Feature
Staying in the Game
What Mines is doing to avert an impending economic crisis

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Norm Augustine, former chairman of Martin Marietta, has concerns about our country's economic future, and they are personal: "I have three grandchildren," he said.

Augustine's fears are outlined in a National Academies report he coauthored for Congress called, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future." (He discussed many of these concerns during his September Erikson lecture on campus--click here to access the full audio.) The report contains several ominous indicators that suggest our country is rapidly losing its competitive advantage when compared to other developed nations:

  • High school graduation rates in the U.S. rank 17th.
  • U.S. 12th-graders rank in the fifth percentile in science testing.
  • During the past 20 years, the number of university students achieving bachelor's degrees in science, technology, engineering and math has dropped 40 percent.
  • Fewer than 15 percent of high school graduates have sufficient math and science credentials to pursue an engineering degree.
  • Only six percent of high school students express an interest in becoming scientists or engineers.
  • Fewer than two percent of high school graduates eventually receive engineering degrees from U.S. universities. That number is less than one percent for women and minorities.
  • In 2002, Asian countries awarded 636,000 engineering degrees, compared to North America's 122,000.
  • China graduates more English-speaking engineers than the U.S.
In his testimony to Congress, Augustine warned, "Americans, with only five percent of the world's population, but with nearly 30 percent of the world's wealth, tend to believe that scientific and technological leadership and the high standard of living it underpins is somehow the natural state of affairs. But such good fortune is not a birthright. If we wish our children and grandchildren to enjoy the standard of living most Americans have come to expect, there is only one answer: We must get out and compete!"

While some of the claims of the "Gathering Storm" report have been debated, few question what Augustine believes to be the most critical challenge--"repairing our failing K-12 educational system, particularly in mathematics and science, by providing more teachers qualified to teach those subject." And he believes higher education can play an important role in this effort. To the School's credit, Mines has been active in this arena for some time.

During his recent visit to campus, Augustine was impressed by the School's many K-12 outreach programs. "We've been doing this for years," says Barb Moskal, associated professor in Mathematical and Computer Sciences, and director of the Center for the Assessment of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Moskal is particularly proud of the Learning Partnerships Program she heads up, which was initiated more than a decade ago by Drs. Catherine Skokan '70, MS '75, PhD '75, Barbara Bath and Gary Baughman MS '73, PhD '74, among others. Funded largely by the National Science Foundation and the Colorado Department of Education, Learning Partnerships is aimed at making science and math more engaging and more fun.

"Our basic premise is that if K-12 students learn about exciting applications of science, mathematics and engineering, they are more likely to enter the related fields," says Moskal. "They need to become involved in real experiments and not just read about them in a book." Mines works primarily with sixth through eighth grade teachers because that's when many students, especially girls and and minorities, tend to lose interest in science and math.

Teachers come to campus for eight- to ten-day workshops during the summer. Since almost 70 percent of the U.S. middle school math teachers don't have a degree in that field, the mornings are spent boosting their knowledge and confidence in disciplines related to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). In the afternoon, working with Mines graduate students, they learn hands-on projects and experiments.

"For example, we help them teach conic sections by building a parabolic oven where they can demonstrate the focal point by toasting marshmallows," explains Agata Dean '04, MS '06, who participated in the program when she was a student and now serves as a program manager. "We teach experiments that kids will find fun."

When the school year starts, graduate students join the teachers in their classrooms for 10 to 20 hours each week, assisting with experiments and sometimes leading the class. "The teachers love it," says Dean. "They appreciate the extra pair of hands in the classroom and learning new activities. They don't have the time to research and learn new ways of applying their knowledge. They're too busy doing lesson plans and grading papers." Tina Falconer, who teaches science at Ranum High School in Adams County, also appreciates the student's expertise: "Having a specialist in the classroom who can take activities to the next level is a huge thing. It helps take the fear way," she says.

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Falconer says the program changes lives, and not just those of her students. Rosamond Parkhurst, '05, MS '07 became a teacher as a result of her involvement with the program. She came to Mines to become an engineer, but subsequently changed her mind. After switching majors and struggling with what to do with her life, Moskal encouraged her to join the outreach program. "The moment I stepped foot in the classroom, I loved it," Parkhurst recalls. "I instantly realized that's what I wanted to do. I felt I could make a difference."

In addition to hosting teachers on campus during the summer and sending graduate students into classrooms during the academic year, Mines also offers summer technology camps in Golden to middle school children. "The idea came from Leanne Miller, one of our grad students," says Moskal. "Leanne felt her students weren't having enough positive experiences with technology. She wanted to bring the kids out to campus to see what a college is like and learn about technology. I thought it was a great idea, but didn't have the time to take on a new project. I told her I 'd pay for it if she did all the work."

