Redefining the STEM Crisis

Of the American education issues that regularly make headlines, the “STEM Crisis” has been one of recent alarm. We are bombarded with information about the importance of graduating more students in STEM fields, and increasing the math and science proficiency of students of all ages.  The data reinforce these claims: The Center on Education and the Workforce reports that the U.S. economy could have 1.2 million vacancies in STEM occupations by 2018.

As a chemical engineering major, I agree that we must improve American math and science education, promote interest in the STEM fields, and remain competitive in technical industries. As demand for STEM jobs rises, we must develop a workforce that can compete globally: a workforce with the innovative skills that enhance our economy and society.

But encouraging STEM education means we must not lose sight of the value of the liberal arts. In any career, from mathematics to engineering, it is important to communicate across disciplines, collaborate with colleagues, and explain ideas and opinions.  The United States is an economic leader because we have innovators and entrepreneurs, fostered by school curricula that focus on critical thinking, insight, and creativity.

We often compare ourselves to other nations in areas such as the number of STEM graduates or test scores of math and science students, but this analysis neglects other important aspects. To produce advances in science and technology, we must emphasize skills in writing, speaking, and communication. Science majors must be able to explain their discoveries to those who have no background in the sciences.  Engineers must be able to understand the political, environmental, and economic context of their decisions.

My inspiration for this post was a recent article by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, entitled “America’s Obsession with STEM Education is Dangerous.”  In his article, he suggests that in addition to encouraging more students to enter STEM fields, we must encourage STEM workers to gain strong foundations in the humanities.

His article is a timely remark to recent job data. When most employers are asked what skills they look for in technical graduates, they don’t site mathematic or scientific expertise. Instead, they look for graduates who can communicate, think critically, and learn quickly. They look for employees who have strong interpersonal skills, who enjoy working and collaborating with others, who are adaptable and creative. An education incorporating both technical and liberal arts aspects will help students in technical fields adapt to changes and obstacles in the workplace.

It is crucial to focus on increasing our number of STEM graduates. But it is also important to make sure that they can communicate, exercise creativity, and implement broad knowledge to solve the world’s problems. In short, we need STEM graduates with a background in the liberal arts.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who announced: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

Link to Fareed Zakaria’s article:

Today in History: An American Classic

Today, in the year 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was published. Widely considered a literary classic and one of America’s greatest novels, it is read in nearly every high school English class, and has been adapted on the screen and stage numerous times.

But this wasn’t always the case.  It wasn’t until the World War II era, around 1945, that the novel became popular. After it was initially published in 1925, the novel received mainly negative reviews and sold only 20,000 copies in its first year. Fitzgerald died in 1940, believing himself a failure and his work forgotten.

In case you haven’t read the novel, a quick synopsis: Gatsby begins when Nick Carroway moves from the Midwest to the fictional town of West Egg, New York to learn about the bond business. West Egg is home to the “nouveau riche,” the extravagant who flaunt their wealth.  Nick’s new home is next door to the mansion of millionaire Jay Gatsby, a mysterious man who throws legendary parties.  Nick’s cousin Daisy and her cheating husband Tom live across town in the luxurious East Egg, home to the more established rich.  Gatsby and Daisy were almost married when they were younger, and the two begin an affair when they are reconnected through Nick.  Without spoiling the ending, tension arises when Daisy learns that Gastby is not what he seems- he hides many secrets about how he attained his wealth.

 The Great Gatsby explores many themes, including luxury, greed, and idealism.  It exposes the failure of the “American Dream,” and depicts the Roaring Twenties of an era of greed and corruption.  It explores two different types of wealth: established wealth, and the newer, often criminalized wealth that was born in the 1920s.  Fitzgerald—inspired by the parties he had attended on during a short stay on Long Island—began writing the novel in 1923, desiring to produce, as he said, “something new—something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.”

