STEM vs. STEAM? Preparing Students in the Tech Revolution.

One of the ongoing messages of this blog is the importance of Higher Education in forming the underlying cultural principles of our society. As we explore elements of change and challenge, we see the importance of considered analysis and discussion, a community based problem solving exercise and methods of compromise. In a recent post I discussed the role of Liberal Arts and the Humanities in our educational system and the many broad based skills and learning it contributes to society. In that post I mentioned my daughter, an Urban Designer in Tampa as an example of the importance of liberal arts skills along side technical ones. She recently attended a community event that dealt with the very same issues, and she has agreed to share her thoughts. She is a skillful blogger herself, so I agreed to post an article on her blog. If you are interested, take the opportunity to visit it here!

I was introduced to the STEM vs. STEAM debate this week through an exciting community forum that takes place bi-monthly in Tampa. This month’s “Not Your Average Speakers Series,” hosted by 83 Degrees Media, an online magazine that promotes the economic development of the Tampa metro area, included five local panelests involved in education, technology and the arts locally. With an engaged audience of teachers, business people, and others passionate about education, the discussion (and debate at times) was a thrilling introduction to the challenge of preparing students for the demands of the workplace today.

STEM stands for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics ” If you google STEM, you will see many groups at the national, state, and local level that are dedicated to closing the skills gap in the job market. Over the past decade, STEM jobs have tripled over the number of non STEM jobs. This movement was established and responded quickly with grants, technical assistance, and lobbying legislation to put an emphasis on transforming traditional education.

The America COMPETES Act recognizes the likelihood of the United States’ future inability to compete with foreign countries in STEM. It authorizes funding for NASA, NOAA, National Institute for Standards and Technology, National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, as well as education grants, fellowships, and training. US companies lobby Congress to allow more foreigners with advanced STEM degrees to have permanent resident status. Even departments like Homeland Security hold their own degree programs in STEM that allow people to remain the country for extended periods because their skills are so in demand.

One of the panelists, Terry Boehm, president of the Pinellas Education Foundation, is a strong proponent of STEM education and believes that tradition education is failing to engage students anymore, especially males. Additionally, he recognized that only 50% of students graduating from college work in a job where their degree in relevant. He believes we are missing our mark in how we teach our children and how we prepare them for the workforce.

There is no debate that America is not preparing their students enough for the types of expertise that are required as we move through our technology revolution – the debate lies in HOW we prepare our students and WHY.

Enter STEAM. STEAM stands for “science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics.” The objectives of the movement, championed by the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) is to exemplify how art and design education teaches the “flexible thinking, risk-taking and creative problem solving needed to solve today’s most complex and pressing challenges – from healthcare to urban revitalization to global warming.” Transforming research policy to place art and design at the center of STEM, encouraging integration of art and design in K–20 education, and influencing employers to hire artists and designers to drive innovation are immediate objectives of the movement. Included by many STEAM groups is philosophy, history, reading, writing and humanities and they can be incorporated with the arts to increase innovation through education.

Another panelist, Larry Thompson, the president of the Ringling College of Art and Design, is a strong proponent of STEAM stating that “in order to reclaim America’s creativity differentiator, we must be able to provide businesses with a workforce of imaginative employees who will pave the way to a new future in American business.” He believes, as do many, that studying arts teaches critical thinking, creativity, and a deeper understanding of the unquantifiable, all of which are a necessity in the global marketplace. While most would think that a college of art and design would focus on painting, sculpture, and drawing, they would see from the articles in Ringling’s most recent magazine that the school is engaged in preparing their students for the  market place. Fuel for Our Economic Future: Art, Design, and Creativity, Ringling College: Powering the Creative Economy, Smart Business: Think Like and Artist and Give Them What They Are Missing, Fostering Creativity and Innovation with Corporate Structures are all titles of articles written by Ringing faculty and alumni.This is clearly not your traditional arts institution.

Additionally, Wit Ostrenko, the president of the Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI) in Tampa emphasizes that creativity is at the heart of the sciences. Walk into the MOSI, and it appears to be like any science center for children, in fact it’s the 8th largest in the country. But the most popular part of the whole complex is the “Idea Zone: Dream It, Make It, Do It,” which will make up half the museum after future expansion. While the lab is based on STEM concepts, Mr. Ostrenko stresses that without creativity, there would be no big ideas.

