With March Madness nearing its end, the nation will soon be able to switch its focus to scores of a different type — those resulting from various state-level and national high school achievement tests.
But instead of seeing a champion crowned, we’ll be besieged by a wild array of test score interpretations, encouragements and warnings, particularly in regards to the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Effective STEM education is seen as crucial to maintaining America’s competitiveness and power in the modern world. Unfortunately, our nation’s test score news is unlikely to be good.
Among 17-year-olds, math scores flat-lined from 1973-2012, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progression, also known as the Nation’s Report Card. Science proficiency among high-school seniors, as measured by other reports, hasn’t fared much better, with the group’s scores remaining the same from 2009-2015.
But education administrators, like any professional group with an interest in making itself look good, know how to spin bad news into good and often turn to announcing dramatic-sounding new initiatives and methods of evaluation in the face of poor test results. Programs with confusing names and abstract goals, however, only go so far.
Basketball analysts love to say, “You can’t teach height or quickness.” In order to truly get America’s schools back on a winning track, educators need to steal that expression and seek out and invest in fast-learning students with outsized smarts.
I refer to these youngsters — exceptionally creative leaders with broad understandings of how new technologies will impact our rapidly evolving, globalized world — as the champions of sci-tech. They’re the classroom captains who can push others to their best.
But even these champs need coaching. In particular, they need instruction in becoming as familiar with the precepts and insights of humanistic learning as they are in the logical and theoretical thought of sci-tech domains.
In my 40 years of teaching at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., I regularly encountered highly talented engineering and tech students lacking in so-called people skills. These pupils could unravel the most complex technical and mathematical problems but had difficulty applying the basic concepts of human social dynamics.
As a result, I’ve long advocated a program of sci-tech study augmented by liberal arts in specialized ways. The program can be started early and is adaptable to any STEM curriculum.
To make the most of our sci-tech champions, educators must push them, through study, to contemplate who they aspire to be, how they want to impact society, and how they can marshal their special talents to the best effect.
Here, briefly, are the areas of study in which these students need extra reinforcement.
—Communication skills: Courses in literature, writing, visual arts, public speaking and negotiating. These champions need to know how to present themselves and their ideas while also understanding the motives and interests of others.
—History and sociology: Specifically, how science and technology have transformed the world and how questions raised in sci-tech fit into a broader context.
—Philosophy and ethics: These students must ponder their career paths and the consequences of actions they might take.
—World studies, economics and entrepreneurship: Sci-tech champs must understand the practical applications of economic models and the like.
—Leadership studies: This ought to be the capstone of a champion’s education. It involves self-study and analysis, elements of individual psychology and psychological testing, understanding the creative process, case studies in leadership and many uniquely probing self-analytical short essays.
In my experience directing leadership study seminars, I found that tech students learned most eagerly and excitedly when they studied themselves.
So, paraphrasing sports advertisements, let’s just do it. No fooling around.
Let’s rebuild America’s schools by recruiting and developing the champions of sci-tech.
Silvio Laccetti is a retired professor of history and social sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology. His program of leadership studies was presented to the Oxford University Round Table.