Postcards from the Dean

Welcome to the repository of short essays related to issues important in education today. Feel free to visit this area periodically to view updates.

Dr. Philip Wishon,
Dean of the College of Education
James Madison University.

A Critical Focus of STEM-Related Studies

Engagement in deeply-absorbed searches for that which is just beyond our intellectual and emotional understanding is central to the core of our nature as humans. Through such journeys of discovery in which the generation and testing of ideas is emphasized, we learn to connect with our personal and shared humanity, experiencing in the process discovery of selves, of community, and eventually of all we survey.

As faculty members in teacher education programs throughout the Commonwealth continue to renew their focus on STEM-related fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) two primary themes are consistently emphasized: 1.) acknowledgement of the inherent value of freeing youthful minds for contemplating stirring imaginings—encouraging purpose-filled exploration of wondrous ideas, as Eleanor Duckworth might put it, and 2.) reinforcement of the importance of focusing our capacities for rich and incisive intellectual comprehension about “what is”, and breath-taking notions about “what could be” toward addressing those issues that most deeply vex us. In both contexts, our programs invite future teachers to contemplate the significance of instilling in students a willingness—an eagerness even—to make as intimate acquaintance as possible with all that the earth and the universe beyond has to offer.

STEM specialists in Virginia’s teacher education programs help aspiring and practicing teachers understand that in order for students in their classrooms to discover the many “incredible things waiting to be known” of which Carl Sagan encouraged us to dream, they must help liberate youthful spirits for questing and for discovering that which helps resolve, if even momentarily or incompletely, students’ countless wonder- and passion-filled inquiries about the “whys” and “what ifs” of their surroundings. As classroom teachers gradually master increasingly effective, researched-based strategies for helping their students experience engaging and memorable ways of observing and interacting with their surroundings, they inspire their students to explore fearlessly. In this fashion, errors, unknowns, and uncertainties become instructional stepping stones—constructive pathways by which students and teachers alike draw closer to greater insight, possibility, appreciation, and truth.

The most consequential contributions to our profession, to our communities, and to society will not be the new discoveries and innovative applications that future generations of teachers and their students will help develop, but in how their discoveries and accomplishments contribute to the attainment of a more ideal human condition. Humanity’s most worthy accomplishments will not be measured in terms of its most celebrated scientific achievements, but in terms of how it applies its knowledge to address the core issues of our time—waste and depletion of our natural resources, world hunger, scarcity of clean water, impure air, deaths from curable diseases, extreme poverty, and inequity of opportunity across gender and class. The good news: accelerating technologies—the defining and ongoing innovations of our age: biotechnology, the computer, nano-technology, the internet—afford opportunities like never before to help us address these issues.

This much can be said with certainty: The future of nations and of species is going to be dependent on the generation of bold ideas and on inventive application of STEM-related enterprises to the problems which most challenge humankind. Moreover, these are the enterprises that we will depend upon to continue providing the economic stimulus for the Commonwealth and for the nation. The lab-, field-, and classroom-based investigations, discoveries, and accomplishments of scientists, engineers, and educators are the hammer, plow, and steam-driven industries of tomorrow.

Along with our partners in P-12 schools, Virginia’s teacher educators stand in formation with our colleagues in business, science, health care, and industry in calling for a renewal of efforts to support exploration, education, and investment in science, mathematics, engineering, technology, and other domains that are critical to the knowledge economy—investments of intellectual and imaginative “currency” that will allow us to create and sustain the best possible prospects for the well-being of communities here in Virginia, across America, and in societies the world over.

Let our success and our reputation be judged a decade, a generation, or a hundred years hence on nothing so much as by how well we shall have joined forces to address the world’s most profound problems—on how successful, for example, we shall have been in addressing the needs of the lost, the left, and the least among us, and on how well we shall have treated people a world away with whom, as Bill Gates has noted, we have nothing in common but our humanity—that, and shared occupancy and tentative purchase on the surface of a small planet afloat on the cosmic sea.

Phil Wishon
July, 2015