Engineering challenge

Engineering challenge

Photo by Frank Curran

Ioannis Miaoulis swears he has nothing against dinosaurs or grasshoppers. That’s a good thing, since he presides over Boston’s Museum of Science, which attracts more than 1.6 million visitors each year, many of them interested in all manner of creatures, both living and extinct. There is still plenty at the museum to satisfy such tastes, but Miaoulis is looking to put the natural world in its place.

He says science museums have been out of balance, with so much attention given to the natural world that we lose sight of the man-made phenomena that dominate our everyday lives. He’s out to inject more of that side into the museum’s offerings: A Star Wars–themed exhibit two years ago explained robotics, and the recent “CSI” exhibit explored the technology behind crime-scene sleuthing.

That shift in the exhibit halls is hardly surprising, considering that Miaoulis arrived at the museum in 2003 after 10 years as dean of the engineering school at Tufts University. The bigger challenge he is taking on is to get engineering and technology studies into US schools, which he says have also focused too much of their science curriculum on subjects that are disconnected from the world immediately around us. “Folks spend a month teaching how volcanoes work and they don’t teach at all in most schools how a car works,” he says. “How often do the kids find themselves in a volcano?”

Miaoulis, who came to Massachusetts from Greece in 1980 to attend Tufts, is credited with pushing the state in 2001 to become the first in the country to incorporate engineering and technology education into its K-12 curriculum frameworks. Starting with the class of 2010, Massachusetts students must pass one of four science MCAS exams, with technology and engineering one of the test options. The museum is playing a leading role nationally in science education through its National Center for Technological Literacy, launched in 2004 with $32 million in grants to develop technology-related exhibits for science museums and to develop engineering curriculum materials for schools.

Miaoulis calls engineering “the connector” that ties math and science to real-world challenges around us, as he works to increase technological literacy, and, through it, to ensure a steady pipeline of future engineers. At stake, he says, is nothing less than the country’s standing as a leader in technological innovation. I spoke with Miaoulis in his museum office overlooking the Charles River. What follows is an edited transcript of our discussion.

—MICHAEL JONAS

CW: You’ve sounded the alarm about the gaping hole in our science and technology education in this country. How bad is it?

MIAOULIS: Well, I started working in the whole K-12 outreach area in 1987. I came to the realization that we’re focusing the entire science curriculum on the natural world, although we live in a world where 98 percent, or close to that, of the things we interact with on a daily basis are human-made.

There’s a lot of discussion both at the federal level and the state level about huge resources that we have invested in the area of math and science without any results. Well, the point all these reports miss, I think, is that the connector of math, science, and innovation is engineering. You use math and science, fundamental concepts, and also use your imagination and your creativity skills through engineering to create innovation. And that piece is missing from the curriculum.

CW: At Tufts you became alarmed that it wasn’t enough to be working with people who’d come into the engineering pipeline, but that the problem was upstream from there, you might say, and that’s how you turned to this focus to the K-12 system.

MIAOULIS: Our goal, in introducing engineering to [K-12] schools, was to focus on getting states to change their learning standards. And after quite a bit of effort, we managed to have Massachusetts change its learning standards. Massachusetts was the first state in the country to not only include engineering in its learning standards but also testing. I was still at Tufts, and I thought, now we’re going to conquer the world. If one state does it, then everybody’s going to do it. But we needed partners. So as I was frustrated trying to figure out how to get there, the museum called and asked if I was interested in becoming a candidate for the presidency. I quickly realized that this could be an amazing platform to take this initiative to the national level. We went from having one state considering engineering before I started at the museum to now working with 39 states throughout the country. Now we have hundreds of partners, universities, other science centers, and engineering collaboratives throughout the country.

CW: Right. Yet at least as of very recently, Massachusetts was still alone in having science testing as part of its K-12 statewide frameworks.

MIAOULIS: Well, No Childhood Left Behind may change that, because as science becomes one of the requirements, other states will start pouring resources into it. It’s unfortunate, but it’s a fact: Resources go to specific subjects where testing occurs.

CW: You also started the National Center for Technological Literacy, which has been further boosted by a $20 million gift from the Gordon Foundation. So it’s not enough just to spread the idea of engineering education. We really kind of are starting from square one in terms of curriculum, textbooks, and so forth.

MIAOULIS: The National Center focuses on three areas. We advocate for including engineering as a new discipline into the curricula. I travel and speak to key influential groups—to see the National Governors Association or to see the educational leadership of a particular state or at the national level in meetings in DC. The second area is curriculum. We searched internationally, identified and purchased all the engineering curriculum we could find from K-12, and we have it here in our library. We hired a group of experts that analyzed the curriculum and correlated it with the engineering standards of Massachusetts and national technology standards. And our findings are on the Web, and it’s free access for anyone to go and see. At the elementary school level, we’ve created a series of books featuring children from different parts of the world, describing a challenge or an opportunity and how an engineer solved the problem. The little girl from India talks about the problem in her town, which was quality of drinking water and how an environmental engineer built a filtration system. And children can then engage in activity to build an actual filtration system. We use engineering activities to support the math curriculum at the middle school level, and at the high school level we developed stories about real engineers along with content that satisfies 100 percent of the engineering standards. The third thing we do is professional development—anything from straight teacher workshops to train-the-trainer workshops, since we have partners throughout the country.