During the conversation between panelists and audience members, we heard a wide variety of views on the issue through personal anecdotes, based on different belief systems. However, what surprised me most was a sentiment shared by the CEO of a website development company as well as Larry Langebrake, Director of SRI International’s regional marine biology laboratory in St. Petersburg. The CEO of the website development company said that they usually hire people with education in the arts instead of technology because computer science degree holders don’t know how to communicate their ideas or think critically about their work. Mr. Langebrake said that when he is interviewing someone he doesn’t even look at their technical experience or education, he focuses on the candidates ability to communicate their value – and therefore the potential value they will contribute to his company. Both of these high tech companies rely on people with a foundation in liberal arts education.

My journey through education has been discussed previously on this blog in a related post, but let me recap here. I am 29 years old, but it’s only in the last few years that I really hit my stride and found out how to fully incorporate my passions into my career. I am an urban designer and planner who works primarily for a transportation planning and engineering firm in Tampa. I am also a trained architect. All of these disciplines, urban design, urban planning, and especially architecture, require a deep understanding of math and technology. If it weren’t for an early exposure to the arts, however, I never would be in the career I am in today – retrofitting our cities, roads, and infrastructure to accomodate our transforming communities and industries. When given the choice between a technical professional BARCH degree in architecture, or a BA in Architecture, which would allow me to have a stronger foundation in the liberal arts, including minors in psychology and religious studies, I chose the latter. Now, I am a confident professional woman who has beat out the competition because I could write and express my value to my employeer, and felt comfortable doing so.

My sentiment, shared by Larry Thompson, Wit Ostrenko, and Larry Langebrake, was prevalent among members of the audience. However, three more came to the surface regarding the education system. First was testing. A decade long policy change in the federal education system means that a student in public school endures 27 days of testing in a 180 day school year, while a student in private school endures 3. In addition to those 27 days, there are many more that are geared towards preparing for the tests. Through school rankings and funding, current education policy devalues the profession of a teacher and their ability to truly teach.

Additionally, the issue of “siloing” our children at a young age was raised continuously throughout the evening. Public schools that emphasize science, technology, and math for children as young as elementary age are becoming more prevalent as the push for STEM education continues. The fear is that at the youngest age, students are being deprived of a strong liberal arts foundation that could not only narrow their exposure to exploring their natural skill set, but hinder their ability to learn basic communication skills.

Finally, the rising cost of education paired with the competitive job market as a deterrent for college students choosing their major was a topic of conversation. The room fell silent when a young woman explained that she had always wanted to be a film director and had  planned to go to film school. With people in her life telling her over and over again that she would never have a lucrative career and live as a starving artist, she instead enrolled in law school. The recession hit with lawyers suffering greatly. Now she is unemployed with $2o0,000 in debt that she can’t pay – and she instead is starving herself of what she considers her true passion in life.

Subsequently, the room grew tense when an audience member stated that there wasn’t one person in grad school who hadn’t chosen their masters program based on how much money they would make when they graduated. He believed that for parents to tell their children to “follow their dreams,” despite all else was wrong and unrealistic. Larry Thompson, strongly objected, as did I. I had the great fortune of having parents that told me that I could be the richest person in the world, but if when I went to work every day I didn’t feel as though I was doing what I loved or my work wasn’t an extension of myself that I would indeed have a life of unhappiness. I did follow my dreams, and while the job market has been challenging at times, I have always found a deep satisfaction in knowing that my talents were meeting the demands of the world – and that is something that is priceless.

In fact, the STEM vs. STEAM debate is not as simple as solving the equation of education responding to the job market. It’s a passionate and emotional debate about our children being given the opportunity to fully explore their own identity, talents, and ability to change the world, through learning in the classroom. By taking away that class in creative writing from the future Shakespeare for more time in the lab, or depriving the future Yo-Yo Ma from that cello lesson for math club, we could in fact be depriving our future economy of the talent that it needs to survive.

The STEM vs. STEAM debate will live on. There is no doubt that our education system is not doing the trick. It must be changed to let teachers teach and children to learn, but I would argue there is no reason to hastily dismember the broad and strong education foundation that has served us well until now without being sure of the impact that it will have on our future generation, economy, and ability to compete in the global market.

