After five-plus years leading the I-STEM Resource Network at Purdue University, Paul J. Ainslie stepped down as managing director in February. Since 2012, Ainslie had guided the network, which provides STEM curriculum and teacher professional development in Indiana as well as advocates for improved STEM education and resources for the state.
In announcing his departure, Ainslie wrote, “Our need to engage the state and make STEM a key component of the state’s educational and investment priorities is taking shape via the Indiana STEM Advisory Council. I have confidence in a positive outcome from their work. I believe I-STEM’s role in Indiana is at an inflection point. This is a good time for me to step away from my role as managing director for I-STEM.”
We recently contacted Ainslie, asking him to reflect on his time with I-STEM as well as the development of STEM-based education and its future in the United States:
Q: How did you get involved in STEM education?
A: After 33 years in industry in various technical, STEM-related roles, I was looking for a way to support the education side of STEM. I had been on several university-level advisory boards, but I wanted to work with younger students who might not have exposure to what careers in STEM could be like. The opening at I-STEM came up at exactly the right time to do exactly what I wanted to do.
Q: Tell us about the I-STEM Resource Network and your role in it.
A: The I-STEM Resource Network was formed in 2006 to focus on advancing STEM education in Indiana. The first initiative was to improve middle school mathematics by working with various colleges of education in Indiana to enhance teacher skills.
In 2009, the focus shifted to K-8 science with the support of the Lilly Foundation. This led to the launch of the Indiana Science Initiative in 2010, a program that is now in its eighth year of offering quality, hands-on science to thousands of students across Indiana.
I joined I-STEM as managing director in 2012 and took over the day-to- day operations as well as the lead advocacy role for STEM education in Indiana. Our statewide coalition of STEM advocates, numbering more than 400 now, has pushed for enhanced STEM education for all Indiana students. This effort has led to the formation of the Indiana STEM Advisory Council, a leadership body dedicated to defining a STEM education plan for Indiana in 2018 and seeking legislative support in the next state budget cycle.
Q: What have been your biggest accomplishments and challenges at the I-STEM Resource Network?
A: I have been fortunate to work with great leaders in Indiana and throughout the United States who have a passion for STEM education in its many forms. The opportunities for students to experience STEM disciplines in settings as different as the classroom or the open fields, from a factory floor to a chemistry lab, have been shown to impact student perceptions and learning. I hope that I contributed to that dynamic over the past few years.
Every statewide STEM group faces challenges from government offices, legislatures, institutions of higher education, school districts and many others. Managing all of these challenges while trying to advance toward a STEM-education goal can be frustrating at times. I like to think I met every challenge head-on and found a way to advance toward the goal. I can’t be certain that was always the case, however.
Q: How and why has STEM-based education grown in the past decade?
A: It seems as if all of education talks about STEM now; certainly it has become a key focus for many schools and districts. As schools look to add more STEM content to the classrooms, some are even revamping their curriculum to use STEM disciplines as a core content in every subject area.
Additionally, out-of- school STEM education has grown dramatically over the past five years, with more museums, libraries and other venues adding STEM-centered exhibits and activities. The integration of schools with out-of- school STEM programming offers a key opportunity for expanding the STEM learning day.
The “why” of all this change parallels, in some ways, the “why” of my role in STEM education. We know that more students need exposure to, and experience with, STEM disciplines, and that even pre-kindergarten isn’t too early.
Our current system of educating the workers for the next generation isn’t much different from the way it was 100 years ago. We will struggle as a nation in meeting all the opportunities we have until we realize that 21st century education can and must be different than it has been.
Certainly the arts and culture are critical parts of any national identity and must be maintained and even advanced. But the United States is losing too many good jobs to countries with more skilled people.
Sustainable economic growth depends on a workforce aligned to the job skills that define this growth. This workforce must also be reskilled as needed for the next wave of opportunities. This isn’t just a one skill for one job, but rather a suite of skills such as problem identification and solving, teamwork and communications, planning and execution. This is a much different mindset than most have today.
Q: How have you supported and/or learned from other members of the STEMx network?
A: The diverse members of STEMx have always been a pleasure to interact with. Their experiences with legislatures, policy, programs and schools have been extremely useful models for Indiana.
Our STEM school certification is built on shared information from three other states. Our work with in-school and out-of- school STEM has benefits from discussions with other STEMx states.
We have been willing to share what we have learned as broadly as possible.
Q: What do you see as the future of STEM-based education?
A: I think STEM-centric education has a great future in the United States, but I also recognize that such a plan isn’t the only possible solution, nor the ultimate solution, to skills issues in this country.
Rather, this is a start to making education more relevant and meaningful for students who struggle finding a connection between formal education and their lives. We have seen how a strong hands-on STEM curriculum can transform a disconnected learner into an engaged participant in learning. We need to make that sort of connection for every student.
Q: What do you see as your legacy in STEM?
A: I would like to think that I had a positive impact on STEM education in Indiana: That more students and teachers have access to better STEM learning because of my efforts.
Ultimately, student success is the only result that matters.