Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Power of Dreams in Education

Why aren't US students going into careers in science, engineering, and math?  That is a question we've been asking as a society ever since I was working professionally in Washington DC in education policy in the 1980s.  There have been many proposed answers to that question, but mostly the blame as been laid on our education system.  Our science and math education isn't rigorous enough, or it isn't concrete enough, or it isn't relevent enough, or it isn't hands-on enough, etc. etc. etc.  So our latest response has been lots of government and private programs to improve education in what is now called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).

While I know science and math are tough disciplines--tough to learn and tough to teach (she says, having just completed teaching a hands-on physics class on light and optics that required lugging multiple sets of things for hands-on experiments to an outside classroom for five weeks)--and that we could definitely improve our science and math education, to my mind, that isn't the biggest problem with our current "brain drain" in STEM careers.  The data I read indicates that most of "the best and the brightest"are choosing to go into fields other than math and science.  That is to say, even if we could wave our magic wands and make our STEM education programs perfect, that isn't going to change the situation if students refuse to go into those programs in the first place.

There are many aspects to why American students aren't studying STEM.  But one of the big ones, according to astrophysicist and science writer/media specialist Neil deGrasse Tyson, is that we, as a nation, have stopped dreaming about a better future and the important role science, math, and engineering have in getting us there.

I could say more, but Tyson himself says it so much better in the short video below, entitled "Why We Stopped Dreaming:"

There is no way I can improve on that.   Except that I would say that it is not just limited to STEM.  I grew up in the Washington DC area, where almost everyone there was employed in what we used to consider "public service."  When I was growing up, working in Congress or the White House, the multiple court systems, the many federal agencies, the military complex built around the Pentagon, the related research institutes, the multiple non-profit public interest groups on all sorts of issues--all of those were honorable professions, and even though people found it a financial sacrifice, in terms of making a lower income than they might have had in private industry, it was worth it because they believed they were making a difference or playing a role in making the world safer, smarter, healthier, and better.

Now, after decades of people bashing "the government," our best and brightest don't want to work there either.  Looking at the nastiness and frustration among our top politicians--the US Congress and White House--it is no wonder that our students don't want a career in politics.  Education is another field where most of the public policy discussion is very negative, constantly highlighting all the perceived failures and rarely lauding the good work done day after day by millions of teachers across our country.

So what is left?  Becoming an athlete, rock or rap star, an actor/actress or, even better/easier, becoming a celebrity through so-called "reality" TV?

This is a tough, tough problem, and I don't know how we are going to solve it as a society.  But I know one thing.  As teachers and as parents, we need to support our students in dreaming again.  And I think it is particularly important in this middle school age--when they are old enough to understand and deal with some of the real substantive problems of our culture, but haven't yet experience so much frustration and inability to make a difference that they become cynical and indifferent.  In our case, it is why we are so heavily invested in a effort called Healing Oceans Together, where the students wrote the following mission statement for their group:
Healing Oceans Together (H2O) is a non-profit organization dedicated to preservation of the seas, raising public awareness about the oceans, and supporting the community through environmental education. Our organization is largely student-driven and is exceedingly resourceful. We are homeschoolers saving the world one step at a time, because we believe that everybody, working together, can make a difference.
I have to end with quoting (yet AGAIN, for those who know me) from one of my favorite books of 2011, Okay For Now by Gary Schmidt.   In this passage from the book, which is set in the 1960s, the junior high science teacher, Mr. Ferris, is talking to a group of incoming students.
 "Within a year, possibly by next fall," he was saying, "something that has never before been done, will be done. NASA will be sending men to the moon. Think of that. Men who were once in classrooms like this one will leave their footprints on the lunar surface." He paused. I leaned in close against the wall so I could hear him. "That is why you are sitting here tonight, and why you will be coming here in the months ahead. You come to dream dream. You come to build fantastic castles into the air. And you come to learn how to build the foundations that make those castles real. When the men who will command that mission were boys your age, no one knew that they would walk on another world someday. No one knew. But in a few months, that's what will happen. So, twenty years from now, what will people say of you? 'No one knew then that this kid from Washington Irving Junior High School would grow up to do".....what? What castle will you build?"
With all our focus in education on test scores and STEM initiatives and funding priorities, we are forgetting to encourage our students to dream big dreams.  And what kind of a life are preparing them for without dreams?  As Langston Hughes said in his poem, Dreams:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.  
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

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