Fitzgerald, after penning two moderately successful novels before Gatsby, was convinced that the reason the book wasn’t a rousing success was because Gatsby didn’t have any admirable characters. But most scholars conclude that the reason it became popular in the 1940’s was because it pointed out many of the flaws of the extravagances in American society in the 1920’s, before the Great Depression.

Today, more than 25 million copies of The Great Gatsby have been sold worldwide- about 500,000 every year.  There is even an economic graph titled the “Great Gatsby Curve,” which plots the positive correlation between inequality and inter-generational social immobility. The novel is often invoked to expose the failure of the American Dream, and it resonates with the problems of social mobility and economic inequality that we face today.  Though the message may not be entirely optimistic, is points to changes our society should make, and thus remains a classic American novel.

The novel’s original cover:

The most recent movie adaptation of Gatsby:

Reducing the Price Tag on Education

Thus far, my civic issue blogs have focused on the American primary school system.  In this post, I want to change course with a topic relevant to college students: the cost of higher education.

The issue of college affordability is no secret. 2/3 of all jobs require higher education, and college graduates earn nearly twice as much in their lifetime as those with only a high school degree.  However, a college education is becoming out of reach not only for poor Americans, but also those in the middle class. 7 out of 10 students graduating college have student loan debt, compiling to a national total of $1.2 trillion.

The issue has again become relevant with President Obama’s most recent proposal. His goal is to provide free tuition for students enrolled in community college who maintain a GPA of 2.5 or above. Modeled after Tennessee’s guarantee of two years of free community college, the plan targets middle-class families who are above the income level to qualify for the Pell Grant, but still struggle to afford the increasing cost of college.  In his State of the Union, President Obama noted that 40% of college students are enrolled at one of America’s community colleges. Community colleges are particularly important for students who are older, working, need remedial classes, or are only able to take classes part-time. The proposal is estimated to save 9 million students an average of $3,800 in tuition annually.

In addition to the Obama administration’s efforts, there are other forces trying to make college more accessible as well.  For example, Starbucks recently announced that their employees will be eligible for free college education though Arizona State University’s online program. Though the program has drawn some degree of criticism, the initiative will hopefully set a precedent for other corporations to follow.  ASU President Michael Crow summarized the decision by stating: “Starbucks decided that human capital is one of the most important things they can invest in.”

Other experts argue, however, that restructuring college education budgets could be more beneficial.  The U.S. government spends $69 billion on college education subsidies and $107.4 billion on student loan defaults.  By restructuring the education budget, the government could decrease the cost of attending public universities, putting pressure on private universities to lower their tuition rates as well. Some of these restructuring ideas include reducing administrative staff, promoting programs that allow high school students to take college courses, reforming tenure, and overhauling the financial aid process.

President Eric Barron has recommended a tuition freeze for in-state students if Pennsylvania passes a proposed increase in funding for public universities.  Hopefully, the plan will become a reality, and Penn State, by making college more affordable, can set a precedent for other universities to follow.

Today in History: A Disease Eradicated

Today, in the year 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk announced he had created one of the most important developments in medical history: a vaccine to prevent polio.

Polio is a disease that attacks the nervous system, which can result in irreversible paralysis or death.  The easily transmissible virus caused several epidemics in the 1900s.  At its peak in 1952, the disease claimed 3,000 U.S. lives and caused 20,000 instances of paralysis.

The disease mainly occurred in children, but adults could also be afflicted, evidenced by FDR, who lived in a wheelchair after the disease left him partially paralyzed. Before a cure was invented, the only available treatments were quarantine or the “iron lung,” a metal contraption that helped patients breathe if their chest muscles were paralyzed.

Dr. Jonas Salk, who had worked during World War II to develop flu vaccines, made a promise to eradicate the disease.  He became head of the research laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh, where he conducted his research on polio.  To develop a vaccine, Salk decided to kill several strains of the virus poliomyelitis, which causes polio.  He then injected the dead viruses into a healthy person’s bloodstream, and the person’s immune system created antibodies in order to resist future exposure.

