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As Obama’s High School Visit Nears, Education Advocates Question Emphasis on STEM

President Obama is visiting Manor New Tech High School, which has a STEM-based education program. But some experts question is there's too much emphasis on STEM.

Brenda Ramlow’s daughter Paige is a junior at Manor New Tech, the high school President Barack Obama is visiting this afternoon. She says her daughter is interested in a career in video graphics.

“The school has the latest Apple computers and technology,” Ramlow says.

She says the best part about the school is the teaching method, known as project-based learning.

“Teachers are more involved into the learning process,” she says. “As these kids are learning they’re not being spoken at – they’re given a topic or subject, and teachers guide them on research.”

President Obama's visit to Manor New Tech comes as the White House, the private sector and some education advocates continue to emphasize the importance of STEM education – science, technology, engineering and math). But some say there may be too much emphasis on STEM programs.

Most teachers at Manor New Tech are graduates of the UTeach program at the University of Texas. The collaborative project educates prospective teachers not just about science and math, but also how to teach them effectively.

“It’s one thing to understand physics; it’s another thing to understand why some concepts in physics are difficult for students to understand,” says Anthony Petrosino with the UTeach program. “We put leverage on both of those.”

STEM programs have gained popularity in recent years as a way to address a perceived lack of qualified candidates for tech jobs.

Petrosino says the more people know about science, math and technology, the better. But he doesn’t think STEM will fill all high-tech openings.

“There’s some colleagues at Rutgers, Harvard saying, ‘You know, we’re graduating at the college level a number of STEM grads, but they’re not getting the types of jobs, benefits, incomes we may expect,’” he says. “We always want to be carful not be caught up in the frenzy.”

Some question whether the STEM concept is the best way to improve science and math education.

The acronym may not work for schools “mainly because of the T and the E,” says Tom Loveless with the Brookings Institute. “Technology and engineering have never received a lot of attention in schools. If policy makers want to push all schools to give more emphasis, then they’re facing an uphill battle. But there are topics that are not being taught.”

Loveless says there’s a difference between using technology to teach and teaching students about technology.

“High schools have always tried to offer what’s on the cutting edge and new, but in the end the way students are going to be best prepared is to take algebra, calculus, AP Calculus, and take all science courses,” he says. “And then, frankly, American teenagers learn about technology. They know more than most adults, and they’ve learned it without taking any formal course.”

Others question whether an emphasis on STEM hurts liberal arts courses like English and history. Robert Floyd with the Texas Music Educators Association says the acronym STEM should be changed to STEAM – to include arts.

“We have to be careful that schools don’t become a widget factory for the workforce,” Floyd says. “In spite of this emphasis on workforce preparation and technologically driven [programs] and STEM, we recognize we’ve got to educate the whole child – and certainly the arts and humanities are an integral component of that.”

Robert Garza’s son graduated from Manor New Tech last year. He now attends Austin Community College. Garza says his son took some liberal arts courses at Manor, but not a lot.

“Some of the arts would be taken care of on its own outside school,” Garza says. “But you don’t get math and technology outside the school, it’s hard to. But you can get those things outside the school.”

Drew Scheberle with the Austin Chamber of Commerce says that students heading into the workforce need STEM and liberal arts, especially in a digitized economy like Austin.

“STEM is a prerequisite,” Scheberle says. “Science and math are the table stakes for entry-level jobs in a digitized economy. The well-rounded education is what gives you the edge going forward to learn new skills and get promoted within jobs.”

In a recent national survey of business CEOs by the Association of Colleges and Universities, 74 percent recommend a liberal arts education to create a more dynamic worker.

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