Instead of fussing over whether anthropology is or isn’t a viable college major and career choice, or whether Bright Futures should be saved by raising the SAT requirements, or whether Florida schools are producing enough STEM workers for the state’s businesses, we should focus on a simply-stated mission for the state’s public schools – preparing Florida’s students for the new economy.
And what exactly does this involve? To use a football analogy, it means running to daylight. It means preparing students with the skills necessary for the jobs of the present…and the future. For career-oriented students in high schools, it means having at least the math and science skills necessary to fill the positions on modern assembly lines that are going begging. At the community (or state) college level, it means earning one of those remarkable Associate of Science degrees that are earning graduates an average of $45,000 to start. And at the university level, it means selecting a course of study that provides a career track that has economic promise now and in the future.
Not all of these university courses of study are in the science and engineering departments, although majors in the physical sciences and some engineering disciplines are doing just fine, according to statistics like those compiled by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. For example, graduates of Florida State University’s major in Information, Communication and Technology are being snapped up as quickly as they are finishing their programs – or even well before they graduate.
The state’s schools, colleges and universities have an obligation to provide students access to these opportunities. That means making sure there are enough engineering professors with active research programs to provide a high quality senior project for every engineering major. It also means making sure that Earth science, chemistry, physics, computer science and math majors can get involved in research as undergraduates.
Such an obligation also requires us to provide the most powerful pedagogical tools available to help more students learn math and science at all levels from elementary to university with the level of understanding needed to be a productive member of society – and maybe even a STEM professional.
And it means showing students from elementary school on up how exciting the careers in the new economy can be, so that they can pursue them with enjoyment and maybe even passion.
Why isn’t this happening already? Unfortunately, there are teachers, professors, guidance counselors and even parents who don’t understand how much things have changed since they (and people like me) graduated from college. The world into which our kids are graduating in 2011 is a much tougher place economically than the one into which we took our first steps as adults in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
And because some of the people who are mentoring our students don’t get it, we have to put incentives in place to make sure that our university-bound high school students don’t stop taking math at Algebra 2, or don’t avoid chemistry or physics. That is, we must make sure that these students don’t cut themselves off from the most promising economic opportunities available to them when they are only 15 or 16 years old, even if their mentors don’t keep them from doing so. That means that we should make sure, for example, that students must be STEM-ready to be eligible for Bright Futures scholarships.
We must also make sure that those who are our best and brightest in STEM fields get the skills in other areas – particularly writing – to be productive leaders. I have so far sent, and will continue to send, my own kids to colleges where their writing and critical thinking skills are honed by professors in the humanities.
To those who are concerned that a focus on preparing students for the new economy is turning our K-20 system into a trade school system, consider this: It’s difficult for an adult to accomplish much in any area without a job. It’s time to make sure we are doing everything we can to prepare our students to support themselves economically so they have the means to rebuild our society.