This past week the Einstein Fellows went to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House to meet with Dr. Jeff Weld. Dr. Weld is serving as Senior Policy Advisor in STEM Education for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He is tasked with writing an assessment of the STEM education 5-year strategic plan that was authored by the the Committee on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Education (CoSTEM). CoSTEM was established by the Obama administration in 2011 with, as outlined in the Charter of the Committee, the purpose of coordinating Federal programs and activities in support of STEM education.
The five year plan created in 2013 and focused on the following STEM education priorities:
In addition to evaluating the Obama administration 5-year STEM education plan, Dr. Weld will facilitate the authoring of the next STEM education 5-year plan (2018-2013). That's where the Einstein Fellows came in; we were asked, "What new emergent stem priorities should be in the plan?" I certainly recognize that we are just a piece of the "input pie," however a group of highly informed, educated and respected STEM educators might be just the people to ask this question and actually listen to and incorporate our responses. Honestly, I am not sure if that happened... but time will tell. At least we had a seat at the table ("If you're not at the table, you're on the menu...").
Our discussion focused on the “High Frequency Aspirations for STEM Education Aligned to Administration Goals.” This was a DRAFT list of the ten STEM education priorities that are bubbling to the surface as being goals of the Trump administration STEM Ed 5-year plan. I'm just going to say it here: these priorities do not fully align with what I view as most important in STEM education. That doesn't mean they aren't good, worthwhile goals - it's just not what I would prioritize if I was the boss. But, I digress... (priorities tend to shift based on political affiliation).
The group of Einstein Fellows immediately noted that there is no mention of STEM teacher recruitment or retention in the DRAFT plan, which is interesting since that was the #1 priority from the previous plan. There is mention of ensuring access to high quality educators through digital platforms (like watching teachers remotely on a screen, Khan Academy type videos were mentioned in the discussion) ...but really?! A digital teacher shouldn't be the ASPIRATION. The aspiration should be an excellent, high quality STEM educator providing context relevant instruction while building meaningful, impactful relationships with students.
Given that the Aspirations for STEM education needed to be aligned with administration goals, I was curious as to exactly what those goals actually are. From what is presented on the the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy website, the Trump administration prioritizes "American Military Superiority”, “American Security,” “American Prosperity,” “American Energy Dominance,” and “American Health." There is also a theme of increased reliance on the private sector to fund research, development and commercialization of technologies in the prioritized fields. These priorities are intended to receive special focus in agency budget requests and as WH initiatives.
The Trump administration states that it will continue the federal government's commitment to STEM education and apprenticeship programs. In fact, the R&D priorities memo (August 2017) states, “Emerging technologies will present tremendous opportunities for new job creation, but will also require a technically skilled and capable workforce to meet demand. In order to maintain American competitiveness and help ensure that the domestic workforce is available and qualified for the jobs of the future, agencies should incorporate STEM education, including computer science education, and workforce training opportunities into their programs. Agencies should give priority to policies and actions that place an emphasis on expanding the STEM workforce to include all Americans, for both urban and rural, and including women and other underrepresented groups in STEM fields. In order to track improvements in these areas, agencies should develop quantitative methods or metrics and collect data to analyze the effectiveness of the STEM programs.”
Of interesting note is the focus on learning STEM for workforce development purposes only. The "High Frequency Aspirations" document made no mention of learning for curiosity, knowledge of societal issues or for the importance of an informed electorate. Again, perhaps a party line division here, but I strongly believe that public education does not have the sole function of workforce development. Yes, workforce development is important and is a consequence of high quality STEM education, however I personally think the primary focus of education should be sustainment of a democracy with informed, educated citizens.
I definitely learned a lot at our two hour meeting at OSTP and I hope that the cynicism I felt as I left the meeting is proven to be misplaced and undeserved. I am thankful for the Einstein Fellowship and the opportunity to add depth to my understanding of the complexities of federal STEM education initiatives and priorities.
