“Advocating for equal access to STEM education isn’t merely a new feel-good fad.”
—Wade Henderson, President and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
The STEM education community is hungry for more role models for girls. And so too apparently is prime time network TV. The ’80s classic TV show “MacGyver” has partnered with the likes of the University of Southern California University Virterbi School of Engineering, the National Academy of Engineering, and the United Engineering Foundation to find the next MacGyver, who in this 21st-century reboot will be a woman.This crowdsourcing campaign has laid down the gauntlet and asked Gen Xer’s, Y’ers, and fans of the original series, “Can you out-MacGyver MacGyver? Create the next female hero that will inspire a generation of young women to see themselves as engineers.” (See thenextmacgyver.com).
Considering it has been 30 years since the show, which ended in 1992, was created, it makes sense that this iconic character, a secret agent/scientist who manages to get himself out of the stickiest of situations with only a Swiss Army knife, duct tape, and his own wits, gets a makeover. This latest Hollywood stunt is an obvious reaction to the call for a more highly trained technical workforce by everyone from the President to Mark Zuckerberg. Sure, we can create positive role models for girls and other underrepresented groups to enter the engineering fields, but if TV shows like this continue to remain fiction and provide a girl’s primary introduction into engineering, we are in big trouble!
Engineers Are Still Overwhelmingly White Males
What does it say when arguable the most innovative company of this half-century—Google—has an employee population that is only 2% black, 3% Hispanic, and 30% female? It says what the statistics already show.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up 47% of the total U.S. workforce, but comprise only 39% of chemists and material scientists, 27.9% of environmental scientists and geoscientists, 8.3% of electrical and electronic engineers, and 7.2% of mechanical engineers. (See DOI and www.changescoalition.org.) The National Science Foundation (NSF) found that of the women working in science and engineering fields, 58% are concentrated in the social sciences, 48% in the life sciences, and only 13% in engineering and 25% in computer and mathematical sciences.
The lack of diversity in engineering is not limited to the male/female divide. According to NSF, “[h]istorically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, particularly blacks and Hispanics, continue to display lower S&E [science and engineering] participation rates relative to their presence in the U.S. population” in contrast to Asians and foreign-born individuals. (NSF.)
Some powerful business, education, and government leaders met at the HP headquarters in Palo Alto to help fill this glut at the HP/National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering Leadership Forum: “Confronting the ‘New’ American Dilemma” of the widely anticipated shortage of U.S. engineers. The forum’s overarching theme was that “it is a national imperative that companies act now to increase the number of underrepresented minorities (URMs) in STEM fields; otherwise, the nation’s ability to compete globally will be compromised.” The group points to the following facts as evidence:
“[I]n 2011, less than 14 percent of all engineering bachelor’s degrees were awarded to URMs, yet they represent 31 percent of the population. By ethnicity, the numbers paint an even grimmer picture. Latinos make up 16 percent of the population, but only 6 percent of the engineers; African Americans make up 12 percent of the population, but only 5 percent of engineers.” (“Minorities Are Answer to US Shortage of Engineers”)
The Buck Stops Here
The past is past. The future starts now, and it starts with K-12 education. Every parent, teacher, and politician knows the tide is changing in U.S. education. The federal government and states are clamoring to get kids performing at higher levels in math and science, adopting Common Core, dropping Common Core, trying more standardized tests, different standardized tests, opting out of standardized tests. We are tired of trying to play catch-up. According to the most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PSIA) data (2012), the U.S. ranks lower than 27 countries in math and 17 countries in science. The latest ACT results indicate that 56% of U.S. high school graduates are not college-ready in math, and only 36% of high school graduates are college-ready in science (Condition of College & Career Readiness 2013). These sobering statistics are of great concern when you take into account that 92% of all U.S. STEM jobs are predicted to require a postsecondary education by 2018. Moreover, while only 4% of U.S. workers are in STEM careers, they create jobs for the other 96% of workers (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2010).
If you dig a little deeper into these statistics, you will find a consistent and distinct achievement gap between white students and their minority counterparts. The latest ACT scores show that 54% of white students are considered college ready in math, while only 14% of African Americans and 30% of Hispanic students are in that category. In science, 45% of white students are college ready, while only 10% of African American and 21% of Hispanic students demonstrate proficiency.
Curriculum and testing debates aside, how are we promoting a science- and engineering-going culture in our elementary, middle, and high schools? President Obama calls the lack of diversity in STEM fields a civil rights issue. Are these professions even talked about? Or are they some amorphous concept or a distant prospect you can worry about if and when you make it to college?
