The National Science Board, which governs the National Science Foundation, convened an expert panel on August 25-26, 2009 to discuss ways to foster science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) talent. Getting ready to participate, Bob asked you some months ago what you would do if you could train the next generation of scientific and technological innovators. Here's his report on the meeting.
Bob was there at NSF to make sure that someone from outside the gifted and talented community had input. And a good thing, too! Some of the presenters clearly wanted to perform wider testing at earlier ages in order to capture kids with STEM talent and get them into accelerated programs as soon as possible. How does taking the SAT at age 12 strike you? Score a 700 and you'll be recruited into a gifted program or encouraged to go to a science magnet school or even a residential school focused on developing geeks. Score below 700 and you might miss out on all these opportunities, no matter how motivated you are!
Fortunately, other presenters pointed out that interest, dedication, perseverance, and other personality traits are often more important than testable talent. Moreover, those who perform extremely well on tests like the SAT at very early ages are almost always from privileged families who have access to unusual educational and sometimes financial resources that many equally talented, but under-achieving or disadvantaged children do not. A major issue was therefore how to identify STEM talent in underprivileged populations and in people who simply do not realize how fascinating STEM subjects can be until they are in their late teens or even twenties.
Interestingly, it emerged that the efficacy of science magnet schools and even residential preparatory schools in training STEM talent has not been demonstrated. Given an entering class of several hundred really bright kids every year, what school wouldn't produce lots of successful graduates? So how do we know that early, focused training in STEM subjects is really effective? Turns out we don't. This problem will undoubtedly be investigated in the future.
Equally surprising was the fact that out-of-school, self-choice learning environments are VERY effective in stimulating kids to become interested in, and to stick with, STEM subjects. One of the most inspirational speakers was undoubtedly Dean Kamen, President of DEKA Research and Development, who is well-known among teachers nationwide as the founder of FIRST Robotic Competitions. FIRST has cajoled tens of thousands of engineers, and hundreds of the companies they work for, to donate time and materials so that school-aged kids can build robots that then compete in local, state, national, and even international competitions to achieve pre-set goals. Studies have shown that kids voluntarily participating in FIRST competitions are five times as likely to graduate with an STEM degree from college as are kids from the same schools who don't participate. Pretty impressive! A major focus of discussion was how such expensive, highly intensive, volunteer-based programs might be cloned for other STEM subjects, and how we can better make use of museums and other community resources as well.
Bob's take was that we shouldn't try to test for talent. Talent is not something you have or don't have. There is no best curriculum that will turn out innovators. Talent is something that varies with the problem at hand, and needs to be nurtured in different ways at different rates in different people. Bob therefore argued for spreading the net as widely as possible in our search for promising STEM students. One way would be to introduce a curriculum on questioning that would teach every student what the great, unanswered questions are that still motivate STEM research. Draw students in by showing them how much we still have to accomplish. Make it personally exciting by showing each student how they might contribute.
Next, Bob argued that rather than identifying STEM talent as early as possible in order to provide special STEM training, we should do the opposite: we should foster breadth rather than narrowness. The basis for this argument is the simple fact that every unsolved problem exists only because the experts do not have the answer. That basic fact means that only people with knowledge distinctly different from that of the experts will be able to solve it. So rather than putting everyone through the same intensive, rigid curriculum, we should foster curricular diversity and diversity of skills. One thing our research has clearly shown is that the most successful scientists are also artists, musicians, creative writers, craftsmen, etc. (See our earlier post on this topic.) The "thinking tools" learned in the arts and crafts appear to be just as important for STEM success as specialized STEM knowledge.
Finally, Bob argued that the only proven way to teach innovation is through the example of innovators. Rather than moving students interested in STEM subjects through the curriculum at ever greater rates, we should slow the curriculum down and incorporate in-depth examples of how real innovations are actually made. What problems were innovators trying to solve? What unusual knowledge and methods and skills did they bring to these problems? What kinds of creative processes did they use in solving these problems? And how were these solutions received by the "experts" who had not foreseen such answers? Model the creative process as well as instill content knowledge.
In short, make science human, recognize the diversity of human beings who participate in science, and society will do a better job of recruiting and developing talent - that's our message.
If you want to see Bob's presentation, and those of many of the other National Science Board presenters, go to <http://www.nsf.gov/nsb/meetings/2009/0824/index.jsp>.
And check future posts for follow-up on our basic points!
© Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein 2009