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver & Associates. She is also the author of At the Helm of the Public Realm, a blog about urban design, urban planning, and the built environment. 

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Risky Business: Higher Ed?

With apologies to Tom Cruise and air guitar, I am intrigued by the ongoing disruption in the world of Higher Education and the dramatically changing nature of the risks being taken. As universities of all varieties confront their strategic directions, they are rolling the dice on what the future will bring. The way for the future is unclear and difficult to predict. The recipe for transforming higher education is filled with peril as millions of dollars are being invested in untried processes, methods, modalities, tools and technologies.

It is clear that the disruption recognized by Professor Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School ( see my post of elsewhere on this blog) continues to unfold before us. Who would have anticipated even ten years ago that the tried and true systems of higher education delivery would ever change.? The sprawling physical plants, ever-larger buildings with luxurious appointments and features, were undertaken with complete confidence. More and more amenities were added to support the rising enrollment, even though the tuition was also rising. How could students continue to meet the tuition increases? Well, thanks to the largess of Congress, the student loan program enabled the accumulation of larger indebtedness with low interest rates, which provided the needed capital, along with the generous gifts of wealthy alumni and relatives.

The for-profit sector was on a tear as well. With both an on-line model that addressed the needs of working adults for convenience and also technologic tools that made the massive growth across the country scalable, this segment of higher education also enjoyed dramatic growth. With a substantial lead in the use of the Internet and related tools to deliver educational materials and facilitate interaction, this group seemed well suited to maintain technological leadership. Most of traditional higher education looked on from afar, confident that they were immune from the evolving challenges of digital education. So the non-profit sector cruised with technological leadership, swelling stock prices and the great attraction of college degrees for its target students.

The broader consumer motivation that supported the expanding educational offerings for both traditional and for-profit higher education was the ingrained belief that the best and surest way to advance in life, both intellectually and vocationally, was through a college degree. After all, the unemployment rate for new graduates was low and the lifetime earnings with a degree were significantly greater than non-graduates. Larger numbers of students entered the ranks of university students with the promise of the “good life” through education.

That world has changed.

Now the entire country faces deep recession and high unemployment. There is now a widespread belief that the promises of higher education can no longer be met. Large numbers of graduates are underemployed or unemployed. Students are graduating with loan balances equivalent to home mortgages. The aggregate of such loans now exceed the level of credit card debt. Defaults are larger and growing, with taxpayers footing the bill for the loan losses. The result is perfectly logical, but somehow unanticipated by the higher education community. Students are staying away in droves. The promise of a college degree has been greatly diminished. The prospect of large loan balances upon graduation, with diminished faith in job availability, has significantly reduced both the number of prospective students and the previously engrained confidence in the power of education.

The result? Educational institutions of all kinds are struggling to adopt strategies that will allow them to meet expectations and preferences of this rapidly changing population of potential students. This review and analysis not only requires significant commitment of time, research, experimentation and intellectual capital, it also requires huge capital investment to build, test and alter the methods that are developed. All of this is subject to the risk that all the investment will not succeed at reinvigorating Higher Ed.

This process is vital, demanding and above all, RISKY!

So the first issue that must be addressed in this process is consumer risk. Can the higher education community construct and offer educational models and modalities that reenergize students, that create market demand and a return to the elevated value of higher education? The present group of potential students are very difficult to understand. They are quite comfortable with technology, used to immediate feedback, unabashedly assertive at expressing their desires, sometimes put off by authority and maybe a little entitled. What’s more, these persons are coming along at a time of unprecedented societal change and rejection of many traditional values. How can we reach them?

Traditional higher education institutions have a significant amount of operating risk as well. In Finance this refers to the role of fixed costs in the overall cost structure of the enterprise. The greater the proportion of fixed costs, the greater the losses when volume diminishes. In this regard, most for-profit universities have an advantage in that their costs are more variable in nature – they have leased facilities and equipment, utilize adjunct faculty that can expand or contract with the student population. This does provide a risk advantage for the for-profit sector. Traditional higher education, on the other hand, has very large investments in capital assets, equipment, senior faculty contracts for teaching and research, expensive amenities and many long-term commitments for capital investment.