CW: For all the traction you’ve had in Massachusetts, the results of the recent MCAS science exam were regarded as pretty disappointing. More than a quarter of the students failed, and in urban districts it was often more than half. We have our work cut out for us, I guess.

MIAOULIS: I don’t see it as a problem now. Most of the emphasis has been put into math and reading, and now that science is tested, we also realize that there is a problem with science. So I’m sure that because of that, there will be resources and excitement now toward science and technology. I’m hoping that these results will generate a mini-Sputnik for Massachusetts, something that will alert people to pay attention. But my message is to pay attention to math and science, but also to what [kind of] science and maybe change it a bit to be more relevant and connect what kids learn with innovation.

CW: In that vein, you seem to talk almost dismissively at times about the traditional focus of museums and schools on dinosaurs and volcanoes and so forth.

MIAOULIS: Well, I love grasshoppers and brontosauruses. I think it’s wonderful for a museum to present the natural world, but I also don’t think it’s right to ignore the majority of the world around us, which is the human-made world. So when I speak, I usually focus on the new stuff, not the stuff that it’s expected that the Museum of Science is going to have. We should have a strong natural-science presence. But if you want to move even to the center, you have to push a lot harder in one direction.

CW: Have you encountered resistance to that change in focus, either here at the museum from its supporters or in the science museum community nationally?

MIAOULIS: Of course, of course. Change is very hard. And believe it or not, the biggest opponents when I started this effort in the mid ’90s were the science teachers. The biggest argument was, “We don’t have time to teach what we teach now.” I said, well, look at what you’re teaching and how relevant is it to kids’ lives. Folks spend a month teaching how volcanoes work, and they don’t teach at all in most schools how a car works. How often do the kids find themselves in a volcano compared to a car?

CW: In terms of the museum’s focus, you recently had the “Body Worlds” exhibit that was hugely popular, featuring preserved cadavers people could see in close-up detail. Last year, you had the Star Wars–themed exhibit.

MIAOULIS: I loved the Star Wars exhibit, because it really showcased our new direction at the museum, taking a popular venue like Star Wars that would attract the audience, and then creating interactive engineering activities like robotics. So people would come and would engage in learning, sort of, without really figuring out they were learning.

CW: It’s like you slipped spinach into cookies.

MIAOULIS: I think things here taste better than spinach, but it’s a much more engaging way to educate than the dry way that people are used to.

CW: Is there a danger of going so far toward appealing to popular culture icons that you really lose the conveying of important information or learning?

MIAOULIS: There is danger if you don’t pay attention. Our first priority is education. But educating in a fun way. We just have to make sure the fun doesn’t overtake the learning, because then we’re not a museum of science, we’re an amusement park, and that we’re not going to be.

CW: You have a missionary passion about your work. You’re traveling extensively. What is at stake for the US if we don’t get this right or if we don’t see the urgency of this issue around engineering and technology education?

MIAOULIS: What has worried me over the last two years is that I have seen even more interest from foreign countries in this new engineering initiative than what I have seen from within the United States. In many cases it has been easier to work with countries like Malaysia than to work with Massachusetts school districts. If we don’t create excitement in the area of technology, things are going to fall apart. Some things we can outsource, which we’re already doing, but there are some things that you cannot outsource, like national defense. Other things you cannot outsource: basic services, your water supply, your electricity, you cannot outsource that. And other more subtle things, like innovation. The reason I came to this country is because it’s a very innovative place, and a lot of new things come out of here. In many ways, the United States defines the innovation of tomorrow. Most things are [still] designed here. Some of them are built in India and then brought back here, but the design and the innovation has happened in the United States. But that’s sliding, because there are a lot of brilliant people in India that can design. The other problem we have is that about 70 percent of engineers in the United States have a relative who’s an engineer. So it’s almost a prerequisite that you have a relative [who is an engineer] to become an engineer. That’s something we’re trying to change by exposing all kids to these topics.

CW: You often talk about the fact that not only in the developing world, but even in Europe, engineers are regarded differently.

MIAOULIS: Oh, yes. I came from Greece. In most countries in Europe, engineers are on the top of the respect list. Our educational system here came primarily from England, and if you look at the values in the traditional English educational system, typically the less practical the stuff you do, the more respected you are. You have the theoretical physicists on top and then experimental physics, so for some reason thinking and doing abstract things is valued more than doing things that run our lives, and that is a unique sort of Anglo-American value system that does not exist in other countries.

CW: So we sort of need a cultural revolution of a certain kind?

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

MIAOULIS: Yes. That’s why I’m on the road all the time.