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Every flower needs a STEM
March 2010
by Peter T. Kissinger  | 
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It doesn't take a very elegant sensor to detect the current general malaise. Those of us who are old enough to have suffered a half-dozen such cycles know that we've come out of them by focusing on and delivering on innovation. Today, we have been closing R&D centers and creating unproductive heat by assessing blame. The challenges of delivering airplanes on time, drugs that are perfectly safe and investment banks that can be trusted have become entertainment. It's hard to find serious problem solvers among our politicians or journalists. It's hard to find people who will sit down and consider alternatives without being personally offended, shouting or even walking away. As I've commented before, hype in life science businesses and academia have accelerated to the point that most pronouncements engender cynicism.  
 
There is one demographic that has largely escaped this phenomenon and they are under 10 years old. They are intensely curious. They think what might be done before they consider why it won't work. They are the future. They are worth fighting for and they are too important to leave to the devices of public education alone. 
 
Teachers should not be blamed or assessed on what society has not supported. Over the last decade, there has been more attention paid to Science/Technology/Engineering/Math (STEM) education, its role in global competitiveness and why we have fallen behind.  The challenges are very complex, but readers of ddn and their firms are very much needed to participate as parents, neighbors and supporters of schools. 
 
Does your company support a science fair prize? Does your company allow for field trips organized by schools, scout troops, 4H chapters or Junior Achievement? Does your management allow release time for your scientists and engineers to speak about your science to a classroom to back up teachers with show and tell? Are you willing to help a teacher buy materials for an inquiry-based project? Do you know what it does for a kid to simply see a mass spectrometer or a fully automated chromatograph, an injection molding machine or rapid prototyping tool making a 3D object? Do you think students see these things in an underfunded K-12 school? Do you think that many teachers have seen science as it is practiced? 
 
Like me, you became a scientist or engineer because you were curious. You wanted to know how and why things worked. You were not motivated by boring, 500-page textbooks. You were not motivated by filling in worksheets by recipe because you were not allowed to experience chemicals, animals or electricity because you might poke your eye out. You were not challenged by teachers who said, "this will be on the test," imposed on you, and your teacher by a committee setting mediocre standards. You liked experimentation because it was fun, it saved lives, it enabled going to the moon, and you could see many flowers at the end of the STEM. Even more exciting are those you could not see, such as molecular imaging for cancer or robots roaming on the surface of Mars. 
 
Improving STEM education is giving kids a chance to experience discovery themselves, explore further using online resources and move well beyond a textbook-centric education that features a rather unfavorable cost/benefit.  
 
A couple of interesting organizations include the Stem Education Coalition, which demonstrates the wide support for improvement; and the National Academies Center for Education and DonorsChoose.org, where you can make a donation right now to specific projects proposed by talented teachers. This is not expensive, given that $50 makes a big difference. Check in with your local school district, your state department of education and the teacher that lives on your street. Make a difference. To steal a phrase from William Safire, ignore the nattering nabobs of negativism. They are everywhere.
 
Peter T. Kissinger is chairman emeritus of BASi, CEO of Prosolia in Indianapolis and a professor of chemistry at Purdue University.

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