Math and science -- not just for rocket scientists

Looking to get rich? Try welding. For the third consecutive year, positions in the skilled trades are the hardest to fill, according to a Manpower Group survey of American employers. This shortage is why a master welder can earn a six-figure salary -- without a college degree.

There aren’t enough skilled tradesmen because our nation’s schools aren’t producing graduates with the math and science knowledge needed to fill these skilled jobs.

That has to change. Educators must rethink the way they teach math and science -- especially to students who may not go to college. The best way to reach these kids is to scrap the age-old lecture and empower them to learn by doing.

International rankings reveal the depths of America’s underachievement. Among 34 developed nations, the United States ranks 27th in math and 20th in science. More than one-quarter of U.S. students lack even basic proficiency in math. That’s 13 percent higher than the global average.

This poor performance is concerning, as these students risk economic marginalization.

A million people drop out of high school each year. Most don’t participate in the labor force. Those that do face an unemployment rate 50 percent higher than their graduating peers.

That low-performing quarter of students also includes many who complete high school yet still lack the math skills needed for most entry-level manufacturing jobs -- let alone the skilled-trade positions that could vault them into the middle class.

Philadelphia Federal Reserve President Charles Plosser said earlier this year, “We are seeing a mismatch of skills in the workforce and the jobs that are being created.”

To fill these jobs -- and provide livelihoods for millions -- we must keep students who struggle with math in school and find ways to boost their achievement.

According to the National Training Laboratories, the traditional lecture format yields only a 5 percent learning retention rate. Allowing students to practice by doing, in contrast, results in a whopping 75 percent retention rate.

The way forward is clear: Embrace technology, collaboration, and hands-on learning.

Already, colleges are adopting this approach. The University of Pennsylvania has built a new classroom with customized, powered round tables so students can collaborate using all manner of technology. It plans to add three to four more such classrooms over the next year.

MIT’s Technology-Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) Project merges lecture, simulation, collaborative learning, and hands-on experiments in one classroom. Failure rates for freshmen in a TEAL physics course were one-third those in the traditional setting. Average gains in understanding were more than double. Gains were highest among students at the bottom of the achievement ladder.

Engaged learning models are trickling down into elementary and secondary schools, too. In Philadelphia, several schools are using the Full Option Science System, a hands-on, activity-based approach that empowers students to investigate, experiment, and collaborate to discover the material in each lesson.

Students at FOSS schools have scored higher on standardized tests. The longer they’re in the program, the greater the gains in achievement.

Administrators across the country are enlisting the firm I lead, KI, to help them transform their traditional classrooms into technology-enhanced learning environments, where students work in small groups while instructors rove about, offering individualized help and coaching.

To refill the ranks of the middle class with good-paying manufacturing jobs, we must address our nation’s math and science achievement gap. The instructional status quo isn’t working. There’s ample evidence that a more active, engaged approach will.

Dick Resch is the CEO of KI Furniture in Wisconsin (



Published: Oct. 9, 2014 - Volume 13 - Issue 26