Op-Ed: STEM Education and IIT Engineering Themes

 STEM Education and IIT Engineering Themes Image

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) initiatives affect more than the K–12 education system. Science- and engineering-focused universities such as Illinois Institute of Technology are strongly invested in seeing these initiatives succeed.

In February 2012, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) reported that K–12 STEM preparation is so deficient that colleges and universities are spending at least $2 billion per year to help students compensate for knowledge gaps in STEM fields.

In response to this report, President Obama announced the $1 billion Master Teacher Corps, which provides stipends as incentives for high-performing K–12 STEM teachers. The goal is to create a strong network of excellent teachers who will raise the quality of STEM education.

Still, change in educational systems and culture is a slow process. The Master Teacher Corps will start small—with 50 top teachers—and expand to 10,000 over four years, relying on a multiplier effect to accelerate change.

We cannot afford to have change materialize slowly. We must take steps to immediately address deficiencies to ensure that the current graduating class benefits from the double-digit job growth projected for STEM fields by 2018.

As a small, private university, IIT is uniquely situated to address the knowledge gap. Our engineering programs are strong, yet nimble, enabling students to overcome inadequacies in STEM education through new initiatives such as the IIT Engineering Themes.

The IIT Engineering Themes are an optional set of enrichment experiences that help undergraduates impact worldwide engineering issues while completing an accredited degree in their chosen field—without modifying their degree plan.

The current IIT Engineering Themes are: water, health, energy, and security.

These four themes were chosen because they are interrelated, pose several engineering challenges, and are areas in which engineers can influence the entire global population.

The best way to educate engineers is to put them to work both in and outside the classroom. This allows students to contextualize and apply their knowledge, personally connect to the problem, and improve learning and creative processes. Hands-on experiences inspire peer-to-peer learning and empower students to recognize issues and propose solutions in a collaborative way.

We also expose our students to engineers who are working in today's economy—which favors lean, multidisciplinary organizations. Gone are the days of inflated, one-dimensional teams. The themes highlight and capitalize on this as a learning opportunity.

In its report, PCAST also noted that fewer than 40 percent of students who enter college to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree. Uninspiring introductory courses are largely to blame.

Our alternative approach engages students through team-intensive engineering projects, field work, site visits, meaningful engineering internships, forums, career panels, and competitions.

IIT is also the only university in the country to offer students an automated engineering portfolio.

As students progress through the Themes program, the IIT Engineering Themes Portfolio tracks their progress and creates an entry for each experience. The end product is four years of work packaged digitally with photos, videos, personalized write-ups, and online information about the tangible experience students gained as IIT engineering undergraduates. This portfolio will greatly increase students' marketability as they transition into a STEM profession or graduate school.

We not only keep our students engaged, we help them stand out. And while our country is working to broadly reform STEM education for future generations, our small institution is changing the way this class of students is educated. We are IIT.

Natacha DePaola
Carol and Ed Kaplan Armour College Dean of Engineering