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SIAM Explores Modeling for STEM Pipeline

By James Crowley

On the last two days in August, Peter Turner, SIAM’s vice president for education, led a workshop at the National Science Foundation titled Modeling across the Curriculum. The 53 participants—members of the SIAM community, representatives from NSF, ASA, and MAA, as well as some high school teachers—spent the two days discussing ways to increase the presence of mathematical modeling and computational applied mathematics in high school and early college curricula.

Why SIAM? Why are we involved in high school and early college education? Aren’t we a research organization? SIAM’s mission is to promote applied mathematics and computational science, especially at the research level. But this primary mission has educational implications. The pipeline of scientists and engineers, including applied mathematicians and computational scientists, depends on appropriate education at lower levels. SIAM has an education committee, which Turner chairs, for this reason.

In fact, the preparation and motivation of students in high school and early college have become hot discussion topics even at the U.S. national level. Readers may remember the February 2012 report from PCAST, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology: Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. SIAM was among several societies to respond to the report, supporting some recommendations, objecting (in some cases) to others. SIAM’s letter, written jointly by our education and science policy committees, encouraged interdisciplinary collaborations and increased connections among the STEM disciplines, deeming it “essential that modeling and applications be emphasized early in students’ math education. . . .”

Participants in the Modeling across the Curriculum workshop explored these ideas, breaking into three working groups, each with a well-defined focus: K–12 STEM Education; Modeling across the Curriculum: A Model for Undergraduate STEM Degree Programs; and Evaluation/Assessment and College Readiness. Each working group is preparing a draft for a report that will be issued by the end of the year.

With leaders among K–12 and early college educators as participants, Turner points out, the workshop should lead to ideas that can be implemented on a large scale. The next step is release of the draft report, which will be presented during SIAM’s Education Minisymposium at the Joint Math Meetings in San Diego (January 9–12, 2013). Further ahead, an expanded follow-up workshop will be held to explore the main recommendations of the three working groups. 

In the K–12 arena, most states have adopted new Common Core State Standards for mathematics, which call, like the PCAST report, for increased emphasis on modeling and applications. The working group on K–12 education will have specific recommendations as to how this can be achieved, either through new courses or through supplementary project-based materials for existing math and science courses. 

Among options under discussion at the undergraduate level are coordinated approaches to early STEM courses that can help make clear the relevance of early college mathematics to the real world. This, Turner says, will necessarily involve elements of modeling, computation, and applied mathematics within the context of meaningful applications. New degree programs and new minors emphasizing such approaches are possible longer-term developments.

A key issue identified in the PCAST report is the “math gap.” Addressing the difficulties associated with this problem requires attention not only to the content of early college courses, but also to the background of incoming students, especially in mathematics. Assessment of students’ college readiness is a complex statistical and educational problem. The third working group focused on this issue.

The report should provide a starting point for future studies and proposals that will have a far-reaching impact on the state of applied mathematics, and STEM education as a whole, in the U.S. Again, why SIAM? From a self-serving viewpoint, Turner points out, SIAM’s involvement directly impacts the pipeline of future members and leaders of SIAM and our profession. By happy coincidence, these activities also respond to an important national need. Applied mathematics, and SIAM, need to be the essential core of STEM if it is not simply to regress to the four S, T, E, and M silos.

  Jim Crowley is the executive director of SIAM.