Anyone who wants to understand STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics)-and its significance in educating young people in the United States-need look no further than Harry T. Roman. During his career as a working engineer, technology education was his second calling. These days, not only does he spend much of his time working with New Jersey students on special project team challenges, but he also instructs teachers on how to successfully integrate STEM into the classroom curriculum.
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Now, Roman has written Why STEM Is Important, an eBook that demystifies the concept-both for engineers and anyone else who’s interested in the subject. In clear, direct language, the author explains what STEM is, what it isn’t, and why this educational model promises to launch a new era of U.S. economic productivity.
Why STEM Is Important also offers examples of how educators can encourage an environment where students learn how to solve all different kinds of real-world problems.
“STEM is all about combining content and process to solve problems and create new products and services-a fundamental necessity for economic growth,” says Roman. “It’s not about making kids into engineers, but rather teaching them how to think and analyze more effectively.”
The author describes STEM as “an educational paradigm that integrates the curriculum, is both process- and content-oriented, and is based on standards.” He says it demonstrates the open-ended problem-solving students will encounter in the workplace. It also represents on-the-job life after graduation, whether from college or high school. Roman adds that STEM’s basic premise is that the world is interconnected-and solving problems is a multidimensional endeavor that involves active learning, teamwork, collaboration and student empowerment. “STEM shines best when students see how math can be used for practical applications,” he says. “They will gain an appreciation of a problem’s magnitude and significance.”
But Roman is fast to point out that the arts, humanities and language skills are also very important, along with good written and oral communications skills. “In the workplace,” he emphasizes, “great ideas, that are presented poorly, will not be implemented.”
The author also explains what STEM is not. “STEM is not an invention convention or an open forum to invent things,” he writes, “nor is it meant to be a lab course or special activity.” Roman describes it as “an educational spinal cord for a new academic day.” And further, “While it won’t happen tomorrow-STEM is a transition to a new, integrated curriculum.”
In perhaps the most descriptive chapter of the new eBook, Roman provides concrete examples of how STEM students must take a range of real-life constraints into account, when solving problems. Some of these constraints include: the technology; costs; environmental considerations; legalities; safety; governmental impacts; and aesthetics. And, if this list looks familiar, he points out that’s because it’s exactly how engineers and inventors solve problems-with integrated thinking, along with making decisions, designing, and fabricating within constraints.
Referring to STEM as “360-degee problem-solving,” Roman goes on to show how he teaches educators about each constraint. Using the example of challenging student teams to think about all the aspects of creating and installing a solar photovoltaic system on the roof of their school, Roman goes on to raise issues and questions about each of the constraints.
For example, when considering the technology to be used, student teams must decide such factors as whether to use single-crystal, polycrystalline, or thin-film solar technology; whether the panels will be flat-mounted on the roof, or angled; how big the collection panel array should be; and, whether the roof can support the panel load, as well as the normal snow load.
When approaching economic constraints, students must determine overall costs; how long it will be necessary for the collected energy to be used, and pay back the system’s cost; the local utility’s buy-back rate for the generated energy; and annual operation and maintenance costs.
Just two of the regulatory considerations students must resolve are to learn which forms must be filed for the school to qualify for solar energy tax credits; and determine how the school system will account for the solar energy system in its annual budget.
Why does Roman believe that STEM is so vital to the U.S. economy? He writes that according to a 2012 U..S. Commerce Department study, STEM-rich industries-that is, those that are intellectual property-intensive-contribute $5 trillion to the nation’s economy. That’s about a third of the total economy, and it represents 40 million jobs.
“No wonder companies seek out graduates and workers who have STEM skills,” Roman writes. “Yet, many STEM-based jobs go unfilled every year, so clearly increased emphasis is needed for schools to teach this important learning style.”
The author observes that the modern R&D lab, originated by Thomas Edison and his step-by-step process, has resulted in the enormous growth in the number of patents granted in the past 100 years.
“Over 70 percent of all the patents ever issued have been granted since 1935, four years after Edison’s death,” writes Roman. “If we want our country to maintain this technological pace, we will need workers who have a visceral understanding of STEM principles and processes.”
Harry Roman is an IEEE Senior Member who worked for 36 years, almost all of them in R&D, for Public Service Electric and Gas Company, the largest utility serving New Jersey. Also dedicated to technology education, he has published more than 70 resource books, science kits, and other educational products for teachers, since he retired in 2006. He hasalso taught graduate-level R&D project management courses at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Why STEM Is Important is available for $1.99 for IEEE members and $3.99 for non-members at http://shop.ieeeusa.org.
Helen Horwitz is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She was with IEEE from 1981 through 2011, the first nine as Staff Director, IEEE Corporate Communications.