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Aug. 25, 2011 Volume 33, No. 1

Science outreach is key to preparing students for tomorrow’s workforce


U.S. at risk of falling behind

Four of 10 jobs in the 21st century will require some expertise in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In an increasingly technological world, there will be a need for better education in those fields, known collectively as STEM.

Chip Sharp, Director of Research, Assessment and Accountability for Columbia Public Schools, said STEM education has not reached its full potential in the United States, for reasons that include lack of funding, the need for changes at the post-secondary level, inadequate parental support and disagreements about what to teach. However, he said that improvement in all aspects of the STEM situation is critical, or the U.S. will continue to fall behind other countries in technology, innovation and education.

“Without a willingness of all levels to improve, I believe that our country will continue to struggle to educate the number of scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and technology specialist necessary to support our country’s future,” Sharp said. “The number of people needed to fill all the needed STEM positions will require different strategies in educating our students.  I think we need to be smarter in our efforts than we have been to date.”

Here in Columbia, both the University of Missouri and Columbia Public Schools are working to provide a proficient STEM education to students as well as to their teachers.

MU School of Education’s Office of Science Outreach provides many programs for K-12 teachers and students, community members and university students including seminars, continued education for instructors, training sessions and minority scholarship programs, all with the intention of expanding and improving science education in the area.

Anna Waldron, the office’s director and an assistant clinical professor in the School of Education, said that these types of programs are of the utmost importance because science and math infiltrate all parts of daily life.

“You need to know STEM to do everything from going to the doctor and asking questions, to keeping track of your finances, so everyday life is affected by it,” she said. “It’s just very important at a very basic citizenship level and it’s great if kids have that knowledge so they can choose a career path and just be a better citizen in general. If the public can’t understand STEM, they can’t say where we should be sending our state and public resources.”

In order to adequately prepare students for the future, Sharp believes that the STEM educators themselves must also improve. He helped to oversee a partnership between MU and Columbia Public Schools through the Center for the Study of Mathematics Curriculum. The National Science Foundation founded the Center in an effort to improve mathematics curriculums in school districts with the help of local universities. Over the course of five years, 15 of the Columbia Public School District’s teachers earned a masters or specialist degree in mathematics education and many others received additional professional development.

Deborah Hanuscin, project co-director for the Quality Elementary Science Teaching (QUEST) program, said that these types of partnerships are vital. She believes that MU is making significant progress in improving the quality of our community’s educators.

“Addressing teaching quality is of the utmost importance in improving the quality of STEM education,” she said. “Through its teacher education programs, MU is making a direct impact on the quality of education throughout the state and nation. Through our graduate programs, we also prepare the future faculty who will, in turn, train the next generations of teachers. The MU Science Education Center serves as a central force in working to generate and communicate new knowledge and innovative ideas about science teaching and learning.”

Though MU and Columbia Public Schools are making strides in improving education based in science, mathematics, engineering and technology, the nation as a whole still has a long way to go. Sharp said that the progress and improvement should be continual, or the U.S., and its education system, will fall behind.

“One merely needs to look around and see what all is affected by technology which must continue to develop,” he said. “That development is reliant on STEM and we as a country do not want to be in a position where we are dependent on other countries.  The innovations in the future will be impacted by these areas, so we must place an increased importance on education for the students’ futures.”

— Kelly Nelson