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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

What is a S.T.E.M. Career?

Why all the fuss about STEM and STEM careers? Every few years the education field is overcome with a new buzz-word, a new way to improve schools and the way children learn and teachers teach, a new reform tactic. The onslaught of technology in the classroom, coincided with a quantum change in how people interact with computers, approximately 30 years ago. When Apple and Microsoft and a few lesser-knowns provided a desk-top interface, when Apple started giving away Apple IIs to every teacher who would use one and many who balked at the idea; when IBM hosted round-tables and think-tanks with K-12 educators; when software publishers raced through the gate to be the first to sell educational software to K-12 schools, there was a palpable shift in the way schools would be run and what the workplace would expect when newly-graduated students arrived.

That was the beginning of the shift. That was way back in the early 1980s. Can you even remember, if you were around then, conducting your work or study without a desktop computer as an appendage? If you are a Gen-Xer, try to imagine typing letters and putting them in the mailbox and waiting for a reply; calling people on the phone and waiting for a reply. Building a card catalogue of contacts and making notes on each card of your history with that person or organization. If you were trying to make something happen, you did what we called "networking." You called people and they would give you ideas of more people to call until you had created a network of interested parties or patrons on 3x5 cards. Big projects, like environmental awareness programs, called for huge expensive ad campaigns, phone trees, and bulk mailing from which you might expect a 2% response from a huge expensive and tedious outreach effort.

It took a while for people to catch on to the power of the personal computer. This wasn't just a fancy could create mailings, databases, spreadsheets. You could save files and organize files and people and projects. Some wondered early on how money could be made. Surely this was possible.

The desktop computer changed the way scientists could conduct research. They had a stake early on in students being trained in computer applications and programing. Computer science, engineering, and mathematics were quickly becoming  fields attracting nerds and geeks from every corner of the globe. Nerds were cool. Computer and video games flourished and software publishers capitalized on the possibilities early on: Tom Sneider, Mario, The Oregon grab a few from the recesses of my memory.

The private sector had much to gain now from a well-trained generation who were still sitting in traditional classrooms being taught by traditional teachers who were too busy to learn how to integrate computers into the classroom. This was 30 years ago and the struggle still exists, but we've come a long way.

I think the big wake-up call for the importance of a digital-savvy nation came when the bottom fell out of the economy. We really needed to get serious about keeping up with the Joneses on the eastern side of the global neighborhood; we needed to get serious about assuring our children of a place in a world that is nothing like the one their parents graduated into. 21st Century Skills translated into jobs and with luck, a college scholarship because who can afford that luxury any more?

About the same time the market flopped, and big bunch of oil was spilled into the sea. Children in classrooms in every corner of the world were watching one of the biggest ecological disasters in history, live, as it unfolded--a powerful teachable event. Scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians from around the globe came together to solve a crisis. Some classrooms watched, some participated, hundreds of thousands of students discovered during that time the importance and the relevance of preparing for a STEM career.

Today, STEM education and STEM careers have become one of the biggest buzzwords to hit the education field in a long time. If you are a classroom teacher or a K-12 administrator, you might be interested in reading my book: Connecting Students to STEM Careers, Social Networking Strategies.