February 10, 2013

FERKINHOFF: Promoting STEM Education

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The name Cornell is synonymous with excellence in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the STEM fields. Throughout Mallott, Bradfield, Clark, Olin, Uris and many other buildings across campus, students, postdocs and professors seek to unravel the mysteries of the large and small, the mind and body. They apply these discoveries to useful technologies to better the human condition. But will this always be so? Will Cornell always be the recipient of three-quarters of a billion dollars in research funding?  In 50 years, will Cornell, and the United States as whole, still be at the forefront of scientific discovery? If we don’t have a scientifically literate citizenry, can we ensure that our country will adequately fund science? While-oft discussed by pundits and touted as political talking points, the STEM education crisis — and it is a crisis — in the United States represents a real threat to the successful economic future of United States and to the future of institutions like Cornell.

As a Teach For America corps member, I experienced first-hand the biggest challenges in STEM education. Until stepping into my high school chemistry or physics classes, many of my students in Baltimore had never performed a lab experiment. Science, to my students, meant finding definitions in a textbook.  They had gone through 11 years of education and had never written a lab report, never measured the pH of acids or bases, never plotted the distance versus time traveled by a toy car. All are simple things that are vital to teaching students a scientific worldview.

This is the opportunity gap in all its sobering glory. Across the country, we are far from receiving a passing grade in STEM education, but it is low-income and minority communities that are especially hard-hit. For instance, the National Science Foundation reports that only 17 percent of science undergraduate degrees are awarded to African Americans. Worse yet, only three percent of the U.S. science and engineering workforce is black. How can we let this stand? As members of a community who have been so clearly shaped by our education, how can stand by and do nothing in the face of the educational inequalities in our country? I don’t believe we can.

Ending the educational injustices and the crisis in STEM education in the U.S. will take an all-hands-on-deck approach, and the Cornell community has an important role to play.  We must do everything in our power to ensure that students at all levels think with scientific minds and have the basic scientific knowledge to be active 21st century citizens. In the coming years, the Tech Campus in New York City will provide a unique opportunity for improving STEM education, especially for low-income communities. But, right now, there are already many outreach programs across campus that share science with students and other community members. These programs include the Cornell Prison Education Program, Expanding Your Horizons and REACH, just to name a few. I encourage all to take advantage of these programs, including those run by your own departments or by the Public Service Center.

Faculty members have an important role in setting the norms for outreach in their research groups. Actively encouraging outreach, and participating in it themselves, can go a long way in instilling the importance of outreach in those they mentor. Engaging with younger students helps undergraduate and graduate students learn to communicate their work and think about it from different perspectives — important skills for any successful scientist. As university scientists, we enjoy the wide range of support for our research. We have an incredible opportunity to pay that forward.

Students, take what you’ve learned and help someone else get to where you are now. Mentor a high school student. Tutor.  Visit public school classrooms and share science demonstrations. Seniors, as you prepare to leave college behind, consider entering the classroom as a teacher. By teaching, you can use your Cornell experiences to help ensure that all children get an excellent STEM education. Many of your classmates have already chosen to do just this by joining Teach For America. Applying to Teach For America by Feb. 15 can help fill the need for teachers like you: Teachers who are passionate and knowledgeable about science.

The university is often described as an ivory tower. It is easy to fall into this thinking, but the truth is we are far from the idealized intuition that is separate from society. The future of Cornell, and the country as a whole, depends on the education of all children, regardless of race or income — a pursuit in which we are currently falling short. We have the power to change this, if we choose to. What will you choose?

Carl Ferkinhoff is a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Arts and Sciences. Feedback may be sent to [email protected] Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Carl Ferkinhoff