college that bridge time to make up any deficits that they have, to bring their skills up to the level where they're ready to enter the second half of a full-on engineering program. So whether the need is financial, being able to live at home, or maybe a need for an extra year of bridge time, the community college plays a critical role.