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17. Focus on STEM

President and Executive Director of the National Institute of Aerospace, Robert Lindberg, himself both a scientist and an engineer, explains the difference between the Scientific Method and the Engineering Design Process.

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics, also known as STEM, are the acknowledged focal point of the skill set required for the 21st century. President Obama has identified STEM education as (In President Obama’s National Educational Technology Plan 2010, “Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology,”): “the key to America’s economic growth and prosperity and to our ability to compete in the global economy…the path to good jobs and higher earning power for Americans, necessary for our democracy to work. It fosters the cross-border, cross-cultural collaboration required to solve the most challenging problems of our time.”

President Obama speaks about the “Educate to Innovate” plan, which focuses on developing STEM skills.

But as the President calls for “revolutionary transformation rather than evolutionary tinkering,” it’s important to understand what STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education really is, and also what it’s currently missing.

President and Executive Director of the National Institute of Aerospace, Robert Lindberg, says when we talk about STEM education at the K-12 level, we’re really only talking about science and math. Lindberg, who is both a scientist and an engineer, says he seeks balance in his own practice but recognizes that only science is taught in school.

“That’s what teachers teach,” he says. “That’s what your students go to school for–science and math. The technology is often confused with using technology in the classroom as opposed to teaching technology to the students, and engineering is virtually absent from that discussion.”

Too often, the term STEM is used without thinking about the meaning behind it. A friend of Lindberg’s once noted that “the ‘T’ is lowercase and the ‘E’ is silent.”

Lindberg’s goal is to put the “E” in STEM education. He’s not suggesting a massive shift in curriculum, but rather believes that engineering needs to be integrated into the learning experience, just as all students, whether they go on to become mathematicians or scientists, require a basic level of subject matter mastery in order to become functional members of society.

Engineering, Lindberg says, can be introduced not only in science and mathematics courses but in reading, writing and history lessons–any lessons that are already being offered represent a good opportunity for integrating a working understanding of engineering. The first step is to understand the language of engineering as a distinct entity.

His explanation of the difference between the Scientific Method and the Engineering Design process, explained below, is a necessity for the modern educator.

The Scientific Method is introduced to students at the elementary level and carries through the entire education experience. The Scientific Method, however, is not what engineers use. Engineers use the Engineering Design Process. When Lindberg gives what he calls the “Black Boxes Talk,” he actually uses black boxes with these words on them, a visual reminder that the processes are different, with different component parts (see video above).

“If I open this box up you would recognize the steps,” Lindberg says, holding up the Scientific Method box. “You might guess that there are steps inside this box too,” he says, switching to the Engineering Design Process, “but you’ve never seen them before.”

Scientists are “in the business of exploring the unknown and their domain is the natural world,” while the domain of engineers is the “designed world.” Everything around us, Lindberg notes, with “very few exceptions,” is part of the designed world. The chairs, the building, maybe even the plant next to the podium that he notes might be real, but he can’t tell–are all part of the designed world.

“The camera I’m speaking into,” he says, “the microphone, this cell phone–it’s all part of the designed world.”

The Scientific Process involves exploring the unknown to come up with correct answers. Science, Lindberg says, doesn’t lead to multiple correct answers. It leads to the correct answer. Even students who aren’t going to go on to become scientists benefit tremendously from an appreciation for how that process works. Equally important but totally overlooked is a taught appreciation for how the designed world is created.

“So where does an engineer start?” he asks. “An engineer starts in an entirely different place. An engineer starts with a societal need. Absent a societal need, an engineer has nothing to do.”

A scientist, on the other hand, can live in the natural world, exploring, without being expected to create new systems or solve societal needs. The engineer’s role is to understand the unmet needs of society and fill them. Markedly different from the result of the Scientific Method, the Engineering Design Process can yield multiple correct answers.

Further (and of critical importance as the economy shifts and the US struggles to maintain globally competitive), the products of the Engineering Design Process have tangible economic value, and are not freely given like the correct answers produced from the Scientific Method, often published in journals so that other scientists and researchers can move forward from that point.

Thomas Edison, Lindberg says, measured the success of his work on whether it was marketable. If it didn’t sell, then it was just an academic exercise. Not only are engineers working to solve society’s unmet problems, but must do so within the framework of a competitive marketplace, in the way that society expects problems to be met.

Lindberg uses the example of an imaginary cell phone that costs $8,000 to produce–it might have a lot of magnificent, almost unthinkably fantastic features, but it would not be a success in the marketplace because it has to compete with far less expensive products.

The steps in the Engineering Design Process exactly match the lessons offered by 3D Squared to participants at Game Camp in Louisiana when they created immersive environments tailored to address various societal needs, from beating unemployment to addressing obesity and environmental concerns.

The Engineering Design Process:

  1. Identify a need
  2. Establish requirements
  3. Conduct research
  4. Brainstorm possible approaches
  5. Pick best approach
  6. Develop, design and build prototypes
  7. Test to see if the design works
  8. Begin production

Opportunities for careers in technology and engineering are “always coming up,” Lindberg says, and therefore it is critically important to help students understand this process. It’s more than just drawing on math and science skills — it takes creativity, imagination and the skills that art students cultivate.

Instead of calling it STEM, it really should be called STEAM, because without art, creativity and imagination, the skill set required to thrive in the new global economy and culture is missing one of its key components.


Whitehouse Video with Secretary of Energy and other business leaders speaking about the importance of STEM education skills.

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