Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM)
A message from the President, National Training and Simulation Association (NTSA), sponsor of I/ITSEC

STEM—the nationwide effort to stimulate interest in science, technology, engineering and math among young people and to promote their enhanced instruction in our schools. I have set out the compelling reasons why this effort should be an urgent national priority, upon whose success depends, in great measure, whether we retain our pre-eminence in these fields or sink to secondary status, with all that would imply for the future of our country. I have described NTSA’s efforts to capitalize on the natural interest of young people in using technology in their daily lives and our various programs—centered around the I/ITSEC Conference—to leverage that interest to stimulate enthusiasm for the sciences themselves and the exciting things that can be done with them.

These programs have been successful in raising awareness among young people and their instructors of the ever-increasing importance of modeling and simulation in our daily lives. They have, I believe, succeeded in making the connection between the excitement of immersive simulations and virtual worlds and the centrality of technology to their existence. They have shown students that they, too, can not only experience these worlds but also create them, using the tools of technology. But our efforts have lacked one critical element: continuity. Once I/ITSEC closes and the tours and discussions end, nothing much exists to capitalize on whatever enthusiasm we have generated. The students go back to their classrooms, as do their teachers, to continue with the business of science instruction as before.

We believe, therefore, that it is time to consider ways to reinforce science learning in the classroom. The important 2005 report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” outlined a number of initiatives aimed at improving teacher quality as well as the numbers of instructors in the sciences. NTSA is beginning to examine means to compliment these initiatives through strengthening subject matter itself.

One means of accomplishing this might be by employing multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs), which allow students to interact within virtual contexts to test hypotheses. MUVEs, by facilitating inquiry-based science education, are excellent vehicles, I believe, for involving students in a potentially limitless variety of inquiry-based investigations. NTSA has held promising preliminary discussions with the National Science Foundation, which has already developed several MUVEs, as well as a number of other based learning tools, including courseware.

Any attempt to use this vehicle, or any other, as a means of enhancing the classroom experience will need to resolve a number of issues. Primary among these is the extent to which educators and administrators embrace any new approach. For example, the use of cyber tools such as MUVEs as the centerpiece of instruction implies, in many ways, a cultural shift away for more traditional approaches. It is quite possible however, that teachers are likely to quickly appreciate that enhanced student involvement and participation levels will make their work easier. Similarly, they would in all likelihood respond positively to the fact that the new methodology implies no additional testing burdens on top of those they already face--in fact, scores on standardized tests should rise as students gain knowledge through enhanced participation.

Another hurdle will be to make any program self-sustaining, after the initial phase, through commercialization. Producers of curriculum hardware and software, particularly those which already market to school districts, will need to perceive the potential of any new approach. Such appreciation will likely only follow upon general educator acceptance.

We are clearly in the initial stages of formulating a plan of action. However, we and the NSF are working together to convene a conference in the months ahead to examine how best to proceed. This event will be attended by teacher educators, researchers, industry leaders, state and local administrators and policy makers, and, not least, teachers themselves. Specific organizations involved should be the NSF, the Department of Education, and corporations already developing cyber learning and similar tools, as well as military representatives who have successfully applied these technologies to training.

We hope that this conference will produce an Action Plan pointing the way ahead. Such a plan should set out best practices for establishing technology-based learning tools in a manner that is both sustainable and acceptable to the educational community. Once the Action Plan is finalized, we hope that a grant proposal will follow, enabling us to move into the implementation phase.

We at NTSA are excited at the prospect of using aspects of modeling and simulation technology to help address the yawning gap now opening between the U.S. and many other countries in science and technology learning. While the steps I have outlined here will not be immediate, I am convinced that if we move forward and do our work well, we can make a significant contribution to the future security of our nation.