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In order to keep jobs in the United States, we need to maintain our brainpower advantage in science and technology. Without trained scientists and engineers, we’ll undoubtedly fall behind in national security, healthcare, and industry, diminishing our standard of living and quality of life, and drastically affecting how we compete in the global market.
Students from countries such as China, Japan, India, and Russia have embraced the fields of math, chemistry, computer science and engineering, and the fear is that we’re not keeping up. A report released by the National Academy of Sciences shows that more than half of all engineering degrees awarded by the nation’s universities are given to foreign-born students, the U.S. imports more “high-technology” products than it exports, and high school students generally score below their international counterparts in math and science tests.
As renowned Pulitzer Prize-winning author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote, “Americans need to run faster just to stay in place.”
The outlook isn’t all grim and dim. Local teachers and schools are doing their part by stepping it up in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and are slowly but surely turning the tide.
Science education is the bedrock upon which the future economic success of this country depends upon, and early educational experiences are critical in maintaining America’s technological lead. If young students are inspired and excited about math and science, they’re more likely to continue along the STEM track as they get older. Competent, qualified, passionate teachers are key to igniting this spark of interest.
After the spark has been ignited, systems must be in place to allow continued support and advancement.
According to Dr. Eric Jolly, president of the Science Museum of Minnesota, a step in the right direction is the recent requirement of eighth grade algebra for all students. “In Minnesota, until now, only 27 percent of students took algebra in eighth grade. If you don’t do that, you won’t be able to take AP Calculus in high school, which will deter you from going on the engineering track.” he comments.
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Mounds Park Academy
According to Achieve, Inc., initiatives created to help raise academic standards and achievement, students who complete Algebra II in high school more than double their chances of earning a four-year college degree.
At Mounds Park Academy, hands-on and experiential activities are incorporated in all math classes, making math challenging yet fun at every level. Math components are frequently explored as part of integrated units with science, social studies, and technology. Enrichment activities are available in grades five and six; and advanced math classes are available beginning in the seventh grade. By the time a student reaches Upper School, they are required to take three years of math in order to graduate, although four is more the norm.
“Virtually all MPA students take four years of high school math,” says Head of School Mike Downs. “Additionally, we offer two advanced placement courses, AP Calculus and AP Statistics, to ensure that our most talented students have the best possible math preparation for college.”
MPA further prepares students by giving them laptop computers to investigate and explore a wide variety of math applications, collect data, and perform math experiments. Upper School math teachers have over 15 years of teaching experience, some with advanced degrees, and teach with a hands-on problem solving point of view.
Several advanced courses are offered at the International School of Minnesota, including Calculus and Advanced Placement Statistics. Advanced students often take post-Advanced Placement level courses in Multivariable Calculus, Linear Algebra, and Differential Equations. A three-track science curriculum is offered in grades 9-12, including survey coursework in biology, chemistry, astronomy, and conceptual physics, as well as courses in Advanced Placement biology and physics.
All ISM science and math courses are taught by teachers who possess degrees in the subjects they are teaching, and—in the majority of cases—those teachers have advanced degrees in their respective subjects, says Dr. Robert L. Cassola, head of the ISM science department.
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A newly expanded ISM laboratory facility offers the ideal learning environment. Students can explore scientific principles at the deepest level, “significantly improving their understanding of, and appreciation for, the power and beauty of science,” Dr. Cassola comments.
The University of North Dakota’s School of Engineering and Mines is a small school offering individualized attention through classes no larger than 25 students, hands-on lab experiences, faculty with open-door policies, and an emphasis on team and interdisciplinary activities.
More than high quality academics, small class sizes or accessible technology, the UND advantage lies in the meaningful relationships students develop – with classmates, professors, the community and the world.
“Students are encouraged to work with faculty on research projects for credit, pay, or in some cases, both,” explains John Watson, dean of UND’s School of Engineering and Mines. “The university has a proactive Career Center, and faculty provide additional assistance to students looking for wo rk experience or full-time positions.”
Internships and co-op positions are readily available, and UND graduates are heavily recruited because of their ability to be productive right from the get-go, Watson says.
At the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University, STEM students learn within three new science centers featuring state-of-the-art equipment, talented professors, and a solid reputation in groundbreaking work such as molecular biology and chemistry. Mentoring is a critical component at the school, says Manuel Campos, CSB/SJU associate professor of biology.
“It’s not enough to simply recruit students, you have to develop carefully thought-out mentorships once you bring them in,” he explains. “We work one-on-one with students on curriculum, internships, research opportunities, and studying abroad. Working one-one-one with the students is beneficial to their trust and development.”
