How do we get there from here?

I have been watching Star Trek since 3rd grade. I have always loved Gene Roddenberry’s view of the future as positive and hopeful. A few years ago, during an episode of Next Generation, it struck me how much knowledge all the members of the crew always have, even the “red shirts.” These people (yes I know they are fictional, but stay with me) are engineers who understand culture well enough to interact with aliens, medical personnel who know enough engineering to modify whatever device will meet the current need; they are well versed in Earth history and culture, science, technology, engineering and mathematics. They are musicians, poets and dancers in addition to their day jobs. What we see in this vision of the future are people who are equally at home with the liberal arts and the STEM disciplines.So, my question is how do we get there from here? And before you dismiss this notion as silly because, after all this is all based on a TV show, I will point you to How William Shatner Changed The World where we see how Star Trek really did change the world, from iPods to cell phones. Fictional stories have been and continue to be the inspiration for all kinds of advances.

A couple of years ago I read Educating the Engineer of 2020 that talks about how we need to educate the engineers of the future so they are better prepared for the challenges they will face. And some of the recommendations involve including more liberal arts into the engineering curriculum.

This morning I read a blog post on ZenHabits discussing the obstacle of the disengaged student. The blame for this is laid partly at the feet of No Child Left Behind and I agree that this program has removed creativity from the classroom.

I am a mother of very bright children and this is where your ideas struck me most. I have a 16 year old son who became disengaged from learning around third grade. His grades suffered. In middle school he did his homework but rarely turned it in. He told me this was his protest against what he felt was pointless work. Of course, his protest only earned him poor grades. His junior year (the one we just completed) was the first when he re-engaged in learning. This was not the work of a remarkable teacher, but the interest he took in physics. He loves the subject and in addition to learning everything he could from the teacher and his textbook, he started exploring this on his own.

I also have 8 year old twins. They are sponges for learning. One of the boys was so interested in bones he started reading one of my college anatomy books to learn more. First grade was wonderful for my boys. They had a fantastic teacher who kept the students excited about learning. She included science in the lessons even when it was not really part of the curriculum because she knew her students got excited about it. She was able to have her students writing much more because they were writing about their experiments.

Second grade was not a good year. We did worksheets. I did not realize how many worksheets until I organized the papers for saving. And the problem was that we did worksheets to the exclusion of everything else. One of the boys is now disengaged. I am spending the summer working very hard to remind both boys how much they love to learn and provide many opportunities for learning.

I know that No Child Left Behind is part of the problem. I also know that it is an excuse. Teachers now say they “can’t” do other things because they have to prepare the students for the test. This is laziness on the part of the teachers, in my opinion. There are so many ways to teach material. The lack of creativity just numbs the minds of the students and likely decreases their performance on the tests.

I think one problem is that even our teachers have lost sight of the goal. Too often teachers see themselves as glorified babysitters – just keeping the children under control rather than the educators who will produce the next generation of leaders, problems solvers, engineers and Nobel laureates who will takes us in to the future.

The task of education is a critical one. We, the educators, cannot afford to take this charge lightly. And the students cannot allow themselves to become disengaged or lazy thinkers. The future is at stake. We can choose a future like we see portrayed in Star Trek or we can choose a dark and desperate future seen in Blade Runner. The choice is ours and we must all act now.

This is a call to arms.

It is not ok to dumb down our children in the K-12 system so they are very good at completing worksheets and answering the questions on a multiple-choice test. We have removed creativity from education. We have created an arena where there are right answers and wrong answers and children are punished for anything other than right answers. How can a child learn to explore their world in search of answers if they are always told that only one answer is correct? Exploration means sometimes we make mistakes – mistakes we learn from. Exploration means that we take chances on the unknown. How can children learn to take chances like this if they cannot be assured that their answers will always be correct?

And, we need an educational system that weaves together liberal arts and STEM. We need an education system that challenges our children to explore, to think, to pose problems and then seek solutions. We need an educational system that teaches our children to flexible in their thinking, that teaches concepts rather than a specific skill. After all, how did that red shirt know that the one device could be modified to do another task?

If we inspire our children and our students they will take on the habit of life long learning. If we create students who understand how things work then they will be able to apply that knowledge in other areas. If we create students who are comfortable with exploration, who are not afraid to try something and see what happens then we will create the kind of people who can solve our growing energy crisis, who can colonize the Moon and take humans to the Mars and beyond. Humanity is going to continue to encounter problems and it is the charge of educators to ensure that the next generation is prepared to solve the next problem that we are not even aware of yet.

And we educators are currently failing at this task.

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