Students Need Engineering Role Models
Since the “Maker Movement” and the push for STEM education have taken off, students are starting to hear more about the under-the-radar lives of engineers and are able to get excited about using their knowledge and skills to create something tangible or make something work. Of course, not all students are going to be engineers, but naturally if they are given opportunities to explore what it means to be an engineer, they just may develop a lasting interest.
At Concept Schools, our science curriculum is keeping pace with the most current educational research and standards, such as the new Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and incorporates engineering activities and principles in our K-12 classrooms. All of our 30 public charter schools in 7 Midwest states, all of which are tuition-free, with no entrance exams, and enrollment given on a first-come, first-served basis and lottery system, are STEM-focused and college prep. Our school model and philosophy revolve around a strong foundation in math and science, in addition to a full complement of humanities. From more instructional time in math and science to highly qualified subject-expert teachers, to cross-discipline, project-based learning and hands-on extracurricular activities such as Lego robotics and network, regional, and even national science and math competitions (see MathCON and CONSEF), our schools have a STEM culture that encourages curiosity, problem-solving, and forward thinking so students can enter college and the world equipped with the 21st-century skills they will need. We’ve been specializing in this since our first two schools opened in 1999. Both of those schools received a National Blue Ribbon Award (See our “Achievements” page.)
One way we expose our students to the real-life application of engineering is by forming partnerships with local engineering firms and professionals who engage with our students throughout the school year.
School Visits from Real-life Engineers
Here’s a snapshot of some of the ways Concept Schools is encouraging an interest in engineering degrees and careers:
At Quest Charter Academy in Peoria, Illinois, the school hosts regular engineering speakers and monthly programs to educate and inspire students, including a monthly program with the Society of Women Engineers involving a group of approximately 12 high school girls, a soon-to-launch monthly group with the Bradley University Society of Women Engineers student group, and a monthly “role model series” with the Caterpillar African American Network of engineers who speak at both the Middle School and High School.
Chicago Math & Science Academy is fortunate to have environmental science engineering firm Greeley and Hansen as sponsors for their award-winning FTC robotics teams, the Robotitans and RoboWarriors. The engineers at Greeley and Hansen recently invited the robotics teams to their headquarters in Chicago to celebrate National Engineers Week with their staff. The students got to partner with engineers on the firm’s annual Creativity Challenge, in which the students and staff built a roller coaster using the following supplies: construction paper, a marble, and a table plus anything they could find in the office to create hills and other features.
The world of robotics came alive recently at Indiana Math and Science Academy North, a K-12 school located in Indianapolis, when Mr. Reginald McGregor from Rolls-Royce came to speak to juniors and seniors at a Leadership Luncheon last year about how robotics translate into the job market and what types of jobs are available in that field. Not only did the students at the luncheon get to hear Mr. McGregor speak about the many practical benefits of their STEM-based education, they also impressed him enough so that he secured a scholarship for one student to attend a summer’s scholar program at Ball State University.
Ninety students from the National Blue Ribbon Horizon Science Academy Cleveland High Schoolparticipated in the “One Hour of Code” event in December hosted by code.org as part of an international effort to support the study of coding. The event was the first venture into coding and/or computer programming for most of the students, but they were fortunate to have Ms. Karen Leak, Early Career Engineering Development Manager at Rockwell Automation, spend the day with them and assisting where needed. Previously, IMSA North hosted guest lecturers Mr. Peter Analore and Ms. Hank Turowski of Formfire, a software engineering company, who presented to two classes about life and work as a computer engineer. HSA Cleveland High students were given the opportunity to work in a paid internship program at Formfire.
The Future Depends on It
As educators and parents, it is our responsibility to plant the seeds of scientific and mathematical curiosity in students, but we can’t just sit idly by after administering standardized tests and delivering the standard curriculum and expect the seeds to grow. Without the proper exposure and maintenance, the seed will lie dormant, and nothing will change. Or, we can be vigilant about not accepting the status quo in education just because we can, and can begin preparing students to become the problem solvers of tomorrow. Whether that’s a fictional female MacGyver or the next real-life Steve Jobs, we will have had a hand in changing the face of STEM.
To submit your great story line for The Next MacGyver before the April 17, 2015 deadline, watch the contest’s promotional video here. “Five winners will be awarded $5000 each and paired with a successful Hollywood TV producer to develop his or her script.”