Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Tuesday, April 16, 2024

New Missing Middle: Filling the K-12 Science and Engineering Gap 

The other missing middle is that yawning gap in our primary and secondary education systems – the K-12 years. Here's what the NASA Office of Education is doing about it.

There’s another “missing middle” in the United States and it isn’t just a gap, it’s a chasm.
The original missing middle refers to the tens of thousands of small- to medium-sized manufacturers that are not using advanced digital manufacturing techniques, such as modeling and simulation, to streamline product development and grow their businesses.  

The other missing middle is that yawning gap in our primary and secondary education systems – the K-12 years. 

In our current K-12 education system, on one hand you have traditional math and science academic courses with primary focus on the theory side of physics, chemistry, math biology, and geology to prepare the college bound students. At the other end of the spectrum students are being prepared in vocational fields, so they have a job straight out of school as car mechanics, electricians, plumbers, welders, etc. There is no content to teach students how theoretical math and science is practiced in the real world to solve real world problems.

But curricula covering the middle ground that prepares today’s students for engineering careers in such industries as aerospace, automotive, transportation, consumer goods and electronics and manufacturing in general are sadly lacking.  In particular, curricula covering modeling and simulation have yet to gravitate from the college level down to the K-12 students.

However, there is a concerted action underway to right the situation.  

We spoke with Behzad Raiszadeh, Modeling and Simulation Education Project Manager, NASA Office of Education.  
NASA, along with a number of other government agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Health, National Institute of Standards and Technology, as well as the Departments of Defense and Energy, commissioned a report from the World Technology Evaluation Center to scope out the problem.  The result is a comprehensive document, “International Assessment of Research and Development in Simulation-Based Engineering and Science (SBE&S),” available on the WTEC web site.

Raiszadeh points out that one of the report’s major findings is that the inadequate training of computational scientists is a threat to not only the growth of SBE&S in the U.S., but around the world as well. “Unless we prepare students to develop and use the next generation of algorithms and computer architectures, we will not be able to exploit their game changing capabilities,” he says.

There has been a recent surge of investment in SBE&S education abroad, but lackluster funding in the U.S., which could undermine the country’s leadership in the field.
Herding Cats

Herding cats is not one of life’s most rewarding occupations, but the National Governors Association has leapt into the breach. The NGA has already developed common core K-12 standards in English/Language Arts and mathematics and these have been adopted by 44 states.  

The NGA is now working on next generation science standards (NGSS). NGSS will include engineering standards as well, and will help organize curriculum, teaching and learning across 25 participating states, says Raiszadeh.

Achieve, a non-profit created by the governors in the early 1990s, is working with the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science to develop a solid K-12 science education.  Phase 1, the creation of a framework, was completed in July of this year and now the group is writing the next generation science and engineering standards that will form the foundation for the development of assessments, curricula, instruction and teacher development.

Government and industry initiatives are underway to help K-12 math and science teachers better understand modeling and simulation.  For example, NASA runs an annual workshop that is attended by teachers from all over the country.  They learn about how modeling and simulation is used at NASA to solve some of the most challenging engineering problems. At the end of the two week session, the teachers prepare a lesson plan to take back to their schools so they can immediately begin to implement the knowledge they have gained.

The FlexBook

In the works right now is another important resource freely available to science and engineering teachers and any other interested party.  NASA has partnered with the CK-12 foundation to develop a flexible textbook (FlexBook) on modeling and simulation for high school teachers.  Modeling and simulation FlexBook is a freely available, open content, creative commons licensed, web-based book that can be customized to the reader’s needs. Anyone can download the FlexBook and modify the content for their own use. The changes or additions may be incorporated into later versions after being vetted by Raiszadeh and his colleagues.

The FlexBook is very much on the government’s radar.  Aneesh Chopra, the Chief Technology Officer of the U.S. Government, advanced the idea of the FlexBook when he was the Secretary of Technology for the state of Virginia. This will provide teachers with a valuable resource, as there are currently no modeling and simulation books available at a high school level. The book will be available on CK-12 web site when it is completed early next year

“All of us – NASA, other government agencies, and the large manufacturers – are stakeholders in this effort and are working together to make an investment in our future,” says Raiszadeh “Our current workforce is getting older and we need fresh, enthusiastic young people committed to the engineering and the sciences to help the U.S. maintain its leadership position.  

“Today those kids are not learning modeling and simulation at the high school level,” he continues.  “From a practical point of view, that knowledge does not exist in the current K-12 educational system.  The practitioners of simulation-based engineering are at the government agency level – with DOE, DOD, NASA, and other agencies and labs – and also in the private sector.  In the coming years as new standards find their way into K-12 education system, we need to take advantage of our knowledge and expertise and build a comprehensive government/industry partnership to help our education system with these initiatives.”