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A call for fundamental transformation in K-12 learning

October 31, 2008

The pursuit of scientific understanding, application of engineering solutions, and continued technological innovation is often credited for the advancement of the world’s economies.

Most people don’t care about technological or engineering innovation by itself. Rather, we care about whether it makes our lives easier or not.

Behind the obvious products of innovations that enhance our quality of life is a complex and extensive enterprise that is mostly concealed from public view. This enterprise comprises a rigorously developed work force, a well-funded national infrastructure and significant investments in basic and applied research.

The need for thoughtful, creative and pioneering individuals who can engage with the grand challenges of our times will require sustained investment in K-20 education and maintenance of the innovation enterprise. The demand for skills in our future work force is not merely for those exemplified as technological – logical, analytical and technical – but also for those who have value skills – the ability to think creatively and critically and see the big picture, as well as work with diverse individuals.

Children seldom lack curiosity, but as they enter the teenage years their enthusiasm for learning science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects appears to wane. As an engineering educator, I am convinced that we need to engage learners beginning with the early elementary grades in a learning trajectory that lays the foundation for an informed population, leads to socially responsible innovations, and facilitates a creative and adaptable work force. Engineers in the real world are required to design devices and systems that respond to sudden changes. Yet, we shy away from making transformative changes to our education system.

Decades of education reform have failed to fundamentally alter the way we educate grade-school students. Our notions of schooling have consisted of successive adaptations of what has passed for learning since the inception of schools in the United States. Seat time, age-based grouping and discipline-based departments continue to be the mainstay of middle school and high school. Schooling in the elementary grades, when students are in the formative years of their life, is staffed essentially by generalists.

We understand that innovative breakthroughs are made at the convergence of various disciplines. Yet, by and large, we don’t approach K-12 schooling in a manner that engages our young people with the grand challenges of our times that require interdisciplinary approaches.

We need to re-examine what we teach and how we teach in our schools. We need schools where we encourage our children’s natural curiosity, facilitate discovery, and promote creativity – not schools where we tell children how things are. The need is for learning environments that are intellectually challenging. The role of education is to serve as a catalyst for discovery.

At Arizona State University, we have begun to create new interdisciplinary college programs and research teams where discovery is first and foremost. We need to do the same with our K-12 schools.

Tirupalavanam G. Ganesh is an assistant dean for information systems at the Mary Lou Fulton College of Education. He is the principal investigator of the National Science Foundation funded K-12 outreach and research award “Learning through Engineering Design and Practice.”