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STEM Education Can Help Prevent the Next Disaster

It is within the academic realm of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) that the foundations for future disaster-aversion could be built.

With oil continuing to spill into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon drilling explosion and experts scrambling to discover the elusive solution that will halt the unceasing flow of pollutants, it's time to begin grappling with the necessary question that legislators, bureaucrats and everyday citizens must now address: How do we prevent this kind of disaster from happening again?

There are strategies and proposals being presented by engineers, technicians and other experts throughout the world, but the most sustainable and forward-thinking answer may lie elsewhere—in education. It is within the academic realm of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), often touted as the Achilles' heel of the U.S. educational system, that the foundations for future disaster-aversion could be built. Educating students through strong STEM programming at an early age would set the stage for providing the next generation of engineers, scientists and mathematicians with the necessary resources and skill sets to address future disasters, but only if students are shown the connections between potentially abstract concepts in the classroom and real-life issues.

"The main thing that needs to be done is to connect the dots for students between learning math and science now, and using it later on to solve real-world problems," says Amy Jaffe, the Wallace S. Wilson Fellow in Energy Studies at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy and associate director of the Rice University Energy Program.

The oil spill is providing just such an opportunity, and educators have only to stretch out their hands and seize this potential gold mine of "real-world problems." "Students may be hearing their families talk about the oil spill and they'll have some awareness of it, so the opportunities in the classroom are pretty extensive," says Francis Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). Eberle notes the numerous issues to tackle in the classroom: the biological life affected, both plant and animal; the chemical components involved with cleaning up the mess; and the scientific vocabulary associated with this particular type of disaster. And most importantly, this is a chance to make science relevant, to show students why fields like engineering are so important. "Science doesn't always have all the answers," Eberle admits, "and part of the reason to pursue science is to answer questions and solve problems."

Allowing students the opportunity to engage with the oil spill issue can demonstrate exactly this.

Moreover, a disaster like the oil spill presents educators not only with real-world problems, but problems that are real and pertinent to the students themselves. "I've had opportunities to see kids get engaged in problem solving in ways that are a little out of the ordinary. We need more opportunities like this for kids," says J. Michael Shaughnessy, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). "Why can't this oil spill problem be pitched to kids all over the country?" he asks.

This is one of those critical thinking opportunities where teachers can describe to students the situation, give the available information, and then say, "What would you do?" It's about "putting them in a situation that's more real for them," Shaughnessy says. Even the most naive of solutions can provide teachers with a springboard to further discussion, pursue deeper questioning, and engage in more critical thinking. "We should give kids the opportunities to wrestle with this stuff themselves."

Strategies like this can go far in bridging the gap between the classroom and the real world.

Shifting the Culture

Yet bridging the gap cannot be the ultimate goal; getting students to walk across that bridge must be the aim of STEM programs. Unfortunately, this is often where STEM programs fail, where high school graduates get sidetracked and take an alternate route, one that perhaps engages their mathematical minds in finance and accounting rather than engineering and technology.

"We need a shift in our national culture, in our attitude toward math and science," Shaughnessy says. "It just should be something that's exciting and joyful to go into." He describes how a shift like this can only succeed if it starts from the top. Shaughnessy points to President Kennedy's efforts in this area and how math and science were made exciting because of the prospect of space travel and the national enthusiasm that went with it.

Nowadays, "it shouldn't be okay to say, 'Well, I'm not good at math, and no one in my family's good at math,' and have that be socially acceptable in our culture."

In this regard, parents have as much responsibility as students. Without parental support and encouragement, how can students be expected to commit to and pursue studies in one of the STEM disciplines?

Indeed, it is within the home and through extracurricular opportunities that STEM ideas must be cultivated if they are to firmly take root. "When you compare the U.S. to other countries and what they actually teach, the science curriculum isn't different," Eberle says. "It's the way they teach it and the cultural support for it."

The top students in other countries are the ones who are involved in scientific activities outside of school, from browsing scientific Web sites, to watching educational television, to reading books on science and technology. "We need to celebrate the science in our world and not see it as a 'subject.' We don't see art as a 'subject.'" The key lies in making science a part of what we do and, again, connecting it to those real-world experiences.

"STEM education needs to start young," says Daylene Long, a member of the National Science Education Leadership Association and an affiliate member of the Council of State Science Supervisors. "We should be introducing kids to scientific processes, probeware, computer data collection, and robotics in elementary school." For Long, a successfully implemented STEM program is one that trains students to be critical thinkers and problem solvers by teaching them not just the scientific facts, but more importantly, "the practices scientists and engineers use to understand the world and to draw conclusions based on evidence." By encouraging this kind of thinking, STEM not only develops future scientists and engineers, but also responsible citizens. "These disciplines of mind are needed to manage our own health care, understand global climate change, and address world disasters like the oil spill."

An International Program Spreads

The Eco-School program, created in 1994 by the Foundation for Environmental Education and supported by the European Commission, is an example of how to move scientific studies and critical thinking beyond the classroom and make them a part of everyday life. As of 2008, the National Wildlife Foundation (NWF) has been charged with bringing the internationally acclaimed program to the United States. "There's the science of it and the application of the science," says Laura Hickey, senior director of the NWF Eco-Schools USA.

The Eco-Schools give students the opportunity to make environmentally responsible decisions in all aspects of their academic lives. It's a holistic program that involves 'greening' everything from the grounds of the school to the school building to the curriculum. "By helping green their school by conducting a water audit [for example,] students are given a context to the problem and play a part in its solution," Hickey says.

Eco-Schools are on every continent, and, as of November 2009, 270 K12 schools signed up in 38 states. Hickey says, "We hope it becomes a part of life for the [participating] school." She goes on to say that only when STEM "doesn't become extracurricular but routine" will it truly begin to tap into its life-altering potential.

The oil spill is a disaster. But the educational opportunities that such a tragic event offers are nearly limitless, and it would only compound the tragedy to ignore them. Incidents like this provide that real-world context so often sought by educators and students alike, and continuing to find ways to incorporate the lessons learned into everyday life will only serve to propel STEM programs toward further success.

"At 7 or 12 years old, not too many children are sitting around thinking they'd like to make a killing on Wall Street," Jaffe says, "but they do have an honest and sincere interest in earth science, environmentalism, animals. The trick is to show [the] connection between learning [math and science] and being a person that can save the world."