Innovators in STEM concepts, the College of St. Catherine was one of the first schools to offer an “engineering for everyone” course as well as a STEM minor.
“We developed the STEM minor because we recognized the value of the person who is bilingual in STEM,” explains Yvonne Ng, assistant professor of computer science and co-coordinator of the Center for Women, Science, and Technology. “It recognizes that students may use the knowledge and skills for a variety of different options. Elementary education majors could use the STEM minor to improve their credentials as highly qualified teachers; English majors could become technical writers; economics majors could become new technology investors; and business majors could use it to enter technical sales.”
“The more STEM knowledge students have, the more options become available,” she points out.
St. Kate’s encourages STEM education through seminars and strategic outreach events such as “Science Saturday” and “Business and Technology Career Camps.” STEM majors or minors have numerous tutoring, coaching, mentoring, and networking opportunities, can apply for scholarships through the NSF and Clare Booth Luce Foundation, and have unique connections to internship and job shadowing opportunities through partnerships with 3M and Medtronic.
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STEM students at The College of St. Scholastica also learn in a highly personalized environment in which students interact regularly and over sustained periods of time with outstanding full-time faculty members, says Dr. Beth Domholdt, vice president for academic affairs. In addition, CSS students have access to a variety of tutoring and research opportunities, and can apply for financial support through programs and grants through McNair Scholars and the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Because of the smaller class sizes, the CSS faculty gets to know their students, leading to referrals for unique summer research projects and internship opportunities.
Over the past two years, St. Cloud State University has invested over $2 million to enhance basic instrumentation and instruction in the College of Science and Engineering, says David DeGroote, dean of SCSU’s College of Science and Engineering. This investment includes supplementary instruction in chemistry, physics, and math, redesigned courses to increase the engagement of students, bridge programs at community colleges, summer programs for underrepresented students, interdisciplinary programs at the Center for Advancement of BioScience, and state-of-the-art lab equipment and technology.
Most classes have a lab component and “senior design” projects that require students to participate in research, making them highly competitive to recruiters.
As the faculty of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at St. Olaf College began planning a new science facility, it became clear that the future of science was interdisciplinary work, says Anne Walter, St. Olaf professor and biology department chair. Based on those meetings, the college now offers environmental studies, neuroscience, and biomolecular science, double-listed courses (biogeochemistry), and joint introductory courses (chemistry-biology).
The new facility will reinforce an already strong math and science program, evident by the number of Ph.D. candidates in those fields who received their undergraduate education at St. Olaf.
“We are known for the thoughtfulness and leadership qualities of our STEM graduates, whether they serve as K12 teachers or as leaders in technology, research or medical areas,” Walter says.
St. Olaf faculty are active in groups such as Project Kaleidoscope, an organization promoting “science for all;” The Mathematics Practicum and Mayo Ventures, which involves students in real world projects; and we engage students in strong research programs; and exciting off-campus studies in places ranging from Budapest to Ecuador, says Walter.
While more still needs to be done to increase the number of graduates with advanced degrees in STEM fields, the initiatives shown by the schools listed in this story are encouraging signs that the next generation of leaders will continue the forward march of technological progress.
Live, learn, and teach outdoors at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center
Loons call. Waves lap. The wilderness beckons. Nestled in Minnesota’s Northwoods, Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center offers unparalleled opportunities to learn outdoors. Located on 2,000 acres of land, the focus is on participation in outdoor experiences, with lessons in ecology and science, human culture and history, and outdoor recreation.
High school students in grades 10-12 can take a four-week summer session in Northern Minnesota Ecology and Environmental Ethics from July 6, 2008 – Aug. 2, 2008 and receive credit. Students study the natural history of the North Shore from an ecological and social perspective, take field trips (including a canoe trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and backpacking trip along the Superior Hiking Trail), and learn about the land, environmental issues, and structure of our ecosystem.
Tuition is $1,975 and covers all lodging, food, curriculum materials, trip permits, transportation and instruction costs. Formore information, send an email to Jenny Bushmaker at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-800-523-2733.
College graduates interested in living, learning, and teaching in a community of over 30 skilled environmental educators and naturalists can sign up for hands-on, student-centered experiences from Aug. 25, 2008 to June 12, 2009 through Wolf Ridge Naturalist Training Programs. The yearlong programs offer Master’s level college credits, leadership skills for environmental education, and programs including: “Environmental Education Certificate” (learn how to teach while teaching outdoors); “Student Teachers” (practice teaching in and out of the class); and “Apprentice Naturalists” (develop leadership skills for education).