October 23, 2017

Getting STEM to Take Root: Vince Bertram Leads the Way

Vince BertramSince its launch in 1997 as a high school engineering program, Project Lead the Way (PLTW) has grown into a major nonprofit organization. Its three-phase, applied STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education programs are used in almost 10,000 K–12 schools. Designed to tap into student curiosity, PLTW’s hands-on learning experiences illustrate how math and science can be used creatively or to solve real-world problems. The youngest students might be introduced to computing by creating digital animations, for example, and by high school, they’re working on group or individual tasks like computer programming, medical investigation, or architectural design.

PLTW President and CEO and New York Times bestselling author Vince Bertram Ed.D. is publishing Dream Differently: Candid Advice for America’s Students (Regnery) this month. He recently spoke with LJ about changing the U.S. approach to STEM education, how students can better navigate the transition from school to college to careers, and what public, academic, and K–12 libraries can do to help them along the way.

LJ: The title of your upcoming book is Dream Differently. What are some typical student aspirations you see in your work? Are you asking students to adjust those dreams and aspirations?

Vince Bertram: The premise of the book is that for many years, the way that we have counseled students is to “follow their dreams.” The reality is, one, that students at ages 12, 13, 16, 17 have a very limited view of the world, and their lack of experience makes it very difficult for them to understand all of the opportunities available to them.

The other is that students typically see a “dream” as a job. They want to be a pilot or a musician. What they don’t see—and this can be limiting them—is that careers aren’t built around a single job. [They should] be looking at it more broadly. For instance, if a student has an interest in athletics, I encourage them to pursue that interest. If you like sports, there’s a whole industry of both direct and complementary professions that align with the sports industry. Students can satisfy their interests without necessarily being the next NBA player…. It exposes students to more opportunities.

The other key point here: we know that to become a professional athlete, for example, you have to spend years practicing. Yet in some of our most fundamental, economic-driven careers, we believe that students can pick up an interest late and have the [well-developed] skills needed to pursue those careers. That’s why I believe it’s so important that we counsel students at a very early age, not about a particular career, but exposure to a wide range of careers and industries, so they know the skills they need to develop over time, and they have options.

The book, in part, examines emerging opportunities in STEM fields. What do students need to know?

When students think about Wal-Mart, they see Wal-Mart as a big-box retailer. What they don’t understand is that Wal-Mart is also one of the largest employers of software engineers, computer science, and IT professionals. [Similarly] 40 percent of Apple employees work in retail selling iPads and iPhones, but they see Apple as one of the top tech companies in the world.

I lead a STEM organization, [but] I am not trying to convince students to go into STEM fields. What I am trying to convince them is that they need these kinds of skills to be successful in virtually any industry they try to pursue…. I see STEM as really the foundation of our economy, and the foundation of virtually every industry…. These kinds of skills will help our students have many more career opportunities. One of the things we’re very interested in is developing what we call transportable, high-demand skills. As this economy evolves, what we don’t want is for our students’ [skillsets] to become obsolete.

Many adults seem to assume that younger generations have an intuitive understanding of technology. Is this the case?

Students are native users of technology…. They know how to navigate Instagram or Facebook, but do they really understand the technology behind it, that’s going to help them go into a career? For most, that’s not the case.

When you get into things like coding or computer programming that’s offered in just over a quarter of our schools nationwide…. We can’t expect that the very first computer science course they’re going to take [will be] AP computer science in their junior year of high school. Only the students who have been predisposed to that are going to take it.

It seems that educators and librarians are aware of these opportunities, and there seems to be almost a sense of alarm in the tech sector regarding this emerging skills gap. So why aren’t more students pursuing STEM subjects?

Students come to school with a natural curiosity, and then we teach them how to do school. We have conditioned them that the reason you learn to do math is because you’re going to take a test in math.

The reality is, these are tools to solve real-world problems. Unless we can make that connection for them—help them see how math and science are tools to solve problems—then students aren’t going to get interested in math and science. And the reality is that we have too few students going into these fields because they’ve been turned off at an early age, and it’s really difficult to get them excited again.

If you look at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, they project more than 1.3 million jobs in math and computer–related fields by 2022, yet we have millions of people who have left the workforce, we have college graduates going months and months after graduation without gainful employment or employment within their majors…. We have a real opportunity to bridge this gap, [but] it’s going to require us to think about this systemically.

Is the K–12 system in the United States up to the task?

There’s a lack of qualified teachers to teach these subject areas. I think, as a nation, we have to be creative in the way we provide this kind of experience for students. If we believe that for students to learn computer science and coding…they have to sit in a classroom with a qualified teacher, and that’s the only way we’re going to deliver this kind of instruction, I believe we’ll continue to be underrepresented in terms of demand for people in these fields.

How does Project Lead The Way address these issues?

We build activities and projects for students that reflect the realities of the economy. These are real-world projects in which they have to apply math and science. We start as early as kindergarten. We help build this capacity of interest [and] inspire students. But we also empower students to take control of their own learning. We have pathways in engineering, computer science, and biomedical sciences. This past school year, we had well over three million students participating in PLTW in nearly 10,000 schools nationwide.

The other key thing that we do is teacher training. It’s more than just content knowledge. Rather, it’s a different pedagogical approach to teaching and learning—it’s how to teach a project-based classroom. This past year, we trained over 18,000 teachers…. The third aspect of what we do is [establish] a connection between K–12, postsecondary education, and employers.

How can academic libraries and librarians help assist students during their transition from K–12 to university?

We have often looked at college as an end [goal]. It’s a means to an end. We don’t do K–12 to get students into college. We should be thinking about [education] more systemically as a seamless K-to-career approach. So I think the more that we can do to expose students to a wide range of careers, see how certain skills are transportable across multiple sectors, and then help students identify areas of interest and deepen that interest over time, [that] could be a very important [role] for libraries. I know libraries and librarians and media specialists do a lot of this already.

Think about students and how much time that many spend researching colleges and requirements for colleges…. When students are in high school and thinking about college, they know that they have to have a certain SAT or ACT score to get into a particular college, and then they calibrate where they apply based on their scores. They may have some dream schools and so forth, but for the most part they…apply for places they think they could get in. What would happen if students were thinking about this from an earlier age, not just about getting into college, but from a [broader] perspective…. Here are the career opportunities available to you, here are the skills required for this, or the degrees or credentials, and here is what you need to do to prepare for that.

How can public libraries and/or school libraries help?

Libraries across the country are in an ideal position to help…. One of the most important functions should be this idea of career awareness, [offering] resources to help students understand the opportunities available to them, not just in their community, but globally. There are some really exciting opportunities out there, but…it’s not enough to show them a career. They need to know what it takes to get there.

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (menis@mediasourceinc.com; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. STEAM. STEAM. Studying the arts is incredibly important and beneficial for your mind.

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