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Clarkson pushing STEM programs

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POTSDAM - A sea change regarding education is on the horizon, and it’s one that Peter Turner, dean of the School of Arts & Sciences at Clarkson University, will welcome.

Mr. Turner, who teaches mathematics and computer science, is prominent nationally for promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education.

The push comes in response to a 2010 national report that identified a severe shortage of graduates in these majors. This report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology (PCAST) warns of challenges facing the workforce and scientific community as they grapple with crucial issues such as energy, health, climate change, and national security. Resolving the shortage requires changes in how teachers are trained and how these subjects are taught all the way from grade school to graduate school.

“STEM education is a huge discussion that both Clarkson and I have been involved with,” says Mr. Turner, who has been the vice president for education for the Society for Industrial & Applied Mathematics (SIAM), since 2009.

“Big issues require big solutions based on observable fact, and that’s entirely within the realm of STEM, “ he says.” The thing I love about this word is that it’s written without hyphens. We need to look at the concept as a whole, not four separate disciplines. Big problems today don’t fit into pigeon holes. They require interdisciplinary thinking. Clarkson is good at that.”

Mr. Turner, SIAM and Clarkson have offered pragmatic tools to facilitate this evolution in education. One recent example is a math modeling handbook for teachers that Clarkson Associate Professor of Mathematics Kathleen Fowler helped write. Unlike traditional word problems that seek one correct answer, math modeling allows for creativity and research. It hones reasoning skills for real-world challenges that students will face.

Mr. Turner welcomes the teaching tool, saying, “Modeling Across the Curriculum was my initiative at SIAM. We must better prepare students for STEM majors and enhance their overall education in math and science. We need to show them the relevance of these subjects. Any student in any class has the perfect right to ask, ‘Why do I have to learn this? When will I use it?’ The teacher should be able to give an indication of relevance. Don’t forget, mathematics is a tool for problem-solving and research across a broad spectrum of fields, including even things like computer-animated movies.”

Mr. Turner is a major player on the national stage as well, and has a full slate of STEM-related activities for 2014 alone. Through SIAM, this includes his oversight role for Moody’s Mega Math (M3) Challenge, and coordination of report on Undergraduate Applied Mathematics programs. Also, he was director and co-PI of two SIAM-NSF Workshops on Modeling across the Curriculum, held in August 2012 and this past January. Approximately 50 invited participants, representing higher education, K-12 and professional societies, met each time. The report of the first gathering is published, with the second due to be published this summer.

Also, this summer, he’s involved with TPSE Math: Transforming Post-Secondary Education in Mathematics. About 50 invited participants across the nation will meet at a planning workshop in June in Austin, Texas, to explore ways to coordinate synergies among different programs.

Additionally this June, Mr. Turner will be part of a six-person leadership team that will meet in Denver to plan for the Vision for Undergraduate Math in 2025. This is a Mathematical Association of America-led program dedicated to redesign future early college math programs (at all levels) to boost relevance, applications and career-readiness for broad range of disciplines and careers.

Mr. Turner sees various initiatives coming together to transform teaching. The National Science Foundation is adding to the momentum by channeling more funding toward education and workforce development initiatives.

“We’ll probably be seeing dramatic changes in education,” he affirms.

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