STEM education needs personalization and early engagement
CFE Media interviewed the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Chancellor Michael Amiridis on his opinions on the future of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, the importance of diversity in the STEM field, and his view on early STEM education provided by the Chicago Pre-College Science and Engineering Program (ChiS&E).
CFE Media: What are your views on early education regarding science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)?
Michael Amiridis: The STEM fields are fairly complex fields, and they build on the foundation of basic knowledge. This foundation has to be created early; as a result early education is very critical for a lot of the young aspiring scientists and engineers. Unfortunately, the game is over by the time they reach high school because they are not well-prepared. So it’s very critical to have the early foundation of education.
CFE Media: You have an extensive background in science, engineering, and education. What advice would you give to future generations hoping to break into this industry?
Amiridis: One thing I would tell them: In order to be successful in this field, you have to like solving problems. It’s a very rewarding career if what you enjoy is solving problems.
CFE Media: How did you come to learn about the Chicago Pre-College Science and Engineering program (ChiS&E)? How do you plan on working with this organization?
Amiridis: I heard about this program from the lion’s mouth. Mr. Hill was very kind to visit me. I think the University of Illinois at Chicago can help the program, and we can both benefit from the program. A lot of the times, people talk about win-win situation. In reality, there are not that many win-win situation. But this really one that we can both win from working together.
CFE Media: How do you think this program is helping to educate kids from underrepresented communities?
Amiridis: What I really like about this program is that it focuses on the right elements. First of all, it stresses and really underscores the fundamentals. In order to be successful in the STEM field, you need the foundation, as we discussed. The second part that is important to be successful in this field is that you need to be persistent. The program indeed follows students over a number of years. It’s not like parachuting in and hoping to resolve the problems in a few weeks and that’s it, good luck from here.
This program does not do this; it stays with the students for a period of time. And the third element that is very important is the involvement of the parents. There are not that many programs that involve the parents. And I think, especially for younger students, it’s important for the parents to buy into the idea to support the students.
CFE Media: What is your opinion on the importance of diversity within the workforce?
Amiridis: Diversity in any field is important. In order to understand the general public and have impact on the society it has to reflect society. Otherwise you fail to understand the society, and you won’t be able to influence it. We have changing demographics, the country is changing, so it’s extremely important for the workforce to reflect the changing demographics.
CFE Media: What are the biggest challenges you are seeing in regards to STEM education?
Amiridis: First of all, in order to be successful in the STEM field, it requires a lot of hard work for quite a period of time. It’s easy to lose focus if you don’t keep your eyes on the prize. What is the value proposition? Why are you doing all this hard work? The second part is, 50 years ago, there were a lot of young kids that were fascinated with machines. They loved to look into the hood of their cars, change oils, and do the things that engineers were supposed to do. Not anymore. We see less and less of these.
As the field is evolving, there is more emphasis on digital and electronic aspects, and we have to connect these with engineering. The third part is, some of these fundamental classes are not very sexy. But it’s important for the students to understand that this is what’s needed in order to do the things that they are excited about.
CFE Media: What improvements have you experienced with STEM education? What methods are working? Not working?
Amiridis: I think that’s a more general question. I will actually take a step back. STEM education is not de-associated with education in general. We are dealing today with a generation of Millennials. The Millennials are very different from their parents or grandparents. All of the stereotypes that we hear about them, technology-driven, instant gratification, desire to use the knowledge they learn immediately, short attention span; if you know someone in their teens or twenties, you know the stereotypes are true.
So we need to change the way that we teach. I taught the faculty here, if you are teaching the way that you were taught or the way that your parents were taught, you are not reaching this generation. So we need to reach this generation by bringing more technology to the classroom, by making the sections shorter, and connect directly the fundamental knowledge to applications.
CFE Media: What is UIC doing to help students from all backgrounds to become more exposed to STEM education?
Amiridis: We aspired to work with similar types of programs to the one that we discussed today (ChiS&E) that serves different needs. We also participate in programs; we don’t want to re-invent the wheel every time so it’s okay to work with people that have good ideas, and that’s exactly the opportunity I see in this program (ChiS&E) as well.
CFE Media: What changes or improvements would you like to see going forward in order to improve the diversity in STEM?
Amiridis: I think we need to see improvement in K-12 education-we can’t have improvements in universities before we see improvements in K-12 education. That’s why this program (ChiS&E) is very valuable. We need to have better logic, we need to change advising, and we need to change mentally as well to meet the needs of the new generation. As everything else, we are living in a period of personalized components. We personalized the way we entertain ourselves, we personalized medicine, [and] we need to personalize education as well. One model doesn’t fit all anymore. The technology we have developed and the analytics we have developed give us the opportunity to use specific programs for specific students. Personalized education is the key to success.
CFE Media: How can professional engineers or those working within the industry help?
Amiridis: I think they can play a very important role because the students would need to understand what professional engineers do. They can play an important role by mentoring the students, and it can be a two-way street; they need to go to the students, but they also need to bring the students to them. They need to bring the students to their sites, so the students understand and see first-hand what a professional career in this field is, and in this case I believe they would be very excited, and they will put the work that is needed in order to succeed. It’s the value position.
Learn more about the Chicago Pre-College Science and Engineering program.
See a related story about the closing CHIS&E event linked below.