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The Next Hundred Years (and the next generation)

I inherited a rather interesting book: "The Next Hundred Years", by Brown, Bonner and Weir, The book projects population, agricultural, energy and resource demands -- and the challenges we face applying science and engineering to address these.

It points out the need to significantly increase the number of technology professionals and some suggestions on how to accomplish this.  There are three major suggestions:
 
1) increase the pipeline of capable (and enthusiastic) pre-college students headed towards STEM programs in college. And with suggestions:
  a) identify STEM interest/ aptitudes  early
 
  b) introduce these kids to related fields: field trips, lab opportunities, freedom to explore new fields
 
  c) research interest/ aptitude/ motivation in key pre-college years to assure kids who may find the STEM path attractive have the opportunity and exposure to go in this direction.
 
  d) we need enthusiastic and competent pre-college teachers in STEM fields and trained counselors. -- assure that teaching education provides time for 'subject' related courses, and subject majors have a path and encouragement to enter pre-college teaching. And address the serious salary differential between industry and teaching in these fields.
 
  e) Provide a path, and encouragement for leading edge STEM students to by-pass their last years in high school and enter into more advanced programs -- potentially leading to masters degree accomplishment in the same time as our current BA/BS - and less frustration by such students with programs that are targeting a different population.
 
  f) reduce the economic barriers that prevent students from entering STEM college programs.
 
  g) validate our university programs to make sure they provide the  knowledge and skills appropriate for today's professions.
  
 Brown, et al, project doubling our STEM college graduates via this step.
 
2) Attract and encourage women to pursue STEM education and professions.
 Again, the authors project doubling our STEM graduates via this step.
 
3) increase the productivity of our STEM professionals.

   a) identify the motivators for STEM professionals, and focus on these (... indicates that the key motivators are autonomy, mastery and ..., not bonuses, stock options or salary -- once a basic level of compensation is reached)

   b) facilities, equipment

   c) reward for intellectual achievement - awards, citations, sabbaticals

   d) opportunities for independent research

   e) access to current relevant technical literature

   f) time and expenses to participate in conferences,

   g) "and special rewards for membership or leadership in professional organizations" (page 139 ... I just had to quote it)

Once again the authors see this as doubling the brain-power applied to our STEM needs.
 
There are some new (to me) concepts here, and validation of investments we know we should be making. So, you may say "So What?"...
 
Here is the embarrassing fact -- this work, developed via a symposia at Cal Tech and  prefaced by then President Lee A. DuBridge, was published in 1957 -- pre-Sputnick  1957 to be precise. It does not mention computers either as a field of engineering need or a tool to improve product.(The cover price of the 1963 edition is $1.45)
(I did convert their call for science and engineering into our modern STEM term.)
 
What is my take away? --- we are not doing our homework. The issues we face today in getting the full advantage of STEM professions is limited by the failure to pursue and apply research on attracting students into our professions, supporting our pre-college education systems, and motivating professionals. Innovation and the related economic growth -- globally -- have done well in the first fifty years after this book. And while they project the explosion of engineering professionals in India, they missed China altogether. But the challenges we face are very real if we are going to expand the global standard of living, move beyond the energy / resource constraints that are becoming apparent, address the environmental and health care needs -- and tied to successes here, minimize these factors which contribute to unrest and warfare.
 
Do STEM professionals make a difference? - you bet. Consider what has actually been accomplished in the last fifty years -- from the pre-space, pre-computer, pre-cell phone, pre-jet air travel, pre- widespread TV era to now. 
 
Every once in a while, you need to take a look back and see where we have been, our accomplishments are impressive, but there are still painful gaps where we have not help led to realize the full potential of the brain power that might be delightfully engaged in our fields.  Industry and governments are giving much lip-service to these concepts, and occasionally investing in local or organizationally specific programs.  What we need is some research on what it really takes to both attract students into STEM education, and to assure they have the pre-college educational environment to support this. And following up on this, coherent effort to make it happen.  This challenge exists in the U.S., Europe, Japan and Korea at least, and while there may be cultural variations on the approaches needed, our world will be a better place if we can fully engage the next generation.
 
What do you think we need to do for the next 100 years?
 
 
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One important cause of the problem is, I am convinced, the way mathematics is taught in early school. Already 60+ years ago I noticed that more of my fellow pupils were turned off of mathematics than any other subject, and already in primary school. Especially word problems posed considerable difficulty. My contact with many people in the course of my career suggests that this has continued to be the case in the intervening years.

Current approaches to teaching mathematics in school work well for only a small -- too small -- fraction of school children. A fundamentally different approach is clearly needed to make mathematics palatable to the majority of pupils, and the increasing dependence of society on mathematics, science and engineering makes this a critical goal.

The current approach of demotivating children in primary school for mathematics and then, in late secondary school, trying to motivate them is ineffective and inefficient. We are, in effect, trying to cram the subject down their throats in the hope that some, at least, will swallow it without choking too much.

Having no knowledge or experience in lower school education, and having liked mathematics from the very outset in primary school, I am not able to give extensive recommendations on how mathematics can best be taught in the lower school. My observation that the problems seem to have started with word problems (i.e. translating English problem statements into mathematical expressions) suggests, however, that a language and translation oriented approach seems more appropriate. Also, the strong emphasis on numerical problems should be relaxed so that pupils realize that mathematics is about rational reasoning, not just numbers, counting and arithmetic.

Dr.-Ing. Robert L. Baber

Posted on 8/11/10 12:28 AM.

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