Less than five years later, he believed he had invented a viable cure.  Salk conducted the first human trials on former polio patients and also on himself, his wife, and his three sons.  In 1953, he announced on CBS radio network and the Journal of the American Medical Association that he had found a potential cure, and clinical trials began on nearly two million American children.  Finally, after was announced that the vaccine was found to be effective and safe, a nationwide vaccination campaign began.

Since he wanted it to be distributed freely to everyone, Salk never patented his polio vaccine. By 1957, the first year the vaccine was widely available, new polio cases dropped to under 6,000.  In 1962, an oral version of the vaccine became available, facilitating even greater distribution of the vaccine. The last case of polio in the U.S. occurred in 1979.

Today, there is still no cure for polio, but Salk’s vaccine is 99% effective in preventing it.  Among other honors, Jonas Salk was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977, and worked for the remainder of his life attempting to find a cure for HIV.

Setting the Standard: A Look at Standardized Testing

In 2002, a new era began in American education, often referred to as the “accountability era.”  Its cause was the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), requiring every state to administer annual reading and math exams to students beginning in third grade.  But even though the unpopular act expired in 2007, standardized testing remains a paramount aspect of American education.  First, it was 2009’s Race to the Top, which continued to enforce the inclusion of student test scores in teacher evaluations. And this year, the Common Core will require students will take a new exam, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).  These tests will be administered online, are reported to require more writing and critical thinking than previous exams, and are expected to be significantly more challenging.

But for the first time, the tests have been met with substantial resistance.  An increasing number of parents are refusing to let their children take the newest standardized tests, hoping to draw attention to a “destructive overemphasis” on standardized testing in public schools.  They argue that their children are losing valuable learning time as they prepare for tests, which the parents maintain have little value.  Conversely, many education officials argue that these exams provide important information in order for schools to understand how to improve, and for parents to understand their children’s academic progress.

But though there is new resistance to standardized testing, the arguments remain the same. Education officials and proponents of standardized testing maintain that the score reports give teachers guidance and an understanding of where they need to improve.  The tests allow them to determine what to teach and when to teach it, and hold them accountable for completing necessary material.  It also gives the only truly objective comparison of how students compare with their peers across the state and country.

Conversely, many parents, teachers, and other opponents of standardized testing have articulated harms.  First, they argue that standardized testing doesn’t take external factors into account, and that there are many intelligent students who do not are not good test-takers. The exams also force schools to “teach to the test” instead of promoting educational growth through innovation and critical thinking.  Finally, the tests can cause enormous pressure, as the success of teachers and schools can depend on it.

Now, parents protesting against the Common Core are refusing to let their kids take the exams.  Skipping the tests won’t impact students, but federal law requires at least 95% of students in each school district to participate in the tests, or they risk losing federal funding. The rule is meant to keep administrators from discouraging low performers to stay home on exam day, which could skew results or hide racial or socioeconomic disparities.

The protests have had little effect on changing the status quo, but standardized testing remains a contentious topic in the American education system.  While standardized testing obviously has its faults, until we can create a more thorough, objective means of evaluating student performance and progress, it appears it will remain in place for now.

Today in History: An Enduring Global Impact

Today, in the year 1961, the Peace Corps was established.

Several months prior, in October of 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy gave a presidential campaign speech to a crowd of 10,000 students at the University of Michigan.  He asked the students, “How many of you, who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians, or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?” To his surprise, over 1,000 students responded by signing a petition stating that they were willing to volunteer in developing nations.

Kennedy then began to propose the idea of the Peace Corps, a group of brave men and women who would dedicate themselves to promoting global social and economic development. In the era of the Cold War, Kennedy garnered support by stating that hundreds of Soviet citizens spent their lives abroad in “the service of world communism,” but the U.S. had no similar program.  Kennedy’s goal was to promote peace and development abroad, and involve Americans in the causes of global democracy and freedom.

