There’s More to Learn. Start Sooner.
The place to start thinking about the future of STEM education, at Brooklyn Tech and elsewhere, is the wellspring of tomorrow's science and technology talent—the elementary and middle schools.
One need not be an expert to conclude that the present situation is not good. Mostly, science, technology, and engineering—the “STE” of “STEM”— are all but ignored in elementary school, though some aspects of science are taught. Why? I think that a – if not the – main reason is that the vast majority of teachers in these schools have little background in these subjects, perhaps because there has never been much emphasis on teaching them at this stage of education. Concomitantly, teachers of these grades are usually not well-trained in these subjects.
If teachers could be motivated and the needed funding made available, a massive national effort would be undertaken to substantially increase the competence of these teachers in these subjects and in how to teach them most effectively. Whether such is achievable, given the realities of our present culture and economic situation, is certainly questionable. One prerequisite for success might well be a change in the status of the teachers, exemplified by their pay.
At the high school level, there is an additional problem. Although sciences are part of the standard curriculum, the textbooks are mostly behemoths that contain tons of material, in total far too much for most students—or teachers—to absorb. Why is this? I do not know. But I suspect it is in major part the profit motive of textbook manufacturers.
Now that I have painted this somewhat gloomy picture of pre-college STEM education, what more attractive possibility would I like to see ahead? Given my profession as a scientist, I will concentrate far more on the “SM” than on the “TE.”
Because of space limits, let me consider only trends now visible. As technology continues to develop, more and more data will be stored in less and less physical space. An obvious implication: less and less need for students to remember things, certainly not details. It might seem that all a person would need to learn is how to identify and then access information from storage devices or, equivalently, “the cloud.” However, I believe that people would have to learn much more. To identify what to seek, they will need to understand at least the fundamentals of the subject they want to master and how to use the material they will be able to retrieve from the cloud. One can hope that the problem of behemoth textbooks might be naturally solved.
And I must stress that the BTHS Alumni Foundation, its loyal base of Technites and its dedicated and wise leaders, enable Tech to keep up-to-date in many areas where funds from the city are not forthcoming in needed amounts.
Another major trend is science’s increasing observations of how nature works and the availability of these observations via “big data.” Here the prospects are very bright. Data are being collected on nature’s behavior in all sorts of ways from all sorts of instruments, new and old. These range from global monitoring of methane releases into our atmosphere to monitoring characteristics of supernovae explosions in distant galaxies.
In astronomy, on a small scale, there have been for well over a decade, small optical telescopes distributed around the world, which are controlled remotely and operated by high school students to take pictures of specific parts of the sky and analyzed in a variety of ways with sophisticated software. This network could relatively easily be extended to students in more high schools and, appropriately, to those in elementary and junior high schools. Soon to become operational are large telescopes, which will enable pre-college students to access digitally a wide variety of top-of-the-line observations of the cosmos and software to
analyze them, all essentially in real time.
There is also the burgeoning field of artificial intelligence (AI), which will likely come into strong play on such issues as what and how to store massive amounts of data for easy access and analysis. These issues will be considered and solved at levels beyond high school, with the solutions utilized at the high school level and likely below.
What about Brooklyn Tech now? What changes will likely help its students better prepare? Whereas I had definite ideas on what should have been done to further STEM education when I attended Tech in the mid-1940s, I have far less familiarity with today’s Tech curricula and so likely no relevant suggestions. But I will make a few anyway.
Success to Emulate
I am very pleased that Tech, which did not offer a single course in biology when I attended, now has a very modern, well equipped biology department and an excellent curriculum. I say this based mostly on having seen, on a visit a few years back, some of the biology laboratories and of the use Tech is making of them. I expect there are similar good setups for technical and engineering disciplines.
The mathematics curriculum has made great strides since the 1940s, but I believe can benefit from further improvements. As the needed knowledge among teachers becomes available, I would like to see courses added in such subjects as complex variables, real analysis, and elementary topology.
And I must stress that the BTHS Alumni Foundation, its loyal base of Technites and its dedicated and wise leaders, enable Tech to keep up to date in many areas where funds from the city are not forthcoming in needed amounts.
Other high schools might well try to emulate Tech’s successes in the STEM fields, perhaps also making use of vibrant alumni associations. I thank Ned Steele for his excellent work editing this short article.
Irwin Shapiro is the Timken University Professor at Harvard University and a senior scientist at the Smithsonian Institution.
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