February 2nd, 2012
07:49 AM ET

My View: Technology and engineering, the forgotten part of STEM education

Courtesy Kris Taffner by Matt Walton, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Matt Walton a technology and engineering education teacher at Glen Allen High School in Henrico County, Virginia. He has a master’s degree in education and a bachelor of science degree in technology education from North   Carolina State University. 

You might have noticed a recent TV commercial from Chevron Corp. showing a Chevron professional next to an eighth-grade student with a robot. The student describes the remote control robot, and the young Chevron professional talks about how a high school science teacher made him what he is today (a geologist for Chevron). The next part of the commercial caught my attention, because in bold letters the words “Science Rules” flashed on the screen. While I agree that “science rules,” so does technology and engineering.

What the ad is demonstrating is not science education, but rather the middle two letters of STEM - or science, technology, engineering and math - education. Often technology and engineering education is overlooked when people talk about STEM education or when governments make decisions about education policy.

In last year’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called for adding “100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math.” This call for new teachers was laudable, however, science and math education receive the majority of attention and support from universities, various levels of government and the public.

One reason is because math and science are required classes throughout a student’s educational career, unlike technology and engineering. Additionally, as you examine the landscape of colleges and universities around the country, it’s easy to find a school where you can study to become a science or math teacher.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for technology and engineering education as many colleges and universities have cut their programs, and sadly so have some high and middle schools.

Technology and engineering education is exhibited in many different ways when you look at that robot in the commercial.  The physical appearance of the robot incorporates one of the main cornerstones of technology and engineering education: design.

Design in technology and engineering education can come in various forms. One is digital design through digital photography and Photoshop to generate a treatment and produce a video.  Another aspect covered in technology education classes focuses on engineering design by creating a more efficient shopping cart or a new blade design for a wind turbine.

You can find many diverse concepts and principles in technology and engineering labs. Students can learn engineering principles such as aerodynamics through the creation of carbon-dioxide-powered cars.  Students are able to explore aerospace engineering by building complex rockets and simple rubberband-powered planes that can stay in the air for minutes. Students learn principles of chemical engineering when they make bioplastics and biofuels.

When you look at the robot in the commercial, you can see design in the way that the robot is built and how the parts of the robot interact with one another to achieve the goals of the creator. Here the examples of engineering become glaring and are even highlighted by the student. The fact that the student has four servo motors on the robot and not three, five or six demonstrates that the student used engineering concepts to determine the amount of lift, torque and speed needed to achieve the most efficient robot.

If you were to walk into a high school technology and engineering class, the first thing you will notice is a lab full of busy students working diligently on projects and creating things. Students are often excited to learn because they can express their creativity and apply what they are reading about and taking notes on in other classes. Through project-based learning, students gain knowledge in different areas of technology and engineering, much of which reinforces what they have learned from their science and math teachers.

And science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM education has an important economic impact as well. According to a July report by the U.S Department of Commerce, STEM-related jobs are projected to grow by 17% by 2018, compared with 9.8% for non-STEM professions.  Additionally, even in the midst of the Great Recession, STEM joblessness has been almost half of non-STEM jobs. While the unemployment for non-STEM jobs topped out around 10%, STEM jobs never cracked the 6% mark.

As a country we need to focus on improving in all areas of science, technology, engineering and math education if we are to succeed in creating and competing for the jobs that will be prevalent in the decades to come. However, it’s vital to our nation and to our students not to overlook the “T and E” in STEM.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Matt Walton.

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soundoff (44 Responses)
  1. AlienPR

    I think STEM is a good idea. BUT read an article on TRADITIONAL schools in Chendler, AZ. Its gruesome how some think about necessity of education. I hope this has nothing to do with Republicans and Mormons/Evangelicals

    February 7, 2012 at 6:49 am |
  2. ryan

    the problem with STEM is that we spend hundreds of thousands on principals and administrators and next to nothing on consumable lab supplies, who cares if you hire more stem teachers on a federal grant if the students have no materials to build projects and conduct experiments. good science and engineering is not learned out of a book

    February 6, 2012 at 3:15 am |
  3. J.