Encouraged by over 25,000 letters responding to his call to action, Kennedy took immediate steps to make the campaign promise a reality. 39 days after his appointment as President of the United States, he established the Peace Corps through executive order.  Many people in Congress, and the public, were skeptical about cost of the program, with the entirety of funds going to causes outside of the U.S.  However, revolutions had been occurring across the globe, and America was worried these areas would fall to communism.  Thus, a few months later, the Peace Corps was approved as a permanent federal agency within the State Department.

In the 1960s, thousands of recent college graduates joined the organization, generally serving in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.  Peace Corps volunteers worked alongside people of these nations, building water systems, constructing and teaching in schools, and developing new agricultural methods.  Though volunteers occasionally faced danger or were unwelcome by natives, the program was overall deemed a success for both America and the developing world.

In the 1970s, amidst the Watergate scandal and Vietnam War, many Americans lost faith in government. Interest in the Peace Corps began to decline, and government funding for the program was cut. However, in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan broadened the Peace Corps’ mission to include emerging fields such as computer literacy and technical assistance. Peace Corps membership and funding increased, especially after the fall of communism, and for the first time, several Republican volunteers joined the progressive organization.

After over 50 years of service, the Peace Corps is still growing.  Between 1961 and 2014, nearly 220,000 Americans joined the Peace Corps and served in over 140 countries. JFK created a legacy through his devotion to world peace, through an organization that helps build a better life for others.  Today, the majority of volunteers work to improve education and health in developing countries, and promote community and economic development.  In our interconnected world, the Peace Corps is now more vital than ever.

President John Kennedy greets original Peace Corps volunteers:

Kennedy’s first proposal of the Peace Corps, at the University of Michigan:

Today in History: A Walk to Freedom

Today, in the year 1990, Nelson Mandela was freed after 27 years in prison.

For 20 years of his life, Nelson Mandela had been a leading anti-apartheid campaigner.  He directed non-violent protests against the South African government, the National Party, a white, Afrikaner minority group.  For the nearly 50 years they were in power, they enforced a system of racial segregation and revoked many of the rights of the majority black population.

Mandela, an advocate against the oppressive regime and proponent of native African rights, was put on trial in 1964 for sabotage against the National Party.  At the conclusion of his trial, he was convicted and sentenced to prison for life.

Mandela served the next 27 years in a South African prison on Robben Island, near Cape Town, performing hard labor. The government never released any photos or news of him during his years in captivity, attempting to diminish his reputation.  But this strategy backfired.  During his time in prison, his cause against the white minority rule gained worldwide support, and he became the global face of the fight against the Apartheid.

Mandela was released in 1990 upon the election of new president, FW de Klerk.  The president relaxed apartheid laws, and lifted the ban on the African National Congress, the leading black rights party.  Upon his release, the nation celebrated: thousands danced in the streets and clamored to see Mandela’s speech. He appeared at Cape Town’s City Hall in front of an audience of 50,000 people, and gave a landmark speech.  He declared, “Our struggle has reached a decisive moment. Our march to freedom is irreversible.”

Four years after his release, Mandela was voted president of South Africa in the nation’s first multi-racial democratic elections.  As the first African president of the nation, he addressed the nation’s most pressing problems, including racism and poverty, and became a global advocate for equality. Mandela and FW de Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for their efforts to transform South African society.

Mandela also established several organizations, including the Nelson Mandela Foundation and The Elders, a group committed to addressing global problems and easing human suffering. He also became a vocal advocate of AIDS awareness and treatment programs, a disease that affects more people in South Africa than in any other country.

In 2009, the United Nations declared July 18 “Nelson Mandela International Day” in recognition of his contributions to democracy, peace and human rights around the world. Mandela has become a figure that millions admire.  Despite the adversity he faced, he refused to answer violence with violence.  He became a global advocate for peace and justice, inspiring a worldwide fight for human rights.