So Miller and her fellow students rolled up their sleeves and arranged for buses, raised money from local businesses to pay for lunches and worked with the Athletic Department to provide recreational activities. "Going to a college campus gives kids something to aspire to," says Falconer. "I'm in a school district where 60 percent of our students are immigrants or live close to, or below the poverty line. They just don't have these role models."

Students are chosen for their desire to learn, not just their ability level. The technology camps also separate the girls from the boys. "From observational studies, boys almost always take over," says Moskal. "The boys handle the materials - they do the scientific experiments and the girls sit back and watch. Separating them frees the girls to act like scientists."

Gender issues are central to the discussion of how to boost the number of STEM-educated college graduates in the U.S. In fact, several studies suggest that if the percentage of women enrolling in math and science were comparable to other professions, the nation wouldn't have a shortfall in STEM-educated college graduates; but so far, women aren't choosing these fields in large numbers.

"Over the past 25 years, when you look at the traditionally male dominated disciplines like law, medicine and business, there has been a tremendous increase in female enrollment," says Heidi Loshbaugh, research associate for the Center for Engineering Education. "Unfortunately, there has been very little change for engineering." So while veterinary schools are 70 to 80 percent female, engineering schools average 17 percent. (Mines' female enrollment is 22 percent, ranked 57th among 331 institutions.)

Barbara Olds, associate vice president for educational innovation, believes some of the problem may lie with engineering schools. "In many cases we've operated under a deficit notion concerning women and minorities in engineering," she says. "The tendency is to say there must be something wrong with them that they're not going into engineering. I think more and more people are asking what's wrong with engineering or engineering schools that we're not attracting women and minorities."

Mines is looking at ways to revise its curriculum to appeal more to women. The Humanitarian Engineering Program is an example; as of December 2007, 50 percent of the students who signed up were women, according to Dave Muñoz, associate professor of engineering and director of the program. Humanitarian Engineering emphasizes practical engineering with an impact on human welfare that is immediate and sustainable. Over 180 Mines students have been involved in more than 40 projects all over the world. A few examples include a solar power system in Belize; water projects in Honduras, Mauritania, Senegal, Ghana and Uganda; and a church roof in Mexico.

"Our goal is to have the curriculum, climate and culture in place so we have a campus where women want to work, go to school and become involved," says Debra Lasich, executive director of the Women in Science, Engineering and Mathematics program. "That can be challenging because this has been a male-focused environment."

Increasing female enrollment is one key objective of an institution-wide diversity plan initiated by Mines President Bill Scoggins. "Increasing diversity is one of my top priorities," he says. "If gender or ethnicity are an impediment discouraging students from applying to Mines, or turning them away after they get here, we have a problem. An inclusive environment that welcomes diverse cultures and encourages women to succeed is essential to our core mission and responsibility."

While Mines is ahead of national averages with regard to female enrollment, it lags behind in minority enrollment by 4 percent (14 percent compared to the national average of 18 percent), despite having doubled the number of minority students on campus over the past 20 years. "One of the challenges is that the math and science scores of minority students isn't as high as we'd like," says Khanh Vu, director of the Minority Engineering Program. "It's hard to get properly prepared students into Mines because we have some of the highest standards in the state. Our largest concentration of minority students to draw from is the Denver Public Schools and Aurora. With an average ACT score of 19, these students fall below both Mines' average incoming freshman score of 27 and state averages."

Which brings us back to Augustine's directive for improving K-12 math and science education: "The focus must be on teachers," he says. "That's where the leverage is. Each teacher affects a lot of students, so there's a multiplying effect."

This is the rationale behind Mines' outreach programs. "Our outreach programs impact about 60 teachers, who are responsible for 100 students each. That's 6,000 kids per hear, and that's just the beginning," Moskal says. "We recently received a $2.5 million commitment from the Bechtel Foundation that will allow us to move into the high schools as an after-school activity for high school students."

Moskal has so far been unable to obtain standardized test scores from the state to track each outreach classroom, which she finds frustrating. "We do see an impact in terms of the amount of hands-on interaction teachers have with their students," she says. "We also know that teachers improve their level of knowledge through pre- and post-test scores." The program promotes a winning situation: Mines graduate students receive the necessary financial support to complete their degrees; participating teachers acquire a deeper understanding of the content that they teach, while receiving classroom support; and K-12 students learn how science and mathematics can lead to exciting careers.

"Mines is at the top of just a handful of schools nationally that are known for doing very good work in engineering education," says Maura Borrego, assistant professor in the Department of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech. Borrego, who collaborates on research projects with Mines, says, "When a university has a reputation for doing good work, it says something about the culture--that there's a critical mass of people doing good research and good outreach, because the two are related. Other people are going to find out about the great things going on at Mines and soon they'll replicate them. That's the way you change the system."

"It's exciting that these small ideas are not just impacting Mines," Moskal reflects, "they're impacting the community and, even more broadly, impacting the world." And, hopefully, the futures of all our grandchildren.