August 10, 2010

STEM conference explores real-world applications for math, science

Author: Greg Munno
Source: NYSUT News Wire

The first ever STEM Education Summer Institute got underway Monday at the SUNY Oswego campus on the shores of Lake Ontario.

NYSUT is both a sponsor and organizer of this week's summit, along with the New York State Technology Education Association, the Association of Mathematics Teachers of New York State and the Science Teachers Association of New York.

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, and the STEM Institute helps put New York on the cutting edge of a new emphasis on integrating those disciplines to solve real-world problems, said Christopher Monahan, who retired as a math teacher from the Niskayuna Central School District in June and is president of the state math teachers' association.

"We've had math, science and technology conferences before, but this is the first time the engineers have been part of it," Monahan said. "The word is out from Washington that we need to bring manufacturing back to this country, and that we need to prepare the workforce for those jobs. Engineering is a really important part of that effort."

Monahan said the push works from an educational perspective as well.

"Mathematics shouldn't be just about giving students formulas," he said. "It should be about the application of that knowledge. That makes all the difference in how the students perceive the challenge in relation to themselves and their future careers. Through STEM, I can draw on all sorts of different fields to teach math, and that gives me a chance of piquing the interests of a diverse group of students. Students shouldn't feel that their teachers are trying to trip them up with a tricky equation, but rather that we are giving them tools with real-world applications."

More than 150 teachers have signed up for the conference, which runs through Wednesday. They'll hear from more than 80 presenters on how to intergrate the STEM disciplines with hands-on lesson plans that tackle problems such as climate change, renewable energy, space exploration, bio-engineering and more.

"The goal is to show teachers how to integrate these curricula to give students hands-on knowledge to help them solve real-word problems," said Terry McSweeney, an assistant with NYSUT's Education and Research Services and an organizer of the conference. "It's really about problem solving."

Margaret Ashida, a former IBM executive who now serves as the project director for the Empire State STEM Learning Network, agreed. In her keynote address to institute attendees Monday evening, Ashida said the world needs "T-shaped people."

"T shaped because they need to have both depth of specific knowledge and breadth of knowledge, specifically empathetic breadth," Ashida said. "Empathetic breadth is about being able to solve problems in an interdisciplinary way, which what is so needed in the 21st Century."

Greg Munno is a freelance writer from Auburn.