Mandela’s walk to freedom:

America’s Trouble with Teachers

In the latest PISA educational results, South Korea’s students ranked among the highest of developed countries in math, reading, and science, far surpassing the United States.  The country now has a 93% high-school graduation rate, compared with 77% in the U.S.

Yet just 50 years ago, 78% of Koreans were illiterate, and the per capita income in South Korea was just $200.  By the 1970s, the nation realized it needed to improve its education system in order to grow its economy. The reforms were highly successful- and one reform in particular took responsibility.

Teachers in South Korea grew to be among the best in the world. Today, Korean teachers are extremely dedicated to their jobs, and put forth tremendous effort to help every student succeed.  While there are certainly accomplished teachers in American public schools, more and more schools are reporting a lack of qualified individuals pursuing careers in teaching.  So, what is South Korea doing right?

First, South Korean teachers are paid very well, enjoy high social status, and have great job security. Teaching is the number one career choice for young Koreans- the challenge is qualifying for the job. Only 5% of applicants are accepted into elementary school teacher-training programs, offered at only the nation’s best colleges. And for those talented individuals who manage to secure a teaching job, only 1% leave the field every year.

Compare that to the United States.  American teachers earn less than most professionals with a four year degree, and those wages are largely stagnant.  In most states, a teacher has to work up to 15 years to raise his or her salary just $10,000.  Teaching just isn’t seen as selective, lucrative, or prestigious profession.

The second problem is that most candidates are given very little training before they become teachers.  Only half are ever supervised as student teachers in a classroom. After learning the basic theory and practice of teaching during their graduate programs, they’re sent into classrooms to learn on the job.  People assume that good teachers should naturally know what to do, but this is hardly ever the case.

The final issue with American teachers is a controversial one.  Less than 0.1% of teachers are fired annually for performance-related reasons, a number much lower than most fields, including law and medicine.  The cause: teacher tenure.  Even if many of these teachers may deserve to keep their jobs, it is clear that some poor teachers aren’t being held accountable.

Tenure makes it very difficult to fire teachers, as union leaders often drag out termination proceedings for months, or even years.  During this time, districts must continue paying teachers, substitutes to replace them, and lawyers to handle the proceedings. Ultimately, most districts decide the process is not worth the money and effort.

To solve this, America needs to reward more teachers- good teachers- and make a career in education a more prestigious one. Studies have shown that higher teacher pay is correlated with better student performance. Raising the profession’s salaries and esteem would attract better candidates and help prevent those who aren’t qualified from being hired, increasing the quality of our nation’s teachers.

Teachers also need more prior and on-the-job training.  We need to increase the training time that teachers must serve as student teachers, and also build in on-the-job training sessions to ensure they continue to develop their skills.  Educating today’s youth is a complex and important task, and only by enhancing the esteem, livelihood, and competence of those tasked with the job can America’s education system truly improve.

Bridging the Gap

We’ve all heard the numbers: the United States spends more money on education than nearly every country in the world, yet our students rank below their international peers in most subjects.  The most recent PISA results rank the U.S. 17th in reading, 21st in science, and 26th in math, numbers Secretary of Education Arne Duncan describes as the “picture of educational stagnation.”  The failures of the American education system pose a problem for our students, who must acquire the necessary skills to compete in an increasingly globalized economy.

But the source of blame for our nation’s under-performance varies among experts. Some blame funding disparities, some blame teaching standards, some blame standardized testing, and some blame initiatives such as No Child Left Behind or the Common Core.  I hope to explore all of these topics – and more – throughout the semester, but I want to first write about what I believe is the most crucial issue: the racial and economic achievement gap.

According to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, racial and economic gaps in education have risen 40% in the past 30 years.  Recent reports show that many minority students aren’t prepared for college when they graduate high school, and high-income students make up an increasing share of the enrollment at selective universities, even when compared with low-income students with similar academic records.

