Industrial Education Ch. 3: High School and STEM/STEAM

This series of posts discusses the current state of industrial education in the US and around the world. I will cover topics covering elementary through high school education (including the STEM programs), vocational/technical schools and colleges, independent for profit courses both online and in-person, and some of the resources that can be found on the internet.

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Brookhaven National Labs – High School Research Program (HSRP)

I went to High School in Tucson, Arizona in the 1970s. We didn’t have the technology and resources that are available now, but there were some interesting classes I was able to take, including a very basic computer class, a class called “TV Programming” where we were able to use video and audio production equipment, and a few shop classes where we could learn to do woodworking and work with plastics. Chemistry and Biology were available for those who had the interest, and we had a very large library. Overall I went to a modern school for the time.

For advanced classes there was a “Magnet” high school that taught Physics and Calculus. Though I was not a very good student, I was on the High School Chess team, so I associated with a lot of people who attended that school. It was about a 40 minute bus ride from our area and required good performance and aptitude to be accepted.

The magnet school was commonly accepted to be for students who would go on to college. Unlike some other areas of the US, there was very little manufacturing or industrial activity in Arizona at that time; most of the students I knew that went there ended up in academics.

Beginning in the 1990s, recognition that the United States was falling behind other developed countries in mathematics and sciences brought about an emphasis on technical education. The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education movement was born, followed by STEAM, which added Arts to the acronym. In some schools, STEM education led to a rapid expansion and segmentation of rigorous math and science courses, taught in largely the same way they’ve always been taught. The result? Saturating students with STEM classes without accounting for engagement or interest led to stagnant growth. STEAM proponents also said that the STEM movement has caused a marginalization of arts programs and funding in schools and has led to widespread student disengagement.

Some have even coined the term “STREAM”, where the R represents “Reading and ‘Riting”, which takes us almost full circle basically including everything except for the humanities, while also of course misspelling the word writing, which seems to defeat the purpose.

I interviewed a former co-worker who was involved in the STEM program at a local High School, and he gave me an interesting perspective. My old employer, Wright Industries, used to sponsor a program here in the Nashville area. This particular school is in a lower socioeconomic area and had a high dropout rate. The second year that they participated in the robotics competition they won the region, and a few years later the school became a STEM “magnet” school, concentrating on engineering, IT, Science and Criminal Justice programs. Academic performance improved and students from other areas were brought into the school.

Programs like this bring more scholarships and internships to the schools as long as the community is involved. The down side of this particular school’s program was that my friend Doug said he was on the board of this school’s STEM program for four years before meeting any parents. He also said that though companies would donate time and materials to the program, often more was needed. For instance, a CAD company would donate software but it would require higher performance computers, which wouldn’t be available.

Over 4000 volunteer hours were spent by companies for the STEM programs at this High School, but there was quite a bit of turnover among the teachers. The machine builder I used to work for also decided to withdraw from this school’s program last year, donating to other causes.

I was surprised to learn how much of these programs were donated to and run by outside companies. According to the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), the US spends more per student than any other country except Austria, Norway and Luxembourg on primary and secondary education, yet according to data from the Programme for International Student Assessment, 15-year-olds in the U.S. ranked 31st on OECD standardized mathematics tests, and their test scores were far below average in reading and science.

Robotics, 3D printing and controls programs in high schools give students a taste of technology, but they generally use microprocessors like Arduino and Raspberry Pi rather than using PLCs. Many of the programs are partially written already and programs are easily obtained via download or YouTube videos. If the intent is to prepare secondary students for industry, I would like to see more of a focus on introduction to real industrial processes. While 3D printing is a form of manufacturing (additive), it is not in widespread use for production. Most robots don’t move around on wheels like AGVs and put a ball through a hoop, and they probably shouldn’t fight with each other. At the same time, they do create interest and lead students into the field.

Bringing more teachers with experience in the industrial world would also be productive, but current teacher pay is not going to entice engineers to move into education, especially experienced ones. Curriculum that reflects industry is available at a college level, but is not used in American High Schools.

So far my research on the state of education as it relates to the industrial workplace has not shown any major strides toward improvement of the potential American workforce. Despite spending a lot of money and creating buzzwords and themes like “No child left behind” and STEM/STEAM/STREAM it doesn’t appear that the US has made significant improvements over the past 30 years. Perhaps my next post on trade/vocational schools and junior/2year college will provide better news…

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Electrical Engineer and business owner from the Nashville, Tennessee area. I also play music, Chess and Go.

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