Any advantage enjoyed by the for-profit schools in the preceding paragraph is greatly exceeded by stock market risk related to the valuation of the university by its investor community. The aggregated level of risk quickly is reflected in the demand for more returns, which results in lower stock market valuation. The for-profit sector has lost millions of dollars in market value as stock prices plummeted over the last few years. The instability has diminished the ability of such schools to access the capital markets and placed them under intense pressure to contain costs and generate profits. This leaves them open to market corrections and economic disruptions, both very risky propositions.

And the growing reliance of all universities on the growing Federal loan program and the massive losses generated by record numbers of default have generated intense governmental scrutiny, which has translated into intense Political Risk. Senator Harkins’ Senate committee has introduced significant structural pressures on the Federal Loan Program and pushed for increased scrutiny and management of such loans. The committee has been especially vocal in its attack of the for-profit sector.

Closely related to this is the increasing review and oversight being exercised by regulatory agencies like the Higher Learning Commission. As bad actors in higher education drew more publicity and public disparagement, the regulatory agencies were criticized for failing their mission and not closely monitoring specific institutions. Congress threatened their very existence and put part of the perceived problem squarely on the shoulders of the regulators. This Regulatory Risk poses immediate and pronounced problems. A recent letter from the HLC has had a direct and material effect on the University of Phoenix as it attempts to deal with the issues raised by the HLC. (See my previous post, “Financial Structure: A Condition of Regulation? “).

Finally, all of Higher Education has to continue to deal with the potential liabilities related to operating vehicles, maintaining real estate, offering public activities and events and generally attending to business as usual. These risks are real and directly related to standards of performance and governance that are recognized in our society. The result is Activity Risk , tort related liability associated with negligence in carrying out the normal operations of the University, from Admissions to Cafeterias to Book Stores to distribution activities.

As can be seen by the foregoing, Higher Education is facing increasing levels of risk. Some of the risks are specific and can be met by insurance and other techniques. Some risks can be addressed by diversification and redesign of processed and methodology. But the greater strategic risk of reforming the nature of Higher Education is much more complex and potentially very expensive. So as various strategies are devised and millions of dollars are committed to new and untried concepts, we will be continually addressing uncertainty and changing demands. Hang on for quite a ride. This is really Risky Business!

Financial Structure: A Condition of Accreditation?

Accreditation probation? The risk of losing federal student loans and grants? Losing face as an academic institution of higher learning? All of this now is placed before the University of Phoenix as it deals with a Draft Report it received on February 22, 2013 from the Higher Learning Commission (“HLC”) concerning its comprehensive evaluation process recommending that the school be placed on probation. What activities or wrongdoing should bring such harshness? – academic violations, inferior faculty, inadequate curriculum, any of a thousand other academic measures? No, this punishment was attributable to an alleged deficiency primarily in the area of governance between Apollo Group and University of Phoenix .

Wait a minute – this academic review now turns on how an institution is owned? Finance? You have got to be kidding! Let’s see – the University of Phoenix is wholly owned by Apollo Group, who appoints the members of the University (its wholly owned subsidiary) Board of Directors. This is consistent with every other wholly owned subsidiary in the country. The University has its own Board and makes its own decisions. What does this have to do with Academic Accreditation? This finding was completely unexpected, a surprise in every way. On one hand the report validates the academic experience, the faculty, the degree program and the students. But it criticizes the ownership structure. Is the ownership structure between Apollo and the University unique?

Well, no! If this is a valid deficiency against the University of Phoenix, isn’t it an indictment of every For-Profit educational institution in the country? After all, shareholders expect their company to earn money. And where is it better to teach the lesson of capitalism to the thousands of business students that the University trains every year. No, this is at best an assault on an industry, an industry that is the primary method for most of our citizens to earn a degree. Who else caters to working adults, the ones who time and circumstance kept from attending college earlier? Is it coincidence that this comes at the same time that traditional schools are moving online, to territory previously dominated by the For-profits?

It also clearly a political move. The HLC, under scrutiny by Congress for its loose regulation and hands off attitude over the years, is trying to make a point to Congress and the Department of Education about how tough it is. Instead it only looks to be inept and hopelessly misguided. If we are entering a new time of change and disruption for higher education, how can such incompetence exist in a regulatory authority? It is bad enough to apply the rules after the fact, but it is another to CREATE the rules after the fact.

