Friday, August 21, 2009

Rethinking K-12 Education to Create Knowledge Workers

By James Holloway

Arthur F Thurnau Professor of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences, Associate Dean, College of Engineering

The 21st century economy of the State of Michigan will be driven by knowledge work and technology. Michigan's previous governor John Engler and current Governor Jennifer Granholm both made the retention and development of a young and highly educated workforce a centerpiece of Michigan’s economic development (Beyond Sputnik, Homer Neal, Tobin Smith and Jennifer McCormick, 2008). Governor Granholm has said, "Retaining our talented workforce is critical to the growth of a knowledge-based and diversified economy." Through the Cherry Commission on Higher Education and Economic Growth, the state has set a goal of making higher education universal. In support of this, the State Board of Education has increased math, science and language arts education requirements for high-school students.

Unfortunately the state's newest high-school standards did not explicitly include any recommendations around engineering curriculum for our students, and the state has not created programs to support the teaching of engineering in K-12 classrooms. Where engineering has been considered in our K-12 educational system, it has been presented as an add-on, such as in the unfunded proposal by Governor Granholm that the legislature be the first state in the nation to fund FIRST Robotics programs as a way for high school students to learn engineering (Office of the Governor press release, March 10, 2006).

But math and science are not engineering. Engineering is a creative pursuit, addressing problems through design and analysis. In this, science and math are necessary tools, but they are not synonyms for the creative process of engineering. By confusing engineering with "math and science" we place ourselves at risk; we can increase high school graduation rates and send more students to college yet still fail to create the technically educated knowledge workers who will drive the entrepreneurial and technological businesses of the 21st century. We must present to our K-12 students the engineering thought process and provide them with knowledge of design; we must put our students' math and science education in the context of its utility; we must provide our students with career counseling that allows them to see themselves as the engineers of the future. Fortunately, this is not an either-or proposition. Math and science education are uninteresting to many students. Lots of students who get A's in these classes still consider them merely tedious -- and those students include the majority who enter college every year. Simply passing math and science class does not build an interest in engineering or the social and economic impact that it creates. Putting engineering projects into math and science classrooms is a good way to make the science and mathematics content relevant to students, and is known to be a successful technique to improve student learning.

Several such curricula have been created, including A World in Motion, the Infinity Project, Project Lead the Way, and Ford PAS. The College of Engineering participates in a number of programs too, including a program that puts CoE graduate students into high school classrooms to help math and science teachers and students connect their subjects to applications in technology.

The focus on math and science in our state K-12 curriculum standards is indeed necessary for our future success, but it's not enough. We must also establish clear state-wide goals and expectations for our students to make clear the importance of engineering and technology in the 21st century. All of our students must graduate from high school with an understanding of what engineering is, and of its social impact and relevance.