Respecting the Objectives of STEM Education

Lecture presented by: Dr. John L. Hall
Date: November 8, 2011
Location: CETYS University – Mexicali, Mexico

A century ago one could become trained in a field and pursue one’s thesis area for the length of the career. That world is long gone, and the lifetime of a cutting-edge engineering education may be just a few years. Characteristically, the new solutions increasingly need to be based on a broader range of knowledges. So in these present and future days a key skill is the ability to formulate new visions from the synthesis of fragments of knowledge taken almost without context from their original field.

The most powerful of these new ideas seem to be made out of “unrelated” “random” pieces that no one dreamed to have any relationship: but afterward, everyone can see it was destiny for new (even startling) results.

So, how should students prepare themselves to be employable problem solvers in a world of innovation where sound scientific foundations are needed to enhance valuable engineering skills and enable whole new engineering approaches and devices. How can education and the newest skills already be so close to obsolete and in need of continual upgrading?

The basic situation is that people of all nations see technological progress as the highway for their future. There are increasingly more smart people in the competition to advance the state of knowledge: the race is always faster.

The present best answer is to respect the objectives of STEM education, an educational approach where academic concepts are coupled with real-world lessons as students apply science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in contexts that make connections between school, community, work, and global enterprise. The academic idea is to cover fewer topics, but in more depth, while still communicating the interconnected-ness of the domains. In the ideal, one can see the development of STEM literacy as enabling and empowering the ability to compete in the new economy.

To illustrate the multidisciplinary aspect of successful research we draw examples from the 40 year struggle by 10 national standards laboratories to accurately compare optical and microwave frequencies, which was difficult because of the complexity of the step-by-step methods required. In the year 2000 this activity transformed from a multiyear team effort and investment, to an easy and reliable approach and apparatus, capable of providing an answer to 16 digits accuracy within the first part of the morning. This breakthrough came from merging unrelated, independent developments in four disparate, essentially unrelated fields. Although strong technical advances made this program successful, some of the most important factors came about through seemingly accidental combinations of scientific ideas, advances and utilization of exotic materials.

We see the student as collecting basic information and fundamental skills that can be applied to many situations – a sort of permanent tool kit… an application of “learning how to learn.”

(known by many as Jan) was born on August 21, 1934 in Denver, Colorado. His father (John Ernest Hall) was trained as an electrical engineer and worked for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on many hydroelectric projects here and overseas. His mother, Rae (Long) Hall was an elementary school teacher and singer. Jan's interests in electricity and radio were supported by parental interest, but his research on black-powder rockets was gradually replaced by social activities such as scouts and a church youth group. After completing public schooling in Denver, he received a Westinghouse Scholarship to Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University ) and earned a B.S. (1956), M.S. (1958) and Ph.D. (1961) in Physics from the Carnegie Institute of Technology.

Respecting the Objectives of STEM Education