James Gentile of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement has to think about the big questions—where is science going? And how will we get there?
For him, it's easy—as humans understand more about science, the concepts are only going to get tougher, the problems more complex.
"I see science as getting bigger—it's going to be highly complex, and it's going to benefit from cross-disciplinary interactions," he said. "We're going to benefit from people who can think rather than just look up information."
That makes things tougher for universities and teachers, who are tasked with training the next generation of scientists. They not only have to keep up with the ever-changing STEM fields, but they have to feed information to students in a way that's palatable—and what's being done now isn't working, experts say. About 40 percent of engineering students leave the major by the end of their freshman year. That has to change, said Mark Ginsberg, dean of George Mason University's College of Education and Human Development.
"They tend not to be successful early—and if you're not successful, you tend not to enjoy what you're doing and you migrate away," he said.
Gary Bertoline, dean of Purdue University—West Lafayette's College of Technology, said the answer is easy, but it takes an all-hands-on-deck approach to implement it.
"It's about the kinds of programs you offer and how they're offered—you need project-based learning, need to bring meaning to the assignments you give," he said. Even if teachers do a great job of teaching STEM concepts, they have to be able to give the material meaning to students if they expect them to stick with it.
"Culture eats strategy for breakfast," he said. "If the culture behind your strategy doesn't support what you're teaching, you'll get a frustrating experience. We've got to change attitudes and have everyone understand it's a systemic approach."
That means professors need to give students the latitude to fail, high school and middle school teachers have to learn to bring fun projects into the classroom, and elementary school teachers need to have a better understanding about what they're teaching.
"Elementary school teachers are not rocket scientists when it comes to science. They're rocket scientists at pedagogy," Ginsberg said. "If we want students to learn by experience and by doing, teachers must have a higher level of sophistication and understanding of the content. In secondary school, it's the reverse—they're more proficient in the content, but less proficient in [conveying it]."
That's why GMU and other Virginia universities have launched VISTA—the Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement, a professional development and teacher training program with four goals: training STEM literate elementary school teachers; developing secondary school teachers' approaches; training faculty how to support their teachers; and developing "science coordinators" in schools of all levels.
"It's about cradle-to-career and nurturing over the course of time," Ginsberg said. "Success breeds success, and our premise is that if we can help students to be high-achieving early, we can maintain it."
A hands-on approach to science is going to be necessary going forward, Gentile said. STEM careers can't be dominated by white males any longer— it'll take a wide swath of people to make scientific breakthroughs. He pointed to one class at the University of California—Berkeley, taught by Bob Full. The class has one challenge: "Students have to identify a motion by any living organism and build a robot to mimic it," he said.
"Teams made up of all young men failed. Teams made up of all young women failed. The teams that were made up of people that had a single cultural background failed," he said. "The teams that did well had men, women, and people who were thinking in different ways based on different cultural perspectives … we have to take STEM education and broaden it and embrace it."