Reducing economic and racial achievement gaps will minimize gaps in income inequality, lower incarceration rates, and could foster up $2.3 trillion in GDP growth by 2050, according to the Center for American Progress. But though reducing the achievement gap is a necessary reform, it may also be the most difficult to enact.  The challenge occurs due to inequalities that begin before students enter kindergarten.  Poverty affects children before and throughout their educational careers: children from low-income families often experience poorer health, less parental support, and more crime-ridden environments than those of their higher-income peers, all of which negatively affect learning.

However, there are solutions we can pursue.  The first proposal is a CARE Model, which stands for Culture, Abilities, Resilience, and Effort. This model involves training teachers to involve families in education, understand students’ cultural backgrounds, and work personally with disadvantaged students to set achievable goals.

Since the gap begins before students even reach kindergarten, Pre-K programs could also help reduce inequalities.  Children who attend preschool have been shown to enter elementary school more prepared to learn.  Thus, we should strive to make preschool enrollment free and universal for children living in poverty.

Another potential solution is school vouchers, subsidies that pay for all or part of school tuition.  This allows students with low-performing public schools in their area to attend private school.  Not only does this benefit students, it increases accountability of public schools and incentives them to improve academic performance.  This program is already used to a small degree, and could help more students if it were implemented on a larger scale.

The educational achievement gap is not an issue that can be easily solved, but it is essential that we eliminate disparities in education in order for our nation to progress.  Providing equal and adequate education for all students is the first step in addressing our nation’s educational reforms.

The Trial of the Century

Today, in the year 1995, O.J. Simpson’s murder trial began.

Officially known as the People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson, the criminal trial lasted for nine months.  O.J. Simpson, a revered Heisman Trophy winner and famous actor, was tried on two counts of murder for the deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman.

Dubbed “The Trial of the Century,” the case was the most publicized trial in American history, and the first to feature extensive television coverage of every detail.  Millions glued themselves to their TV screens, and most major networks decided to cover every part of the case, no matter how trivial.  Mark Miller, professor at New York University, describes the Simpson case as a “harbinger of an entirely different media landscape — an event that preoccupies everyone full-time for months on end.”  The trial was no longer just news; it was entertainment.

Nine months, $20 million dollars, and 150 witnesses later, Simpson was acquitted.  The verdict divided the country along racial lines: National surveys showed noticeable differences in the belief of Simpson’s guilt between black and white Americans.

O.J. Simpson’s case sparked numerous changes, both socially and legally.  The first major shift occurred in the media: it was the first time coverage of a trial was so extensive, and the first time the public became engrossed in the events of the courtroom.  The O.J. Simpson case set the bar for sensational, high-profile trials today.  Round-the-clock media coverage and public interest has occurred in more recent cases, including those of Casey Anthony, Oscar Pistorious, and George Zimmerman.

But the bigger impact of the trial is the effect it had in important court proceedings.  Much of the case centered on DNA evidence- at the time, a relatively new and complex technique. Several droplets of blood were found at the scene of the crime, and comparison between the blood and Simpson’s DNA showed strong similarities.  Though Simpson’s lawyers were able to persuade the jury that there was reasonable doubt about the samples, claiming that they may have been mishandled or even switched for an alternate samples by lab scientists, the trial pioneered the use of DNA evidence in courtrooms.

Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, two of Simpson’s lawyers, were DNA experts.  They created a foundation known as the The Innocence Project, which used DNA analysis to defend those who were falsely accused.  Before the trial, DNA testing was seen as complex and expensive, but the Simpson trial made the practice common.  Because of the nationwide attention to the case, DNA testing was utilized more often, allowing hundreds of wrongfully convicted inmates to be freed.

Simpson later lost a civil trial that required him to pay $40 million to the families of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman. In 2008, he was convicted of kidnapping an armed robbery, and is now in jail.  However, his case leaves behind a legacy that impacts us today- in and out of the courtroom.