Don’t the Boards of Devry, Kaplan, Strayer, EDMC and all the rest have obligations to their shareholders as well as to their students? Where in any enabling legislation or statute is the HLC delegated the power to CHANGE CORPORATION LAW? If the University of Phoenix does not serve its students well it will lose in the marketplace, the central determinant of our economy and cultural foundation of a capitalist democratic society.

Of course there are problems in the world of Higher Education. The University of Phoenix, as well as all other universities, are working as hard as they can to resolve those problems for the benefit of students. Why does the HLC insist on becoming part of the problem rather than part of the solution?

Is Higher Education Redefining Itself?

Disruption. Smaller and weaker prevailing. Crisis. This is the theory advocated by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, eminent professor and participant in the University of Phoenix Executive Education Series on Innovation. Christensen is the father of the idea of “disruption” as we currently understand it, that smaller, weaker, but more innovative companies break into the low end of a market, then end up completely overtaking previously dominant ones. In a recent interview with “Wired” magazine, Christensen applied his well-known theory to higher education:

“I think higher education is just on the edge of the crevasse. Generally, universities are doing very well financially, so they don’t feel from the data that their world is going to collapse. But I think even five years from now these enterprises are going to be in real trouble.”

To those of who are old hands in the classroom, this is somewhat troubling. His opinion is driven most importantly by the increasing utilization and application of online learning. It is expanding exponentially and available to a broader range of potential students. Christensen is convinced that the field will follow Christensen’s classic examples of disruption.

“Mini mills killed off big steel companies by making low quality, low margin rebar, then working their way up to eat their entire business. The same process is starting to happen in higher education. “

On one hand we have schools aggressively targeting the high end of higher education. Startups like The Minerva Project plan to offer an Ivy-caliber education at less than half the price that those universities charge. Christensen said in the interview that an online accounting course from BYU outstrips anything Harvard Business School can offer.

“Some will survive. Most will evolve hybrid models, in which universities license some courses from an online provider like Coursera but then provide more-specialized courses in person. Hybrids are actually a principle regardless of industry. If you want to use a new technology in a mainstream existing market, it has to be a hybrid.”

So Christensen is convinced that disruption is coming for higher education. To be successful, every university will have to change. Otherwise, they’re going to be overtaken more rapidly than can imagine.

Do you agree? What are the changes that you believe will have the greatest effects on higher education?

For those of us who have taught in Proprietary Schools, the Internet has been a part of our teaching for a long time. So it becomes difficult to view online education as such a disruptive factor. As I reflect on my experience, the Internet has been a nice addition, but hardly “disruptive”. Or has it? I have used the Internet for posting messages, engaging in discussion, for linking to information that exists “out there” or that I have posted. Mostly, I have used Online as an extension of the more conventional approach I have taken in the classroom. Not very disruptive.

But look what is starting to happen! For one thing, a large multitude of major universities have committed to the development and expansion of online learning. And they are approaching it as an entirely new platform, not just an extension of the current, more traditional offerings. The Massive Open Online Courses (“MOOCs)” have exploded on the scene, offering hundreds of courses online at no cost. Although to date none provide actual college credit, it will change quickly, especially as universities offer them under their own curriculum with local faculty discussion groups. What about 250,000 students in a course?

There is a debate raging about the advantages and disadvantages of this approach, but for sure it has opened the door to new thinking on how to offer courses to more students at a more reasonable cost. I’ll discuss these issues in later posts, but it is clear that these new offerings are having a great deal of influence.

I have taken several courses through Coursera, a collective startup of 62 universities offering these courses. I found every one to be very effective, well executed, beautifully illustrated and rigorous in the amount of information included. Yes, it was impersonal, but if you joined in the discussion groups it did feel more collegial.

It is hard to know where this is all going. We’ll see many more of these being offered in the coming year, including early efforts at allowing some to earn college credits. It will be interesting to see more of the leading professors share their craft with thousands of students. It will be interesting to see how it will all affect higher education. And most assuredly, it will be interesting to see how “disruptive” it will all be.