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Intel, schools hoping to lure more students into science and engineering


Intel’s Carlos Contreras said they often don’t know that engineering can be a creative process—or even what engineering is.

Would you buy a deodorizing shoe rack? How about one that suggests outfits to go with your footwear?

To a layperson, brainstorming about how to build a better shoe rack might not look like engineering.

But working together to create new things is part of engineering, and Carlos Contreras of Intel said young people need to get that message. He said they often don’t know that engineering can be a creative process—or even what engineering is, exactly.

“In a survey of teens, we find that they have high regard for engineering as a profession, but don’t know what engineers do or how much they make,” he said.

That’s important to Contreras, who is Intel’s education manager. The company recently had to pay $100,000 to Sandoval County, N.M., because its Rio Rancho plant failed to hire enough local employees, which Intel officials said was owing to a lack of qualified applicants, particularly those with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

Contreras said this is a problem nationally.

“This is really a big national issue that everyone is grappling with,” Contreras said. “For every available STEM worker, there are two openings.”

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Throughout New Mexico and the rest of the nation, groups from Intel, the national science labs, universities, and other organizations are trying to get students more interested in such subjects and get them qualified for high-tech jobs.

It’s an issue experts say starts in the early grades, where many students don’t get enough hands-on science projects, so they decide at a young age they don’t like science.

Some teachers and students say this is because increased emphasis on reading and math, which are measured on high-stakes tests, has squeezed the time spent on science. And although math is tested and is a building block of science and engineering, New Mexico’s emphasis in recent years has been on improving reading scores.

According to the most recent state standardized test scores, only 43 percent of students statewide can do math at grade level.

State education chief Hanna Skandera said she believes reading is a key building block for all other skills, but she plans to roll out some STEM initiatives soon.

Russ Fisher-Ives, who runs a nonprofit focused on those subjects and who co-founded the state’s largest robotics competition, said adding emphasis on math isn’t enough, because students need science to see math in action.

“It’s got to be a whole community that is saying math is important, but not just for the sake of learning math,” Fisher-Ives said. “You’ve got to see where it’s used.”

Fisher-Ives said RoboRAVE International, which he co-founded, is growing every year. More students would be drawn to science, he said, if they did more hands-on projects, worked in teams, and competed.

“The book work and tests have a place, but we’ve lost that approach of engaging kids in a high-energy, sports-like environment for academics,” he said. “A human being doesn’t just walk up and start doing math and science and just get this instant love for it. It takes some work.”

Even students who enter college planning to pursue a STEM career are struggling, with about 40 percent leaving their major. Contreras said this is partly because the first few years are grueling and the “fun” aspects of engineering—where students get to create things—don’t come until later.

That’s where building a better shoe rack comes in. This summer, Intel is running a six-week program for college students who are in their first two years of a STEM degree. Students develop apps and products, meet with professionals, and build robotics.

For more news about STEM education, see:

Obama proposes $1B for science, math teachers

Report: STEM education needs more money, support

How corporations can really support U.S. public education

Inquiry-based approach to science a hit with students

Vanessa Putnam, who has finished her freshman year as a chemical engineering student at New Mexico State University, said she is “getting inspired to be an engineer” through the program.

“It shows you that it’s fun and sociable and it’s a people world, not just a math and science world,” Putnam said.

The Intel program targets students who are already interested in engineering and might just need an extra reason to stick with it. But Matt Nyman worries about those who are turned off to science as children.

Nyman, a University of New Mexico professor, teaches a course for students pursuing a degree in elementary education who want to brush up on their science content knowledge. He also works with teachers in Bernalillo Public Schools, helping them improve the way they teach science and integrate it into other subjects.

Nyman said teachers are told to focus on math and reading—the subjects that are tested and used to measure school performance—to the detriment of non-tested subjects like science.

“Talking with teachers, they have no time to teach science,” Nyman said.

A survey of eighth-grade science teachers, released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, found that 27 percent reported that their students did hands-on experiments “once or twice a month” or less.

Even successful students are critical of the system. Elisabeth Burton, who will be a junior next year at Rio Rancho High School, won distinction at this year’s national Intel Science and Engineering Fair.

She attributes her love of science to her parents and said many of her peers have been turned off to the subject. She said that’s because they learn science as facts, rather than a process of answering questions.

“Just as in math, there’s a lot of negative attitudes toward science,” Burton said. “It’s, ‘Oh, I have to memorize this for biology.’ You think of science and you think memorization, which I think has been ingrained in kids since they were little.”

Nyman said he has also found that his students, the ones studying to become teachers, don’t understand science very well and don’t feel confident in their ability to teach it.

Nyman said he believes this is partly because the students are products of No Child Left Behind, a federal law passed in 2001 that relies heavily on test scores in math and reading to evaluate school performance.

“I believe we are seeing fully the impact of No Child Left Behind,” Nyman said, adding that future teachers “come to UNM without the skills to succeed. They come in without the basic science.”

Nyman also said state education leadership focuses on the importance of reading, while science and math advocates often run their own programs in isolation—like the Intel camp or RoboRAVE. Nyman said this is partly because the Public Education Department has cut the STEM department and no longer has a science coordinator.

Skandera acknowledged there are unfilled positions but said she has moved money in the budget and expects to open up two STEM positions in mid- to late summer. She said one will focus on math, the other on science.

Skandera also acknowledged that she came into her position with a heavy focus on reading initiatives, but said she plans to roll out more STEM projects soon, including competitive grants for robotics competitions and for low-performing schools to purchase science lab kits.

“I think it’s fair to say, we absolutely consider reading a foundation for success,” Skandera said. “But it’s a beginning point, not an end point.”

For more news about STEM education, see:

Obama proposes $1B for science, math teachers

Report: STEM education needs more money, support

How corporations can really support U.S. public education

Inquiry-based approach to science a hit with students

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