ASME Event Addresses the Question ‘What Really Matters in STEM Education?’

May 8, 2014

(Left to right) Decision Point Dialogue panelists Tamara Hudgins, executive director of Girlstart; James Douglas, former governor of Vermont; Irene Neequaye, a graduate student at the George Washington University; Ioannis Miaoulis, president and director of the Boston Museum of Science; and Michele Lezama, executive director of the National GEM Consortium. Photos by Bill Petros.

In middle school, boys and girls turn into teenagers, develop many long-lasting attitudes, and either embrace or turn away from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

That makes middle school a critical time for STEM educators. They believe that well-taught STEM courses teach students to solve problems logically as well as by learning from their mistakes. Yet teachers often disagree on approaches and priorities.

Their challenges, triumphs, and contradictions were all on display at the live taping of “Critical Thinking, Critical Choices: What Really Matters in STEM,” a far-ranging discussion that featured 12 leaders in STEM education. The event, which was sponsored by the ASME Foundation, kicked off the U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, April 23.

“What Really Matters in STEM” is part of the ASME Decision Point Dialogues thought leadership program, where leaders debate the complexities underlying an issue by focusing on the decisions people must make in real life. The event will be broadcast on the ASME website in five weekly installments starting Tuesday, June 10 at 2 pm.

The dialogue ranged in topics from whether there really is a STEM crisis, how to interest students in STEM classes, the best way to measure results, to how to retain STEM-educated faculty who could find higher-paying jobs in the private sector.

Peabody and Emmy Award-winning journalist John Hockenberry, host of public radio’s The Takeaway program, moderated the event. His pointed questions kept the heat on the panelists, forcing them to justify their answers and spell out the tradeoffs their choices entailed.

(Left to right) Moderator John Hockenberry, host of National Public Radio's The Takeaway, poses a question to panelists ASME President Madiha El Mehelmy Kotb and Kenneth Williams, a public school teacher at Oxon Hill Middle School in Prince George's County, Md.

Participants included such luminaries as Boston Museum of Science president Ioannis Miaoulis; ASME President Madiha El Mehelmy Kotb; former Vermont governor James Douglas; Girlstart executive director Tamara Hudgins; Wilson Foundation president, Arthur Levine; and former Newsweek education reporter Pat Wingert.

Hockenberry opened the conversation by describing a mock scenario featuring two 10-year-olds ready to enter middle school. Danica will attend a school in Metro City, a thriving, solidly middle-class school district. Derek will go to West Harding, a poor district that may have its local school closed for poor academic performance.

The give-and-take nature of the forum, a Socratic dialogue, was immediately apparent. Hockenberry described a Metro City STEM festival where companies and schools did demonstrations to motivate students to study STEM.

"Is that something that would excite a 10-year-old girl," he asked.

“If I were her, I would have been bored," said Girlstart’s Hudgins. “Most girls at that age are not that interested in science. That’s not a way to engage me.”

“Should Danica just go home,” Hockenberry countered.

“Maybe the school should find a way to engage her on a more personal level,” Hudgins replied.

Tamara Hudgins of Girlstart

Reaching Derek would be even harder. His district had no STEM festival. Unlike Danica’s parents, Derek’s mother had been a poor math student and did not see how STEM could lead to a well-paying career.

The forum addressed issues Danica and Derek, their parents, teachers, and school administrators will face throughout middle school. For example, while some panelists argued that schools need more STEM classes, others disagreed because that would mean cutting back on history or English to make room for STEM.

Participants went back and forth on the value of project-based courses, where students learn theory by designing and building objects.

Wingate, who is writing a book about STEM education, noted that there is little research on the effectiveness of project-based learning. “It’s amazing we teach science in such unscientific ways,” she said.

Several participants pointed to Finland and Singapore, which trounced the United States in recent international science and math tests, and said America should model its STEM courses on theirs.

Mark Conner (left), director of the Online Engineering and Engineering Academies at Hoover High School in Hoover, Ala., and Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, discuss the difficulty of replacing high school STEM teachers during the Decision Point Dialogues event last month in Washington, D.C.

Hal Salzman, a sociologist at Rutgers University, disagreed. Several U.S. states performed as well or better than those top-rated nations, and we do nothing to celebrate them or learn from our successes, he said.

The scenario also included a story about a high school STEM teacher with an engineering degree who needed to find a better paying position because his wife had lost her job.

“What would you tell him to try to get him to stay,” Hockenberry asked.

“I would tell him, ‘I feel your pain. I have a home and mortgage too,’” said Mark Conner, a teacher from Alabama.

Kenneth Williams, the forum’s second teacher, also sympathized. Both have engineering degrees and could find higher paying jobs in industry.

The Wilson Foundation’s Levine said that it is hard to replace high school STEM teachers. Education schools are graduating people who want to teach elementary school, he explained. Students who plan to teach and earn STEM degrees often abandon education because they can earn more money in industry.

Conner agreed, and said he should be paid more because his degree is worth more on the market.

(Left to right) Also participating in the panel discussion were Pat Wingert, a journalist at the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media and former writer for Newsweek; Hal Salzman, sociologist and professor of public policy at Rutgers University; and Regis Matzie, a retired senior vice president and chief technology officer for Westinghouse Electric Co.

When Hockenberry asked former Vermont governor Douglas if he was willing to pay teachers more, he said his state’s first need was to control costs. He noted that Vermont looked outside teacher colleges for teaching talent, such as recruiting former IBM employees when their facility downsized.

The panelists also discussed Common Core standards, Next-Generation Science Standards, and teaching to the test. They also discussed whether there was really was a crisis in STEM education.

The education of future engineers, scientists, and mathematicians is an important issue for all engineers. Tune in to the ASME Decision Point Dialogues page for news, discussions, interviews, podcasts, and videos on this topic. Join the conversation and share your opinions on STEM at

— Alan Brown, associate editor, Mechanical Engineering magazine