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Why bother with STEM ed?

Experts in STEM education (science, technology, education, and mathematics) point out that in teaching, the “how” of science is more important that the “what.” As Shannon Warren, director of a science education partnership grant program in Washington State, noted in a recent magazine feature, learning science means exploring and analyzing, not just memorizing facts and listening to lectures.

The “why” is an equally key question, and one that evokes very personalized responses.
Professor Jin Kang in his lab at Johns Hopkins University
Take Jin Kang’s story, for example. Twenty years ago, Kang was an undergraduate physics student discovering that while he found the theory behind optics and photonics interesting, what he really loved was building lasers and other optical devices.

Kang is now a professor and the chair of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at Johns Hopkins University. He conducts research in biophotonics, fiber optics, and optoelectronic devices for applications in medicine and communications.

One of his primary areas of focus areas is developing 3D imaging and sensing systems for guided surgical intervention. He described one of his latest devices ― a “smart” tool with sensors to help guide the surgeon’s eye and hand in microsurgery in a recent SPIE Newsroom video interview.

“I got into optics because I had two great professors,” Kang said. “Under their supervision I built a pulsed ruby laser for holography and other optical devices, which was an indispensable experience that taught me the fundamentals. It made me really appreciate the science."


Photonics enables entertainment, too:
The Grammy-nominated 3D music video
"All Is Not Lost" by OK Go featuring
the dance group Pilobolus was among
presentations shown at the 3D cinema
session at IS&T/SPIE Electronic Imaging

2012 in January in San Francisco, California,
USA. (Photo provided by Eric Kurland, 3D
director and editor of the video.)
The question of “why teach science” also is one with huge implications. Here are just a few answers:

  • Smarter voters, better government: “Exploring and analyzing” defines independent, fact-based thinking ― the driver behind developments such as the polio vaccine, life-saving AIDS treatments, and harnessing solar energy as well as a requirement for healthy democratic government.
  • Jobs: Education is inextricably linked to innovation, and innovation in high technology creates jobs, a message clearly spelled out in the National Research Council report “Optics and Photonics, Essential Technologies for Our Nation,” and the Photonics21 report “Photonics – Our Vision for a Key Enabling Technology of Europe.”
  • Longer, safer, healthier lives: Science solves important problems, such as detecting infrastructure flaws so repairs can be made before a bridge collapses, or identifying exactly where plaque is clogging arteries to aid the surgical team in extending both quality and length of the patient’s life, for just two of thousands of possible examples.

Say it with lasers: Students are experts at sharing photonics.
SPIE Centro de investigaciones en Optica Student Chapter
members in León, Mexico, sent this laser-"drawn" photo
message along with a report on how they spent an education
outreach grant awarded by the society. CIO students present
optics workshops to children and teenagers in isolated
communities situated from 30 to 200 miles from León. More
than 5,000 children and teenagers in 100 communities have
been reached by the chapter's outreach efforts in recent years.
One of the most eloquent answers to the question "why teach science" is found on the website of Photonics Explorer, a program that is progressing toward its goal of bringing photonics education and thereby a greater understanding of science to 2.5 million secondary students across the European Union:

“Every day, our society depends more and more on science and technology. This is not only due to our personal convenience, which often relies on internet access, electrical power or just basic things like clean, drinkable water from the tap. The great challenges we all face together, such as global warming and demographic developments, demand us to (re)search for new answers."

Without a knowledgeable public engaged in the discussion, the website asks, “Who will set the direction and boundaries for research and development? On what basis will citizens decide for or against a specific science policy or a consumer product? Without a basic understanding of scientific facts and reasoning, the public as well as the individual consumer can be easily misled."

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