    The commercial hasn't been shown over here in the West, as far as I have seen:) But you are right, Mr. Walton, teaching science, and educating students who are learning basic and advanced science in middle and high school does not necessarily lead to what a career geologist using robots does. (I.e., they aren't necessarily causally linked). TV commercial-maker people can, indeed, use some good advice:)

    February 5, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
  4. Dennis Donohue

    I teach in Florida as a science teacher for middle school gifted education. After 15 years teaching and having a master's degree, I earn just in excess of $ 44,000. This current year is the fourth year of our compensation being frozen and our benefits being cut. Given this, how is the president going to attract competent professionals to enter the field of education? Our state legislators have portrayed civil service workers as corrupt and incompetent. We are considered the core problem in the state's budgetary morass and the public demonstrates little support for teachers. Until teachers are compensated properly and our society recognizes the importance of the profession, the state of education in the U.S. will continue to decline.

    February 4, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • Phil in Oregon

      The notion that highly skilled professionals will give up half their potential income for the sake of training children to compete for the glory of the USA is practically extinct. In my 55 years, people have become more and more selfish, even to the extent of being unwilling to work to keep the country afloat. Does Obama really think that people will put out twice the taxes to fund his follies?

      February 5, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  5. DissapointedEngineer

    STEM is a waste of time. As an Engineer with an advanced degree, I can tell you that going into Engineering these days is a waste of time and effort. Everything is controlled by nickel-and-dime MBAs to the point of blocking any real innovation inside major corporations. The Business majors make all the money while the Engineers that have more education and knowledge and actually make the products and things that move society forward make pennies in comparison. I even witnessed a high level executive from United Technologies saying that "Engineering is a dying profession, everything will be outsourced to emerging economies in order to leverage lower wage costs". So my suggestion is: go to business school, that is where the money is.

    February 4, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • astro

      I agree. STEM jobs are being be outsourced to nations that (1) actually as a society value engineers and (2) have lower wages. As a holder of an engineering degree I can tell you that it makes no sense economically to go into the profession. Sure, there are jobs right now, but for how long? These are rightfully exported to lower-wage countries.

      February 7, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
  6. sabu

    Thank You for Giving these educational information, it is vey much useful.

    February 4, 2012 at 6:20 am |
  7. STEMTeach

    I have to correct myself. The other thing that changed is sophisticated technology. Instead of using graph paper for air foil designs my students use CAD. Engineering is design, technology is the tool. It is an art.

    February 3, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
  8. STEMTeach

    I've been teaching STEM for 20 years in my middle school science classes. The only thing changing is the funding and an acronym that John Q. Public likes to use. Integration and literacy are the key. Why do we need to separate it all? My students get a problem, research scientific principles, design a way to solve the problem and defend their designs using equations, measurements and intelligent written rationale. Nothing new here, it's called then scientific method or the design process. Any good science teacher knows it.

    February 3, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  9. Tech Tchr

    Bingo! I have been dealing with this issue since our school developed a "technology department" which is really a computer department or educational technology department. Technology Education and the study of engineering that takes place there can be lost in the mix when so many groups use the technology moniker. Science discovers, technology applies. All 4 areas are important! Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math. Great blog.

    February 3, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  10. Paul Anderson

    great to see that CNN considers the topic, however, the biggest issue in STEM education IMHO is the applied neglect of the intrinsic beauty in mathematics and science, leading to the easy misappropriation of science, engineering, and, technology in environmentally destructive and anti-human ways (somewhat fatalisticly attributed to "the economics.") Let us recognize that money, bureaucracy, and technocracy are the biggest challenges to STEM, that technology and engineering are the "art" of STEM, and that the petroleum industry ain't the Mona Lisa, GMOs and nanotech are dangerous unrecoverable toxins, and that writing code for business applications is a tedious (if remunerative) expense of effort and youth.
    STEM should be re-written capital M, capital S, lower case e, subscripti t. Now, go on with your pom-poms.

    February 3, 2012 at 4:50 am |
  11. Dan, TX

    But we learned from the republicans that scientists just push liberal special interest agendas. We don't need science education in America, because we have foreigners we can bring in to do those jobs. For example, if you look at the biggest university in your state, no matter where you live, and ask for the nationalities of the 100 most recent faculty hires, you will see the truth in fact. If you ask for the percentage of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics PhD students from YOUR university, you will see the TRUTH. If you don't do it, then just go and hide. No one wants to hire non-Americans if there are qualified Americans – but universities have to hire these people at $100K a year, because Americans are not as qualified to do the jobs.

    February 2, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
  12. Bazoing

    Modern social studies is formalized ignorance, a cheap out for people who wish to claim a college education, get military, commissions and lord it over the rest of us. For males it would be even easier to convert, move to Afghanistan and attain readily available life and death dominance over a bunch of helpless women and children.

    February 2, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  13. Conrad Miller

    Focusing on STEM skills is a blind canyon. What we need are people conversant in a wide spectrum of knowledge–including humanities. Innovation comes from the interaction at the fringes–what Daniel Boorstin called "the fertile verges" between disciplines. Yes, we need to better skill our population in STEM areas, but they also need to know some Shakespeare, their Civil War history, the Pax Romana, Beethoven's life story, a second (spoken!) language, &c. This focus on "STEM! STEM! STEM!" is nauseating. There should not be this divide between science and humanities; it i all of a piece. Sorry, you need to know a lot about your field–and a little about everything. If not, we get a blindered population of geeks who can think only "inside their box" (whether that box is tech or Mediaeval English history). What happened to turning out well-rounded citizens? The idea is to make our people nimble and conversant with whatever the world throws at them–not all little worker bees groomed for consumption by the tech corporate world.

    February 2, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
    • mark

      I think humanities degrees are pretty useless. It would be interesting to know what % of OWS college dropouts were humanities majors

      February 2, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
      • ryan

        Amen brother

        February 2, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
  14. Len

    Awesome job Matt! Glad you are win VA and doing great things. This is the kind of conversation we need to be having in education. STEM is a buzz word that people interpret differently, which leads to confusion.

    February 2, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
  15. ryan

    socail studies is where its at

    February 2, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
  16. jh

    Your article is way off base. If anything it is the TE that get most of the attention and funding. Most universities and a lot of high schools have revamped their engineering and Comp Sci departments. A lot of urban school districts all boast of having a "technology" center at 1 0 more high schools in their district. There are plenty of summer camps for kids who are interested in most comp sci and a lot of basic engineering topics. It is the science especially that is getting very little attention.

    February 2, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
  17. br

    I think the real problem is the lack of interest by soceity at large in regards to education in general. Since the article was posted on 13 comments have been made. Imagine if the headline had been about "Idol" or "Jersey Shore?" How many more comments would be on here. The sad truth is that in America we worship the cult of personality with little thought as to the role models we are or we are allowing our children to idolize. It does not matter what we do about education until parents start being parents and requiring that their children put forth an effort to learn whatever concepts are being taught and give a rip about their future.

    February 2, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • Dan, TX

      bingo!

      February 2, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
      • ryan

        what?

        February 2, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
  18. Engineering Academic

    I am an administrator at a College of Engineering in Pennsylvania. I work with numerous high school sin the area in helping them develop their STEM programs and adjust their course due to budget cuts. I attend higher ed. conferences with 40-50 other colleges of engineering discussing STEM educations and government. The point of this article is way off base. Of course there are more Math and Science teachers.. it is pure topic, and the fundementals of Engineering. I am not sure where the author pulled his data from but I see increases in Engineering programs at Universities, more applications, more students attending engineering camps, and an increase in the Tand E part. How many Math departments are growing? How many Physics classes are bursting at the seams? An author that is researching Engineering education as opposed to a technology teacher at a high school may have a better view of the landscape.

    February 2, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • William Kay

      Thank you for saying this! I work with engineering graduate students from the US and abroad on a daily basis, and if anything the fundamentals are sorely lacking. Single variable calculus, let alone diffeqs are treated as something they "had to do", let alone the language of science and engineering. The same goes for the hard sciences such as physics and chemistry. Everybody wants the flash, the end result, the next big thing, but few in the US seemingly are willing to work for it. What part of "engineering is applied math and science" do they not get? Master the basics, then do something extraordinary.

      February 2, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
      • ETEteacher

        I think there are a few over ridding problems. One is the deep misunderstanding of the relationships between the subjects. We have all accept that each area in STEM rely on each other to progress. Science depends on technology and engineering to develop new processes, equipment, or product to discover new science. we depend on the application of Math to develop ST&E. #2 is the fundamental definitions of the STEM...Truly what are the S, T, E, M, and how do they for STEM??? Individually they can be a stand alone subject, Together...well they do more. I think kind of Team work senerio. but that fact that Technology is ONLY computers is very narrow minded! Tooth brush...technology, microscope...technology, solar panel...technology, Now how we use and manipulate these items then becomes engineering, which then uses science and math to develop further and then the cycle continues.
        Problem #3 I agree students need the basics but really, what are the basics? The general education systems of states identify requirements for students to have English, math, science....etc. Why are we leaving out skill and knowledge that helps to apply all of the "required" items. Maybe consider that we need to think about a fundamental shift...A REAL SHIFT... in education.

        February 14, 2012 at 10:51 pm |
  19. Jerad Sorber

    The problem is that the cost of offering a technology and engineering curriculum at the college level has become prohibitive. In times when states are reducing their higher education budgets by double-digit percentages and universities are trying to maintain their enrollments by increasing class sizes, engineering and technology coursework with the necessary hands-on components doesn't achieve economies of scale in the same way that a mathematics, physics, chemistry, or even biology curriculum does.

    February 2, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  20. Norris

    Especially for young men, I think it is very important to learn the connection between abstract science and math principles and concrete technology and engineering applications. When I was in high school I learned more about technology and engineering from a one semester shop class in which we learned how internal combustion engines and electrical circuits work than in four years of Physics, Chemistry, Trigonometry, and Calculus.

    February 2, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • Beth

      "Especially for young men"??????? There are plenty of women in these fields too!

      February 2, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • Bite me

      Why just young men? If you feel a certain way, why don't you just come out and say it?

      February 2, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
  21. racerx

    I think you got it backwards. Or, at least TEM are all getting more than their share, when, in fact it's the "S" that's hurting the most for attention and innovation. T&E just leads to proliferation of gadgets for gadgets' sake.

    February 2, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • mike

      great insight. science and math form the basis for technology and engineering, and should be taught at high school level. even more important than the material itslef is the problem solving skills taught im math and science. instead, they're forgotten, most likely because this problem solving is "hard."T&E are not high school level subjects, instead they're narrow specializations. But thinking is very much not "in" these days

      February 2, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
      • gail

        Mike, my comments were not directed at you. They were intended for racerx.

        February 2, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
    • oldlurker

      I am afraid that you do not understand the T&E as defined today. It is NOT computers. It is teaching students critical thinking skills, math and science through hands-on learning.

      February 2, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
      • mike

        sound like i do understand. sometimes one needs to do the thinking without the hands on part. this is the basis of critical thinking, very much lacking in today's rapidly dumbing-down world. i'm not a follower of Plato in rejecting all input from our sense and being purely cerebral. but abstract though is important, and its lack is the reason for many of America's failings today, in technology, medicine and politics

        February 2, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  22. Michael

    What about STEAM? (Science Technology Engineering, ARTS, and Mathematics)

    February 2, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • Len

      STEM is integrative. There is no need for the Arts folks to feel left out. If done properly, STEM is cross-disciplinary.

      February 2, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
  23. Ash

    I completely agree with what you said! But something that I've learned after reaching college is that in the STEM classes we also need to include psychology which is a science but is not typically included as a science class in many schools. Just a thought!!

    February 2, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • BUMPTHE EBULIDER

      Sorry... Psychology is not a science. It is only one of the Behavioral Sciences. In and of itself is is not a science as it covers a wide spectrum of domains. While in some of those domains the principles of science are applied this is not true of all psychology

      Fuzzy Professor

      February 2, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
      • ryan

        with all do respect, your dead wrong. Psychology is a type of science.

        February 2, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
  24. Lauren Olson

    AMEN!!!!!

    February 2, 2012 at 12:22 pm |