Monday, December 8, 2014

STEM-ing The Tide

Hardly a week goes by when we don't hear "STEM" this or "STEM" that. It generally arrives via mainstream media and sometimes it is of, by and for mainstream media. Sometimes it comes from titans of industry, potential employers of STEM capable workers.

Then there are the educators.

STEM is definitely buzzword du jour, but sadly is not amenable to being watered down and made warm and fuzzy as there is always a chance you'll be given an objective test with right and wrong answers. From the employers' point of view "learning math concepts" is far less useful than actually being able to add, subtract, multiply and divide (in your head) or sort out a word problem that might be related to feed rates in a milling machine. K-12 long ago banned any school related activities that are not "engaging" and "fun" and these kinds of mental calisthenics and agility simply are not "fun." To inject "fun" they would really prefer that "STEM" become "STEAM" and then "steAm" progressing to "steAm" at which point all the hard stuff is gone and they are left back in their comfort zone of subjective fuzzies.

Then there is an inconvenient truth. Employers know what they want to the point they have pre-employment tests and screening. These requirements are either not shared with the K-12 tribe or educators simply don't want to listen. To be fair, some notables in industry, especially those pushing for H1B visas, advance their cause for more high-tech workers by allowing folks to believe that means more engineers, scientists and mathematicians. This is blatantly false. We have a surplus of those. What these employers really want are technicians and technologists. Someone from ITT Technical Institute who can keep the servers online and the network humming, not a PhD from MIT. They need more graduates from Southern Tech who can design and develop a product and already have more than enough GaTech grads to research new core technologies and advance the state of the art. You could make a Computer Scientist a programmer but it is waste of everyone's time and money, something for-profit operations try to minimize.

The knock on effect of this comes from parents. What parent doesn't think their special snowflake isn't the next Feynman, if only he is properly nurtured, engaged and entertained? Who would really want their daughter to be a plumber (charging $75/hr, $110/hr evenings and weekends) when they really should be a physician or a physicist (is there a difference)? Too many parents have misguided expectations and ambitions for a life that is not theirs to live and is not aligned with current or future realities.

So what will we, in the Great State of Georgia, do?

The Board of Regents is going to mandate that colleges and universities improve their graduation rate. There are a couple of ways to do this, with the most beneficial to society being higher and strictly enforced entrance requirements. Students who do not need remediation have a demonstrated ability to learn and are more likely to graduate, on time, than those who have not learned what they need to have learned to be in college in the first place. This would put back-pressure on K-12 forcing them to either do their job or expose their failure.

Not going to happen.

What will happen is that Georgia colleges and universities will put in place more administrators, "graduation coaches" and remediators at the expense of capable instructors in front of capable students. Graduations rates will go up because that is what is mandated and that is what those in the Gold Dome are paying for. Diplomas will be printed at whatever rate necessary to ensure the flow of funds. We have  learned nothing from our recent cheating scandals.

But employers still have the final say. They find they must test applicants for minimal literacy and numeracy and a majority of credentialed applicants fall short even with the current, yet to be diluted, system in place. Even those minimally acceptable are incapable of doing the job without extensive training and the situation is so bad employers are having to go outside of the U.S. to find capable trainers.

We have allowed our education system to become so detached from the core mission of imparting knowledge and allowed this failure to span so many generations that we not only do not have minimally capable students, we don't even have "educators" who have a clue about what to teach or how to teach it.