Will future presidential candidates put more focus on how to facilitate technological achievements such as those that dramatically improved lives during the past century (electrification, airplanes, television, refrigeration, the Internet, etc.)?
Unfortunately, that’s probably only a dream in the short term. While we’re probably stuck with the shallow partisan bickering and horse-race coverage this election season, though, there’s hope.
A new and slowly building educational movement is aimed at creating leaders who focus on goals such as securing cyberspace, preventing nuclear terrorism, engineering better medicines and developing clean energy.
Such challenges are inspiring students across the country. We should encourage more schools to come on board. They will create not only the engineers we need to shape our future but also the thought leaders who can move our country forward in the tradition of American innovation and change the generally sorry state of today’s political discourse.
An example is happening at Fairfax County Public Schools’ Edison High School, where an eager group of ninth-graders is just starting a potentially revolutionary program. It’s framed on the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges for Engineering. This year, students are using a groundbreaking interdisciplinary approach to focus on access to food.
For their first three years of high school, the students in this Global STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) Grand Challenges program will integrate subjects, breaking down traditional subject silos. Algebra, geometry and calculus will be learned at the same time in knowledge chunks that depend upon what tools they need to tackle the challenges posed — just as in real life.
The students won’t focus only on STEM, but also on what FCPS calls “portrait of a graduate” attributes. These include communication, collaboration and thinking like a “global citizen” about the big issues of our time. Such skills will be critical to the success of the future engineers in the program.
At the same time, framing the science and math on today’s issues will make those who choose other careers, such as politics and journalism, better equipped for the 21st century.
FCPS officials are confident that, because inspirational “change the world” framing will cause students to want to learn the material, they will actually do better on mandatory Standards of Learning subject-based tests.
But it’s still a risk. The students (and their parents) are truly brave pioneers. Despite the uncertainty of diving into a brand-new curriculum at the beginning of their high school careers, the idea was so popular that students, including some from other school districts, put their names on a waiting list to do it.
Today’s young people are eager to take a chance because it’s their world that’s at stake.
Forty-three percent of those in the Global STEM Challenges program are either African American or Hispanic. The ability of this educational approach to attract a diverse mix of students is encouraging. It’s also necessary in order to have the perspectives needed to create effective new technologies for solving complex global and societal goals.
Those entering the Edison High program did not go through a special application process. In fact, part of its power comes from engaging smart students who haven’t previously shown they had a motivational spark and might be slipping through the cracks. The assumption is that all kids have the potential to shine and make a difference when sufficiently inspired.
Other K-12 schools across the country use the NAE Grand Challenges , and a university-level NAE Grand Challenge Scholars Program (GCSP) is dedicated to creating a generation of change-makers, too. The GCSP, mostly in engineering schools (and boasting more than 50 percent female enrollment), adds entrepreneurship, service learning, a global dimension and research to an interdisciplinary curriculum.
A GCSP student writing in a White House blog called the NAE Grand Challenges “the pursuit of something that will last beyond our lifetimes, and trickle down in the history lessons taught to future generations . . . they’re a call to anyone passionate about scientific innovation and the grand impacts it can have on our lives.”
For the sake of our planet and way of life, today’s political discourse should include how to achieve these goals. Engineers will be necessary to solve the world’s challenges, but they can’t do it alone.
I am optimistic that this new educational movement will create future leaders, of all types, with a broader outlook. I just hope that, by the time they get the chance, it’s not too late.
The writer is director of communications with the National Academy of Engineering.