So few teachers who specialize in a discipline ever have the opportunity for professional development that focuses on the content of the discipline. For example, I teach biology and I love biology, but until this fellowship year I haven't had the time, money or opportunity to focus on learning more BIOLOGY. I've been to plenty of conferences and district sessions about how to teach biology, but not had the opportunity to actually focus on advancing my own biological content knowledge. Now don't get me wrong, I am not suggesting that my biological knowledge hasn't advanced since I graduated with my biology degree nearlytwenty years ago; far from it. I make a concerted effort to remain up to date in the field. For example, I am a biology news geek, I am sure to take time daily to read the newest articles about advances and discoveries (which I share on Twitter #ibbio and post to my website topic pages).
For me, probably the best part of being an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow is the opportunities I've had to advance my own biological content knowledge and to witness firsthand the scientific process in action. I've previously written about a couple of these opportunities.
This week I was able to attend the Synthetic and Artificial Cells workshop, a gathering of about 25 cell biologists from the USA and Europe who are interested in building an artificial cell or models of cellular processes in order to understand the nature of how cells work and to develop applications such as pharmaceutical drug delivery systems. As the National Science Foundation deputy director for Biological Science said in the introduction to the workshop, "we've spent decades taking cells apart; now we need to determine how to put it all together."
Some big idea questions can be answered by trying to make synthetic cells (or cell processes ex vivo):
Throughout the conference I took lots of notes. I was especially intrigued the some of the conversations that mimic those held in my classroom. Questions such as:
There are two main approaches to creating synthetic cells, the "top down" approach and the "bottom up" approach. Some of the researchers (i.e. Dr. Hutchinson) were focused on one approach while others were focused on the structures and functions of sub-cellular components.
A highlight of the workshop was hearing from Clyde Hutchison, a well known and respected biologist from the J. Craig Venter Institute. Dr. Hutchison discussed his teams progress on creating a minimal bacterial cell which contains only the core machinery for life. Following a "design --> build --> test" model, the team is systematically removing genes from Mycoplasma bacteria and observing the phenotypic effects on the cells ability to sustain life. They started with a bacteria that contained 901 genes (1079 bp) and by "Syn 3.0" have created a living cell that now has 473 genes (531 bp). Fascinatingly, the minimal viable cells contains 65 genes that are essential for life but who's function is unknown! Additionally, the implications of OMNIGENIC was discussed. The idea of omnigenics is that in reality, no single gene has a single function - there is complexity in the interactions of the genes and gene products. Proof that we still have a lot to learn in biology.
Dr. Hutchison was sure to use language to suggest his team had created "A" minimal cell, not "THE" minimal cell. The genome required of a minimal cell will depend on the medium on which the bacteria is growing. In other words, a minimal cell genome size for a bacteria grown in one media will be different than the minimal cell genome size for a bacteria grown in another media. That said, the minimal cell as described by Dr. Hutchison was a big breakthough and will continue to influence the future of the field.
The J. Craig Venter Institute is using a "Top Down" approach to building a minimal cell. All of the other presenters at the workshop were focused on a "Bottom Up" approach in which they were focused on creating synthetic or artificial structures and/or processes of cells.
There were scientists who focused on the INFORMATION aspect of a cell (cell-free transcription and translation) and others focused on the SELF-ORGANIZATION (creating artificial cell membranes).
One thing I learned was about cellular compartmentalization. I had learned, and the IB Biology curriculum suggests, that prokaryote cells aren’t compartmentalized. However, I heard multiple times over the course of this conference about prokaryote compartments (not necessarily membrane bound). For example, one person said “In prokaryotes, the nucleiod is considered a phase separated compartment.” I was curious about phase-separation, so I looked it up and found this great summary.
Throughout the workshop there was a vigorous dialogue between the scientists about the nomenclature around the terms minimum, synthetic and artificial in relation to biology and bio-engineering. It was clear that I was witnessing the birth of a new scientific discipline. I summarized a full page of my take aways from the sessions: