Take a Memo America: Math, Sciences Are Not Boring, but Gateway to Top Careers

Pamela Clute is the keynote speaker at the annual Science, Technology Education Partnership (STEP) Conference

A radio-controlled drone flies at the 2011 Science Technology Education Partnership (STEP) Conference. (U.S. Navy photo by Greg Vojtko/Released)

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) — American industry is begging for employees with strong skills in science, technology, engineering and math, yet 70 percent of U.S. students who enter college with the intent to major in those STEM fields drop out of school or switch majors within four years according to a 2008 CPEC study. That’s why this year’s Science Technology Education Partnership (STEP) Conference is focusing on young students and their teachers, to try to turn those numbers around.

The STEP Conference is set for Oct. 2-3 at Bourns Technology Center at 1200 Columbia in Riverside, which also houses UC Riverside’s College of Engineering Center for Environmental Research and Technology (CE-CERT). More than 250 high school students from around Riverside County will get the chance for explore six CE-CERT labs from 1 to 4 p.m. on Oct. 2, learning about research on solar panels, synthetic fuels, atmospheric processes, emissions testing, alternative fuels and ways to create more energy efficient transportation.

UC Riverside and other sponsors provide creative learning opportunities at the conference, especially for Riverside County students and teachers in grades 4-8. The goal is more than just igniting their interest in STEM subjects, said Pamela Clute, a UCR math professor who is also Assistant Vice Chancellor of Educational and Community Engagement and Executive Director of UCR’s ALPHA Center.

Clute, the keynote speaker for the K-12 teacher conference from 3:45 to 6 p.m. on Oct. 3, wants teachers to help their students understand that mastering subjects like algebra I, algebra II and geometry today will open the door to interesting and lucrative STEM careers in the future.

“In the United States, only 33% of college students get a STEM degree, compared to 75% of the college students in China,” said Clute. “In China, the expectations from family, society and the media are that students should excel in STEM subjects, because they understand that doing well in those areas will improve their quality of life and the economic vitality of their country. In the U.S., students think entertainment and sports are the only ways to make it big.”

The 2011-2012 PayScale College Salary Report makes that point plain. The top 10 college majors that lead to high salaries are all STEM subjects—petroleum engineering, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, materials science and engineering, aerospace engineering, computer engineering, physics, applied mathematics, computer science and nuclear engineering.

“Often you hear people ask, ‘How is algebra relevant to my life?’ and I love explaining why,” Clute said. “The satellite that brings reception to your cell phone is often in the shape of a tetrahedron.  This is geometry in action. Your cell phone is a mini computer. It receives all the signals sent to all cell phones in a particular service region. Yet because of signal coding systems, your cell phone only responds to the signals sent to you. This is algebra in action!

“We have to make math more informative by providing the tools and the ideas for enhancing instruction and helping teachers enrich their curriculum. Providing excitement about mathematics at an early age can help kids get over intimidating factors along the way.”

The teacher conference will offer dinner and many hands-on activities. Clute said she wants teachers to leave with lots of stimulating ideas for teaching math and science, “along with a validation that what they do matters and is important work.

Pamela Clute of UCR is the keynote speaker at the 2012 STEP Conference in Riverside

“The instruction has to be relevant,” she said. “I pick something in society, like a cell phone, for instance, and then I talk about the satellites that give us cell phone reception and the importance of the shape of those satellites….that’s all math, and the equations used to design those satellites; that’s algebra.”

Students from all over Riverside County will be visiting the conference to see ways that math and science are applied to research and products. Transportation and other support is being provided by the STEP Conference Board, Bourns Inc., the Riverside County Office of Education and the Greater Riverside Chambers of Commerce, as well as CE-CERT and UC Riverside’s ALPHA Center, which works with educators to help them become passionate, enthusiastic teachers of math and science.

“I’m a strong believer in making school something wonderful that makes kids want to learn,” Clute said. “We’re teaching math like we taught it 2,500 years ago. We need to make a change to make it more relevant and exciting to kids, and more pertinent to this 21st century global economy. If we don’t do this our students will face an extreme competitive disadvantage and our economic vitality, which depends on quality STEM education, will suffer.”

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